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Will the Bob Woodward Audiobook Put Trump Back on the Ballot?

Here’s hoping the Washington Post journalist’s latest scoop makes the former president’s threats to democracy a motivation for sensible swing voters in the midterm elections.

Trump speaks at a "Save America" rally
Brandon Bell/Getty Images
Trump speaks at a “Save America” rally on October 22 in Robstown, Texas.

Just another night in Trumpland: At a rally over the weekend in Texas, Donald Trump was talking about the leak last spring to Politico’s Josh Gerstein of Samuel Alito’s draft decision in the Dobbs case, and he said that the way to find the leaker was to haul in the publisher or the reporter and explain to whichever one was in custody that he was going to jail, and “when this person realizes that he is going to be the bride of another prisoner,” he’ll spill the beans.

So, typically Trump in every way—boorish, ignorant, rooted in an idea of frontier justice that he probably gets from the movies, and homophobic in that 1970s locker-room way to which his sense of humor, if we can call it that, remains relentlessly captive.

That is Trumpian morality. We will experience an orgy of it this week when Bob Woodward’s latest project is released Tuesday, an audiobook of interviews Woodward did with Trump while the latter was president (with cameos by a few aides, the wife and kids, and, inevitably, Lindsey Graham). This is an expansion upon the bits we heard back in 2020, when Woodward released an interview revealing that Trump knew the virus was deadlier than he was letting on publicly but decided to lie about it. In these tapes, according to some early reporting, Trump loves it when people call him tough, reveals again his bottomless vanity (“I’ve done great. Far greater than people understand”), and is cavalier with sensitive documents, handing Woodward the Kim Jong Un “love letters.”

I hope against hope that the media frenzy that will attend this release will bring Trump back into focus as an issue in this election. There may be nuclear bombshells buried in the tapes that have been held back from the selective leaks, which have been interesting but basically just reaffirming of everything we already know about Trump’s mobster mentality. Woodward published a long essay in The Washington Post on Sunday dribbling out little excerpts from The Trump Tapes. It was all interesting, but one wonders whether Woodward is holding some newsy quotes until Tuesday.

Let’s hope so, anyway, because what has been striking in these recent weeks is the extent to which Trump has faded from the electoral conversation. He’s still in the news, what with the January 6 committee subpoena looming over him, and he came closer at that Texas rally to announcing a 2024 run than he has before (“in order to make our country successful, safe, and glorious again, I will probably have to [run] again,” he said). But Trumpism’s perverse moral landscape and the threat that it poses to democracy aren’t voting issues, apparently. A recent New York Times/Siena College poll—a survey that feels like it’s becoming a kind of self-fulfilling doom-scenario prophecy for Democrats and liberals, found that while 71 percent of respondents agreed that democracy was at risk, only 7 percent called it the most important problem facing the country.

It is of course understandable that inflation is people’s top concern. People generally don’t start worrying about abstract things like democracy until it’s too late. And it’s also the case that matters are largely in the hands of the least-informed voters. That is, modern American elections see roughly 47 percent of the electorate locked in on both sides, which leaves the 6 percent in the middle, who still genuinely do swing from one party to the other, in charge. As any pollster will tell you, these tend to be lower-information voters, because their political commitments are fewer and less intensely held. So the outcomes of our elections—which means, now, the fate of our republic—is in the hands of voters who care a lot about the price of gas but don’t give much thought to whether democracy survives these next two elections.

Maybe there’s nothing Democrats could do about this. Maybe if prices are up 8 percent, there’s no argument the incumbent party can make that will win the votes of 51 percent of that middle 6 percent. Maybe the Republicans are going to take the House, and we’re just going to have to let them conduct their investigations and hold their impeachment hearings, and we’ll hope they overreach and inflation recedes and a recession, if there is one, is short and well-timed from the Democratic point of view, and the voters turn around and reject the Republicans in 2024. This is far from being a crazy scenario, by the way. Overreach, at least, is virtually certain.

In the meantime, whether it’s politically efficacious or not, Democrats should not stop warning about the threat to democracy. It’s very real, and it’s something virtually all of them care deeply about. One problem with Democratic messaging over these recent years can be summed up like this: They pay attention to the polls, but they don’t try to change the polls. It just feels like they read polling results, accept them at face value, and say to themselves, Oh, that doesn’t poll well, we’d better drop it.

That’s not generally what Republicans do. Republicans see negative poll numbers and try to change them. A lot of this involves lying, of course; but it works. Scaring people about weapons of mass destruction Saddam Hussein never had got a majority of people to back a war to take out a person most Americans had forgotten about by 9/11.

So maybe with the right approach, Democrats could bump that 7 percent who consider democracy a voting issue up to 11 or 12 percent. Likewise, a creative approach might have made Trump more of an issue this election. A recent NPR/PBS/Marist poll found that 67 percent of independents don’t want Trump to run in 2024, and only 28 percent do. That sounds to me like a pretty receptive audience to an argument that handing the GOP power in 2022 will only strengthen Trump in 2024, and do you really want that?

It’s hard to know what works with those voters. If Democrats can’t change their minds, maybe Bob Woodward can. We’ll see. But Democrats need to do a lot less accepting of reality and more trying to change it.