Writing about her friend the famously unpleasant Evelyn Waugh, Frances Donaldson reflected that.
the weakness in attributing any particular quality to Evelyn is that he could not allow anyone to dictate his attitude or virtues to him. Consequently, if he was accused of some quality usually regarded as contemptible, where other men would be aroused to shame or hypocrisy, he studied it, polished up his performance, and, treating it as both normal and admirable, made it his own…. Consequently, it was never any good looking straight at him to learn the truth about him.
Donald Trump is not often compared to a great English novelist, and the word “studied” does not apply—he is all instinct. But his instincts lead him in precisely the same direction. He disorients us by wearing his most contemptible qualities as if they were crown jewels, by brandishing as trophies what others would conceal as shameful secrets. He uses his dirty linen as a cloth with which to polish up his performance.
Thus, on the evening of October 24, the day it was discovered that explosive devices had been mailed to several leading Democrats, Trump, at a rally in Mosinee, Wisconsin, mouthed the expected platitudes about coming together in “peace and harmony.” Any politician of the kind we are used to would have left it at that, keeping a straight face and willing his audience to forget his own hate-mongering. But Trump did not leave it at that. He tickled his fans with a teasing acknowledgment that this emollient rhetoric was unreal and that stirring up hatred was, and would remain, his essential effect: “By the way, do you see how nice I’m behaving tonight? Have you ever seen this?” The message was not subtle: I’m adjusting my act a little tonight but don’t worry, normal service will resume shortly.
Or, while any other politician accused of breaching electoral law to cover up a sexual liaison with a porn star would try to avoid the subject, Trump feeds the story by calling Stormy Daniels “Horseface” on Twitter. Or, while any conventional party leader would want to erase from the public memory an incident in which one of his candidates (Greg Gianforte) violently assaulted a reporter (Ben Jacobs) for asking him a question, Trump returned to it a year and a half later to propel it back into the headlines just as the murder of another journalist (Jamal Khashoggi) was on everyone’s mind. Or, while any other rash Tweeter might at least privately regret tweeting that the women demonstrating against the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court were “paid professionals,” Trump circled back to simultaneously retreat and up the ante: “The paid D.C. protesters are now ready to REALLY protest because they haven’t gotten their checks—in other words, they weren’t paid!”
And so on. When Guy Debord wrote in 1967 that “by means of the spectacle the ruling order discourses endlessly upon itself in an uninterrupted monologue of self-praise,” he can hardly have imagined that his insight would be so literally embodied or that an American president’s self-praise would take a form that, in conventional politics, would be self-sabotage.
Most of us are conditioned to regard these incidents as mere proof of Trump’s inability to control his impulses. But his urges are powerfully honed by decades of collusion with the scandal-mongers and gossip columnists who made him famous and helped him to create his brand. The outbursts and asides establish and maintain his alpha-male reputation in the eyes of his fans (though they might not quite put it like this) by not allowing anyone to “dictate his attitude or virtues to him.” Trump’s flaunting of his own most shameful qualities deflects the damage that any revelation can do to him. When he displays his vices so openly, the drama of revelation leads only to a shrug of the shoulders: tell us something we didn’t know. His outbursts normalize the outrageous—habit, as Samuel Beckett has it, is a great deadener. Most subtly but most effectively, they play havoc with one of the things we think we know about politics: the game of distraction.
We all know that people in power deploy distraction as a professional skill, much as magicians do. We are used to it. In every act of political communication, “Look at this” is always the explicit obverse of an implicit “Don’t look at that.” But Trump confounds us by using as distractions the very things that other politicians want to distract us from. In democracy as we think we have known it, the art of governance is, in part, the skill with which our attention is diverted from the sordid, the shameful, the thuggish. Yet these same qualities are the gaudiest floats in Trump’s daily parade of grotesqueries. This is his strange, and in its own way brilliant, reversal: instead of distracting us from the lurid and the sensational, Trump is using them to distract us from the slow, boring, apparently mundane but deeply insidious sabotaging of government. He is the blaring noise that drowns out the low signal of subversion.
There is, surely, a reason why books that give us Trump in all his outlandish tawdriness—like Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury and Bob Woodward’s Fear: Trump in the White House—cannot, however appalling their accounts may be, do him any harm. They are exercises in “looking straight at him to learn the truth about him,” an act that seems entirely right by any traditional political and journalistic standard but that misses the specificity of Trump’s performance. If you look straight at such a glaring object, you are blinded.
