Books postsSunday December 30, 2018
There's a great anecdote in Michael Lewis' “The Fifth Risk,” a book that's not only about how the Trump administration screwed up the transition but how government works, and how dedicated its civil servants are, and what we‘re losing as a result of doubling down on Trump idiocy and half a century of GOP anti-government rhetoric.
Here’s the anecdote:
As the USDA's loans were usually made through local banks, the people on the receiving end of them were often unaware of where the money was coming from. There were many stories very like the one Tom Vilsack told, about a loan they had made, in Minnesota, to a government-shade-throwing, Fox News–watching, small-town businessman. The bank held a ceremony and the guy wound up being interviewed by the local paper. “He's telling the reporter how proud he is to have done it on his own,” said Vilsack. “The USDA person goes to introduce herself, and he says,‘So, who are you?’ She says,” I'm the USDA person.' He asks,‘What are you doing here?’ She says,“ Well, sir, we supplied the money you are announcing.' He was white as a sheet.”
In this section, Lewis interviews Lillian Salerno, a Texas enterpreneur and Deputy Undersecretary of Rural Development in the USDA during the Obama administration. What did her department do? “Channel low-interest-rate loans, along with a few grants, mainly to towns with fewer than fifty thousand people in them,” Lewis writes.
Salerno: “You go through these small towns and you see these ridiculously nice fire stations. That's us.” Lewis: “It was always more expensive for these towns to get electricity and internet access and health care.” Salerno: “But for the federal government, rural Alaska wouldn't have any drinking water.”
Of course, the good work the federal government does here isn't well-known, per above, and most of the people in these areas watch Fox-News and buy into the small-government argument and vote Republican. They voted overwhelmingly for Trump. They gave us Trump. And what did he give them? To show he was serious about foreign trade, he split USDA department, “Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services,” into two: farm programs and foreign ag affairs.
Oddly, at that very moment, Trump was removing the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and costing American farmers an estimated $4.4 billion a year in foreign sales, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation. As there's a rule against having more than seven little boxes on the USDA's org chart, they had to eliminate one of the little boxes. The little box they got rid of was Rural Development.
“I worked in the little box in the government most responsible for helping the people who elected Trump,” said Salerno. “And they literally took my little box off the organization chart.”
Read the book. Spread the word.
Inside the Building
I read the following this morning in Michael Lewis' must-read book “The Fifth Risk“:
[Kevin] Concannon was pushing seventy, but he came out of retirement to take charge of the box inside the USDA labeled ”Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services.“ He'd run the place right up until the Trump people finally arrived, in January 2017.
In his job at USDA, Concannon had overseen for eight years the nation's school-lunch program; the program that ensures that pregnant women, new mothers, and young children receive proper nutrition; and a dozen or so smaller programs designed to alleviate hunger. Together these accounted for approximately 70 percent of the USDA's budget—he'd spent the better part of a trillion dollars feeding people with taxpayer money while somehow remaining virtually anonymous. ”We used to say if we stopped the tourists outside the building and told them what we were doing inside, most of them would have no idea that we were doing it,“ he said.
He'd helped to prepare for the Trump transition, but, of course, that transition never happened. He hadn't had a single encounter with anyone associated with it. Nor had the Trump people bothered to speak with anyone who reported to him. And so it seemed fair to say, as Concannon had said to me on the phone, that ”they don't seem to be focused on nutrition.“ The Trump people were a bit like those tourists outside the Whitten Building. Only now they were inside it.
”The Fifth Risk" is ostensibly about what our federal government does—how much we rely upon it to keep us safe. It's about how all responsible president-elects transition into the behemoth to ensure it keeps running smoothly and efficiently, and what a shitty, irresponsible job Trump and his team did. Instead of 30-40 people showing up in each department the day after the election, as Obama‘s and Bush’s teams had done, there was no one. For days or weeks or months. And when Trump people finally showed up, they knew nothing and didn't want to know anything.
Lewis' book re-enforces my longstanding view of the true danger of Donald Trump. It's not just that he's a horrible person that cozies up to dictators and racists and has the attention span and TV-viewing habits of a 5-year-old. Most of us would make better presidents than Trump because at least we know what we don't know; so we would shore up our deficiencies with experts who do know these things. Trump not only doesn't know what he doesn't know, he thinks he knows it better than anyone. He thinks it's easy. He thinks it's all easy because he doesn't know any of it. He's the biggest idiot that's ever walked across the international stage.
Trump: ‘Fuck the law. I don’t give a fuck about the law. I want my fucking money.'
Michael Lewis' new book, “The Fifth Risk,” is about how the Trump administration, through idiocy or intent (I‘ve only just begun it), is attacking the agencies of our own government; and it begins with the formation of Trump’s transition team, headed by Gov. Chris Christie, in the summer of 2016. Again, Steve Bannon seems to be a source. Christie as well.
Some basics. Our taxes pay for offices and computers for both major party nominees to create transition teams so the wheels of government can run as smoothly as possible as one adminstration, from the same or opposite party, transitions to the next. So most of it is paid for. The nominee merely needs to foot the bill for staff. Christie was tapped not only to run the team but raise the funds. And that's where he ran into trouble with Trump.
The first time Donald Trump paid attention to any of this was when he read about it in the newspaper. ...
Trump was apoplectic, actually yelling, You‘re stealing my money! You’re stealing my fucking money! What the fuck is this?? Seeing Bannon, Trump turned on him and screamed, Why are you letting him steal my fucking money? Bannon and Christie together set out to explain to Trump federal law. ...
