Peril by Bob Woodward & Robert Costa: A Brief Review

You can say it. I’m a sucker. The well-timed leak of General Mark Milley’s back-channel conversations with his Chinese counterpart in the days and weeks after the 2020 election got me. I went out and bought Peril the day it was released. As a side note, doing so turned out to be a good financial decision. Barnes & Noble sold the book on release day with a 30% discount, and with my store membership discount on top of that, I paid $19.00 for a $30.00 book.

I’m not going to bore anyone, especially myself, by trying to say things that sound important that you can read from some other fashionable reviewer. Instead, I’m going to give you a brief rundown of the two main lessons that I got out of reading it.

Lesson #1: Both Donald Trump and Joe Biden are narcissists. As much as the intelligentsia would have us all believe that we replaced a megalomaniac with “authoritarian tendencies” with a mild-mannered centrist committed to preserving our most cherished civic institutions, this is simply not true. Don’t get me wrong, the way Biden’s narcissism manifests itself is different than Trump, but that doesn’t mean Biden is not just another self-centered politician with an outsized image of his own importance. He is. Of course, to be fair, so was every other president, for the most part. You don’t go in front of the entire country and convince them that you’re the guy without a healthy dose of arrogance. The difference between Biden and Trump is merely that Biden is a practiced politician. Trump was not and still isn’t, especially if all the Lindsey Graham tidbits in the book are taken at face value. However, we cannot forget that Biden has been chasing the White House since the 1980s. He’s been a politician for over 50 years, and next year will mark the fiftieth anniversary of his being elected to the Senate. Stated another way, he’s gotten used to people bending over backwards for him because he’s somebody, and he’s made a career out of using the law to tell other people how they ought to live their lives. That’s not to say Trump was or is any better, he isn’t. Both of them live their lives worried about two interrelated things: (1) what other people think about them and (2) whether or not their latest plan to govern other people’s lives will adversely affect what other people think about them. This brings up the second lesson of the book.

Lesson #2: If there’s anything I am going to say that is different from what typical reviewers are going to say about Peril, it’s this: The narrow political margins of a divided House and Senate are driving the push to ideological extremes. It’s become all too commonplace for people to say that the United States is more divided than at any time since the Civil War. The way this division used to work, according to the standard reasoning, was that Congress would be caught up in gridlock and the “business of government” (whatever that is) doesn’t get done. This view holds that the ideological extremes cause the narrow margins. I, on the other hand, think it’s the opposite. What I think Peril points out, not intentionally, is that Trump and now Biden become so focused on “getting something done” that they, out of practical necessity, must appease and give an ear to the most extreme elements of their party and constituency. In Trump’s case, that meant going easy on people with racist and ethno-nationalist tendencies. In Biden’s case, that means cooperating with agendas that are openly influenced by Marxist and socialist thinking.

That being the case, I think there’s good reason for believing that President Biden’s need to keep the Democratic Party–including openly Marxist members of the House–together to pass legislation is more dangerous than Trump’s stupid and irresponsible refusal to outright condemn his racist supporters. The reason I think it is more dangerous is that none of the Proud Boys–or anyone remotely resembling their twisted views–currently sits as members in either chamber of Congress. That cannot be said for the most-left ideologues of the Democratic Party. What that translates into is this: Trump appeased racists because he probably thought it would play out well for him electorally. He did not need to appease a racist lobby in the House and Senate, mainly because there is no such lobby. However, Biden does have to appease the most extreme Leftists in the House and Senate, mainly in the House, where members of the so-called “Squad” and the Progressive Caucus have gone out of their way to throw their weight around. What this will translate into is policy that is influenced by an extreme-Left congressional contingent in ways that are much larger than their actual numbers or popular support. And, after all, Trump isn’t in office, Biden is.

This means that the way American elections have been dividing power between Democrats and Republicans is creating a sort of positive feedback loop for ideological extremism. Those with extreme or fringe positions on either side are able to get a hearing for what, under more “normal” conditions, would be laughed out of the room. Whether it’s outright communism or Q-anon conspiracies, white supremacist violence or ANTIFA “direct action,” otherwise normal people are now in the position of supporting extremists because, well, they see themselves as being on the same side or, in Biden’s case, as a necessarily linked voting block in the legislature.

The natural next question to ask is: “How do we fix this?”

I’m not sure we can, at least not by ordinary electoral means. I would offer one final diagnostic observation. Perhaps the problem is not that Americans themselves or the politicians that they elect are too ideologically divided. Perhaps the problem is that the governmental institutions that come to be influenced by these ideological divisions are too powerful. If any government has so much power over our everyday lives that people are willing to commit acts of violence in order to influence policy, then maybe it’s the problem. If which politician one supports determines their relationships with close friends and family, then maybe politics has taken on too large a role in our lives. In the end, that is the real meaning of totalitarianism–government that permeates and dominates every aspect of life in search of power.

Maybe it isn’t just time to kick out the bums. Maybe it is time to rethink the whole neighborhood. The divisions and polarizations aren’t signs merely of political division but too big a role for politics and government in general.

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