‘Peril:’ Nonfiction that reads like a political thriller

Published by Simon and Schuster 2021; 512 pages 

By Allen Gaborro

As American democracy catches its breath in the wake of the Trump presidency, it is important to go back and learn about the dysfunctional and at times frightening behavior of the 45th president.

Award-winning journalists Robert Costa and Bob Woodward (the latter of Watergate fame) have taken in the sights and sounds of the Trump administration as it rode off kicking and screaming into the sunset in “Peril,” a New York Times bestseller.

“Peril” is a work of nonfiction but it reads like a political thriller. For Donald Trump’s actions in the interregnum between the 2020 election on November 3, 2020 and the storming of the US Capitol building in Washington, DC on January 6, 2021 were amplified by his restive, moody, delusionary, and querulous way of looking at the world.

Costa and Woodward waste little time in their book in getting at Trump’s “impulsive” and “unpredictable” mind as they speak in “Peril’s” prologue to the threat he presented. The authors tell the story of how the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Mark Milley had to convince his Chinese equivalent General Li Zuocheng over long-distance telephone that the United States was not on the brink of collapse as a result of the Capitol attack. China feared that an electorally-defeated Trump might actually attack them in order to stay in power. Consequently, its military was put on alert. 

“Peril” also tries to make sense of the Trump administration and its convoluted inner workings, especially in its efforts to overthrow the 2020 election. Costa and Woodward write that General Milley, as did others, thought that Trump “had gone into a serious mental decline in the aftermath of the election, with Trump all but manic, screaming at officials and constructing his own alternative reality about endless election conspiracies.”

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley with Trump: The general noted the president’s ‘serious mental decline in the aftermath of the election,’ according to the book.

It has been a mantra of Trump’s that the 2020 election was rigged against him. But the evidence has been by far to the contrary. In fact, the Department of Homeland Security publicly and unequivocally stated that “The November 3rd election was the most secure in American history.”

For Trump and his acolytes, this did not deter them from attempting to overturn the results of the election which came out in favor of the Democratic candidate, Joseph Biden. From proposing to illegitimately introduce replacement electors in strategic states, to pressuring local officials into manipulating the legal vote count, to trying to coerce Vice-President Mike Pence into illegally de-certifying electoral votes, Trump would stop at nothing to remain president.

Trump’s failed endeavor to elevate his schemes above the political facts set the stage for the violence done at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. The assault, as General Milley states in “Peril,” was “a planned, coordinated, synchronized attack on the very heart of American democracy.”

The deadly drama that took place at the Capitol has been labeled by Costa and Woodward as an “insurrection.” And indeed, it was as angry Trump supporters, incited beforehand by the president himself, hit the historic edifice with unbridled bellicosity and lawlessness, endangering in the process the lives of congressmen and congresswomen alike, not to mention those of Capitol security personnel and Vice-President Pence. To this day a disturbing number of Republicans continue to deny the import of what happened at the Capitol. This despite the damning conclusions of the “United States House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack.”

“Peril” also covers other aspects of Trump’s administration during that fateful juncture such as his tumultuous relationship with his cabinet officials and other ranking Republican politicians. It also encompasses Joe Biden’s presidential campaign and the incipiency of his own administration. Every subject-matter in “Peril” is highly-salient in its own right.

But the biggest takeaway from Costa’s and Woodward’s book is that it is a cautionary tale. Donald Trump remains a daunting presence in US politics. As Costa and Woodward write, he will not be easily deterred: “Could Trump work his will again? Were there any limits to what he and his supporters might do to put him back in power?” The authors end on a succinctly worrisome note: “Peril remains.”  

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© The FilAm 2022

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