Fin­tan O’Toole

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Fin­tan O’Toole

The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis. Nor­ton, 221 pp., $26.95

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 al­phamale 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 gas­com­pany me­ter-reader, a coun­tryclub 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 rightwing 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.

Pres­i­dent Trump with Agri­cul­ture Sec­re­tary Sonny Per­due, Ad­min­is­tra­tor Brock Long, and Me­la­nia Trump at a brief­ing on dam­age from Hur­ri­cane Michael, Ma­con, Ge­or­gia, Oc­to­ber 2018

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