Like many political watchers, I’ve been equally appalled and yet addicted to watching what is going on currently in US politics.
Right now there’s the dismal spectacle of Brett Kavanaugh being elected onto the US Supreme Court despite a number of serious accusations being made against him, few of which are truly being taken seriously. In the meantime, there’s Trump mocking the accuser at a rally (and then denying it despite all evidence to the contrary).
These two books, in their own separate ways, describe in some detail the ineptness of the Trump administration, the lack of focus and the general
Bob Woodward’s Fear is currently riding high in the bestseller lists and for good reason. Woodward has written about presidents all the way back to Nixon, but this feels more urgent than probably any of those other titles. He has a very measured tone, rarely inserting his own authorial voice into the narrative he’s telling. Instead, he relies on first hand testimony of many people, usually speaking anonymously.
Woodward’s narrative is direct and steady. He paints Trump in a similar light to others – notably Michael Woolf in Fire and Fury earlier this year – in that Trump is like a toddler in the way he can be distracted and then completely forget about something. The book opens with an official simply lifting a letter that would start a trade war with South Korea and jeopardise US military intelligence in the region. Once the letter has gone (and Trump does love signing things), the President forgets about it. At least until someone else brings it up – perhaps either on Fox News, to which he’s addicted and gets much of his information, or from someone like Peter Navarro, an economist for whom, almost uniquely, trade is considered bad.
The book repeatedly explores the lack of a basic understanding of how modern businesses are driven, how having a trade deficit with a country isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and just really simple things like how modern supply chains work. Trump, as we know, is obsessed with things like steel production, and has started a trade war with China that has almost instantly required the government to bail out farmers who have been hit by tit-for-tat tariffs.
The tone all the way through the book is measured and never breathless. And that just makes it all the more vital.
Meanwhile the always very readable Michael Lewis has The Fifth Risk, which examines the workings of the US government following the Trump victory. He zooms in on a handful of departments, digging into the background stories of some of the people who work there, and explaining what the departments do, and why their work is often vital but undervalued.
On more that one occasion, he relates stories of people who were being loaned government money without realising that it the government that was lending the money, as the money is often distributed via local banks.
There are horrifying stories of the Trump’s dreadful transition team, coming into the various departments weeks or months after the election, rather than the next day, not being interested in what those departments actually did, and generally being very unsuited to the roles.
It seems that another failing of US government is the level to which so many jobs are political appointees. Trump has been singularly bad at filling these vacancies, and when he does, they’re often people who have no interest in the subject at hand. Sometimes this is because they genuinely don’t know what the department does! You would think a quick search of Wikipedia might be in order before you enter the building.
In the meantime, these apparatchiks wander around getting government employees to stop using the term climate change.
Perhaps worse are people who do know what the department does, but in whose outside interests, a level of dismantling works in their favour. A case in point is Barry Myers, chief executive of AccuWeather, the private weather provider. Trump nominated him to oversee the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) who run the US National Weather Service. AccuWeather uses data paid for and provided by the National Weather Service to bolster its forecasts. Yet it has fought hard to prevent the US Government widely publishing that weather themselves. There is no National Weather Service app, and that is no coincidence. AccuWeather’s app is very popular and delivers significant advertising revenue. Myers has fought hard to prevent that data being made widely available despite the fact that he personally benefits.
The books is full of stories like this. Lewis finds people who are working in the government sector, often for less money than they could earn elsewhere, because they believe they have a civic duty. How much is all of this going to be undone by Trump? Time will only tell.
This was another book that was clearly published in a rush, and as such, it perhaps doesn’t hang together as much as some of his other books. And yet, the subject matter is probably much more important than that of his other books. Lasting damage could be done to millions of Americans by the actions of a few.
What both books make really clear is that there are a lot of people with no experience, no knowledge, and no wish to actually learn anything new. Being informed is somehow not a good trait within this administration.
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