Michael Lewis’s The Fifth Risk is a much shorter, simpler book, with no great drama and no real claims to be comprehensive or definitive. But it does something both brave and highly intelligent: it looks at Trump not straight but crooked. He is hardly in the book at all and yet it tells us more than Wolff or Woodward about the long-term damage he is doing. For while they give us an aberrant buffoon whose incompetence must surely doom him, allowing the normal business of government to resume, Lewis points toward a much deeper assault on government itself.
Lewis is (justly) a nonfiction star, a weaver of propulsive, character-driven narratives in which people, money, and technology are thrown into a dizzying spin. Moneyball and The Big Short have been made into gripping movies. Michelle and Barack Obama have acquired the rights to The Fifth Risk for a possible Netflix series, but it is hard to imagine that they faced much competition from more typical movie producers. The pitch would be the toughest since The Producers. “So Trump’s in this, right?” “Well, he makes a cameo appearance at the start. But we’ve got John MacWilliams who used to work for the Department of Energy and Catherine Woteki who used to be chief scientist at the Department of Agriculture and Kathy Sullivan who was head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) at the Department of Commerce and D.J. Patil who was Obama’s chief data scientist.” “Never heard of them. And what is this fifth risk anyway?” “We find out in the big reveal at the end of the first act: it’s ‘project management.’”
The Fifth Risk is a passionate, even earnest, book about people who have worked as public servants for the federal government and the things they worry about. But it is also a challenge to think about not who Trump is but what he is doing, to see how, in some important respects, the phrase “the Trump administration” is an oxymoron. His project is not to administer the government of the United States. It is to bring it into disrepute.
In October 1987 Ronald Reagan sprayed his folksy charm over an old antigovernment joke: “You know, it’s said that the ten most frightening words in the English language are: ‘Hello, I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’” Reagan was speaking to small-business owners likely to be receptive to the idea that even the most well-intentioned government agencies do nothing but get in the way. There was always an element of hypocrisy in this—Republican politicians have gone on deploying the power of federal patronage, and their supporters have never been allergic to taxpayer dollars. Republican presidents thus continued, even as they starved some parts of the federal government, to have an interest in actually running it.
The joke, though, was always likely to become a serious proposition sooner or later. If you keep saying that government is not the solution but the problem, that “Washington” as a generic term for all the institutions that manage the public realm is just a swamp to be drained, you will end up wanting to destroy it. And if this is what you want to do, then the aspects of Trump that seem most like political weaknesses—his ignorance and his incompetence—are not weaknesses at all. They are powerful weapons of administrative destruction. The best way to undermine government is to make it as stupid and as inept as your rhetoric has always claimed it to be.
The American system is uniquely vulnerable to this maneuver. Americans tend to think they have the best system of government in the world. Yet from the outside, one aspect of it seems insane. Most functioning democracies have a permanent civil service that is legally obliged to be politically neutral. It takes orders from elected politicians but is protected from subversion by protocols of parliamentary accountability and the difficulty of firing its members. In the US, there is of course a vast permanent public service of two million employees. But the top layers of each department and institution are made up of four thousand presidential appointees. Not only is there no continuity of management, but chaos is easy to create. All an incoming president needs to do is appoint people to these agencies who should not be allowed anywhere near them—or indeed appoint no one at all. There is in the US system an opportunity to abuse power by simply declining to use it.
According to Lewis, in August 2016 Trump was enraged to discover that the head of his transition team, then New Jersey governor Chris Christie, had raised several million dollars to meet the campaign’s legal obligations to start planning to take over the government after the presidential election. He yelled at Christie: “You’re stealing my money! You’re stealing my fucking money! What is this?… Fuck the law. I don’t give a fuck about the law. I want my fucking money.” He was dissuaded from shutting down the transition team only by Steve Bannon’s argument that the media would take this as evidence that he had abandoned hopes of winning in November. But Trump had his revenge. At the instigation of Jared Kushner, whose animosity toward Christie was seated in the latter’s successful prosecution of his father, Charles Kushner, for illegal campaign contributions, tax evasion, and witness tampering, Trump fired Christie and his entire team almost immediately after the election and effectively shredded all the work they had done to find suitable appointees.
As of October 22, 2018, according to a tracker maintained by The Washington Post and the Partnership for Public Service, almost two years after his election, Trump has failed even to put forward a nominee for 139 of the top 704 positions requiring confirmation by the Senate. The Department of Agriculture (USDA), for example, has no undersecretary for food, nutrition, and consumer services. This is a part of the department that managed a budget of $112.2 billion in 2015.
This undersecretary administers a system bigger than many countries. He or she runs the food stamp program that provides a vital lifeline to millions of Americans. The undersecretary is supposed to supervise fifteen federal nutrition assistance programs, including school meals and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, and to develop policies to end hunger and stop kids from being raised on junk food. While failing to fill the post, Trump did manage to fill the lower echelons of the USDA with patronage appointees, described by Lewis as “a long-haul truck driver, a clerk at AT&T, a gas- company meter-reader, a country-club cabana attendant, a Republican National Committee intern, and the owner of a scented-candle company.”
But who knows or cares about a nonexistent undersecretary for food, nutrition, and consumer services? It’s a boring question about a quiet void. When Trump makes sure that we have an outrage a day to feed on, who has time to think about the nonmanagement of food stamps or school meals? As it happens, Lewis does, and he talks extensively to the last holder of the office, Kevin Concannon. He held the position from 2009 until January 2017, and had “spent the better part of a trillion dollars feeding people with taxpayer money while somehow remaining virtually anonymous.” Before that, he ran successively the human services departments of the states of Iowa, Maine, and Oregon.
The norm under both Republican and Democratic administrations is that the incoming president’s appointee to this job, usually a very experienced administrator who, like Concannon, had done a similar job at the state level, would begin detailed briefings with the incumbent almost immediately after the election. Concannon prepared extensively for the transition. He had, for example, reduced the rate of fraud in the food stamp program to an all-time low—something Republicans, who like to go on about fraud, might at least want to learn about. By the time he left office, no one from Team Trump had spoken to him or to any of his subordinates, ever. He waited and waited but nobody came. Two years on, no one has yet arrived to take his place.
What’s going on here is easily enfolded within the terms that the big narratives of the Trump presidency offer us: chaos, ignorance, incompetence. The terms are not inapt, but they are radically insufficient. They demand modifiers. In the entire nexus of right-wing politics and business interests around Trump, deliberate chaos, willful ignorance, and strategic incompetence can be embraced as virtues. If you despise the food stamp program as a disincentive to the shiftless poor to buck up and take responsibility for themselves, if you make your profits from supplying junk food for school meals fed to 30 million American children, if you think that ensuring that pregnant women and new mothers get proper nutrition is socialist tyranny, then the easiest thing to do is nothing. Avoid briefings so you don’t have to know what these programs do and why they do it. Let the knowledge and experience embodied in people like Concannon just vanish into thin air. Leave vacuums of leadership, authority, and accountability that will, with any luck, lead to drift and demoralization. Let public agencies rot on the vine and then point to the rottenness as proof that Big Government doesn’t work.
It helps that the US federal government is astonishingly bad at letting people know about the good things it does. Lewis talks to Lillian Salerno, who ran the Rural Development division of the USDA, including a $220 billion bank that makes loans to needy communities and individuals in small-town and agricultural America—the places that voted most heavily for Trump. Before taking public office, she developed, in response to the AIDS crisis, the first retractable needles in a manufacturing company she started near Dallas. She did so with a business loan from a local bank. She had no idea that the bank was merely the conduit for the real source of the money—the very federal agency she ended up running in the Obama years. She recalls making similar loans while in that job: “In the red southern states the mayor sometimes would say, ‘Can you not mention that the government gave this?’”
Even the titles of departments are bushels specially made for hiding lights under. The Department of Agriculture is mostly not concerned with agriculture—70 percent of its budget goes to the programs Concannon used to run, which are essentially social welfare services. The Department of Energy is not primarily in the energy business—half its budget goes toward maintaining the US nuclear arsenal and protecting the public from nuclear threats and another quarter toward, in Lewis’s colorful description, “cleaning up all the unholy world-historic mess left behind by the manufacture of nuclear weapons.” The Department of Commerce has almost nothing to do with promoting businesses. It gathers data (including the census), sets material and technological standards—and predicts the weather. More than half of its budget goes to NOAA, which in turn runs the National Weather Service.
Here we come to another way of wrecking government. Alongside malign neglect, Trump has a second option: appoint the worst possible person. Trump’s pattern of appointing to the top layers of government people who were openly antagonistic to the very departments they would run—Wilbur Ross, Betsy DeVos, Scott Pruitt, Ben Carson, and Rick Perry among them—was obvious enough. But arguably of even greater import was his approach to the appointment of the people who actually run things, the low-profile technocrats and bureaucrats crucial to a competent administration.
According to the criteria drawn up by Mitt Romney’s team for the transition he hoped would take place in 2012, the head of NOAA should have a “strong scientific background in either oceans or climate,” as well as extensive management experience, preferably in NOAA or another government agency. This ought to be a given, since the agency’s 11,000 employees are primarily engaged in scientific work. Hence George W. Bush appointed Conrad Lautenbacher, who had been the CEO of the Consortium for Oceanographic Research and Education and deputy chief of naval operations in the US Navy. Barack Obama appointed first Jane Lubchenco, professor of marine biology at Oregon State University and president of both the International Council for Science and the Ecological Society of America; and then Kathryn Sullivan, previously NOAA’s chief scientist, an assistant secretary of the Department of Commerce, and, incidentally, an astronaut and the first American woman to walk in space.
Who could replace Sullivan? According to Lewis, a former Bush administration adviser whom he does not name but who had worked at the Commerce Department for eight years, was asked by the White House to provide an answer. This man was well aware that Trump would not want a leading climate scientist—constructed ignorance of climate change being a core presidential principle. But he still reckoned that the appointee would be an experienced scientist: “If you don’t believe in climate change, you at least want to understand the climate.” He drew up a list of six “qualified Republicans, inoffensive to Trump.” Emphatically not on it was Barry Myers, who has no scientific or public service credentials. He is the CEO of AccuWeather, a private company that makes its money by taking the weather data created at great public expense by NOAA’s National Weather Service, marketing it through apps, a website, and a TV network, and tailoring it for private clients like newspapers, ski resorts, and home improvement stores.
Myers managed to define AccuWeather, in reality parasitic on the government, as a private sector competitor of the government, and therefore insisted that the National Weather Service not be allowed to provide citizens with the information they pay for through their taxes: “The government should get out of the forecasting business.” He argued that the NWS was like the Post Office, while AccuWeather was FedEx: “It was,” he told a congressional hearing in 2013, “like the Post Office and Federal Express, except it would be like the Post Office offering to carry every letter without postage, and every package for free.” Myers donated to Rick Santorum, who in turn introduced a bill in the Senate in 2005 that would have forced the NWS to issue forecasts only through “data portals designed for volume access by commercial providers” (like, of course, AccuWeather) and would have effectively banned it from issuing any public information except immediate severe storm warnings.
Making Myers head of NOAA would therefore be, to use his own analogy, like putting the CEO of FedEx in charge of the Post Office, with the power to decide that it should cease to provide any services that compete with private courier companies. (Though to make the analogy complete, FedEx would already have free use of the Post Office’s trucks and distribution systems.) In October 2017, Trump nominated Myers as head of NOAA, a nomination quickly confirmed along party lines in committee but still awaiting Senate approval.
Lewis is at his vivid best in teasing out the implications of this, for it is a story in which a little movie-style melodrama is entirely justified. He points out that Myers has spent much of his career trying to make the NWS look bad. Why else would people pay for his service when the government provides the same information for free? But now he will acquire the power to actually make it bad, to limit its investment in refining and communicating its forecasts:
The dystopic endgame is not difficult to predict: the day you get only the weather forecast you pay for. A private company will become better than the Weather Service at knowing where a hurricane will make landfall: What will it do with that information? Tell the public or trade it inside a hedge fund? You know what Hurricane Harvey is going to do to Houston before Houston knows: Do you help Houston? Or do you find clever ways to make money off Houston’s destruction?
We know what Donald Trump the mogul would have done, and in the light of that knowledge it is not surprising that he would want to steal the weather. But even to say this is, of course, to be distracted, to move from the mundane business of who controls food stamps and weather forecasts back into the appallingly entertaining psychodrama with which he keeps us transfixed. Old habits die hard, and it is very hard to shake off the habitual assumption that every administration, beneath the surface, has a basic interest in being able to show with some credibility that it is governing well. We imagine that those in power at least want to convey the impression that they know what they are doing and that they do it capably. Neither of these assumptions applies to Trump. When you want to discredit government itself, obliviousness and ineptitude are their own rewards. In drawing attention to what public service is and how it is being abused, Michael Lewis has himself done the public a considerable service.
This article was published by The New York Review of Books.
Fintan O’Toole is a columnist with The Irish Times and the Leonard L. Milberg Visiting Lecturer in Irish Letters at Princeton. His most recent book is Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain (2018). (November 2018)