To which Trump replied, Fuck the law. I don't give a fuck about the law. I want my fucking money. Bannon and Christie tried to explain that Trump couldn't have both his money and a transition. Shut it down, said Trump. Shut down the transition.
It was only when Bannon suggested that such a move—shutting down the transition team in the middle of the campaign—might signal to the media that was throwing in the towel; that he felt he couldn't win. So Trump went forward with it. But he wasn't happy. Because money.
Once Trump won, the whole thing fell apart again. Christie was fired because he'd prosecuted Jared Kushner's father in 2005 and Jared (and Ivanka?) holds grudges. The family took over ... and botched it completely. Lewis includes an amazing scene at the Dept. of Energy where, the day after the election, everyone is waiting for members of Trump's transition team to arrive and be briefed. That's what happens. In 2008, for example, the day after Obama won, 30 members of his transition team showed up. Want to guess how many members of Trump's transition team showed up the day after his victory? Yes, it was less than 30. It was less than one. It was nobody. The following day as well. And it wasn't just at Energy. It was across the board.
Lewis' book is a reminder of a few things that we need to be reminded of—constantly. Trump, the most powerful man in the world, doesn't just not know what he doesn't know; he actually thinks he knows it better than anyone. He told Christie this: “Chris, you and I are so smart that we can leave the victory party two hours early and do the transition ourselves.”
The book is also a reminder of how important and necessary government is. To me, it feels like a legitimate antidote to Reagan's argument that government is the problem. It feels like the argument Democrats should have been making 30 years ago and most definitely should be making now.
Nixon '46 > Trump '16
“Richard] Nixon adopted, in his first campaign, his signature tactic: making false claims and then taking umbrage when his opponent impugned his integrity. Voorhis was blindsided. ‘Every time that I would say that something wasn’t true,' he recalled, ‘the response was always ”Voorhis is using unfair tactics by accusing Dick Nixon of lying.“’ But Nixon, the lunch-bucket candidate, also exploited voters' unease with a distant government run by Ivy League–educated bureaucrats; he found it took only the merest of gestures to convince voters that there was something un-American about people like Voorhis, people like them. His campaign motto: ‘Richard Nixon is one of us.’”
Jill Lepore, “These Truths: A History of the United States.” Of course, Nixon's signature tactic didn't go away with Nixon; it grew. It's basically the modern GOP platform. It's the one thing they believe in.
1946 is also the year Trump was born.
The Never-Ending Campaigns, Inc.
In case you were wondering why the world is the way it is, here's part of the answer via Jill Lepore's “These Truths: A History of the United States.”
We‘re up to the 1930s now, and Lepore is describing the effect mass communication and propaganda—from Edward Bernays to Josef Goebbels—have had upon democracy. Then she gets into a topic she wrote about in The New Yorker a few years back: CAMPAIGNS, INC., “the first political consulting firm in the history of the world, founded by Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter in California in 1933.” It mostly ran campaigns for big businesses, such as Standard Oil and Pacific Telephone and Telegraph. Critics called it “the Lie Factory.”
Here’s where they really broke through. The 1934 California campaign for governor involved the former muckraker Upton Sinclair, who was—initially—hugley popular:
Two months before the election, they began working for George Hatfield, a candidate for lieutenant governor on a Republican ticket headed by the incumbent governor, Frank Merriam. They locked themselves in a room for three days with everything Sinclair had ever written. “Upton was beaten,” Whitaker later said, “because he had written books” ...
The Los Angeles Times began running on its front page a box with an Upton Sinclair quotation in it, a practice the paper continued every day for six weeks, right up until Election Day. For instance: SINCLAIR ON MARRIAGE: THE SANCTITY OF MARRIAGE. . . . I HAVE HAD SUCH A BELIEF . . . I HAVE IT NO LONGER. The passage, as Sinclair explained in a book called “I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked,” was taken from his novel “Love's Pilgrimage” (1911), in which a fictional character writes a heartbroken letter to a man having an affair with his wife.
“Reading these boxes day after day,” Sinclair wrote, “I made up my mind that the election was lost.” ...
“Sure, those quotations were irrelevant,” Baxter later said. “But we had one objective: to keep him from becoming Governor.” They succeeded. The final vote was Merriam, 1,138,000; Sinclair, 879,000.81 No single development altered the workings of American democracy so wholly as the industry Whitaker and Baxter founded.
They basically set the stage for everything that's been ruining politics, and thus our lives, ever since:
Whitaker and Baxter won nearly every campaign they waged. The campaigns they chose to run, and the way they decided to run them, shaped the history of California and of the country. They drafted the rules by which campaigns would be waged for decades afterward.
The first thing they did, when they took on a campaign, was to “hibernate” for a week to write a Plan of Campaign. Then they wrote an Opposition Plan of Campaign, to anticipate the moves made against them. Every campaign needs a theme. Keep it simple. Rhyming's good (“For Jimmy and me, vote ‘yes’ on 3”). Never explain anything. “The more you have to explain,” Whitaker said, “the more difficult it is to win support.” Say the same thing over and over again. “We assume we have to get a voter's attention seven times to make a sale,” Whitaker said. Subtlety is your enemy. “Words that lean on the mind are no good,” according to Baxter. “They must dent it.” Simplify, simplify, simplify. “A wall goes up,” Whitaker warned, “when you try to make Mr. and Mrs. Average American Citizen work or think.”
Make it personal, Whitaker and Baxter always advised: candidates are easier to sell than issues. If your position doesn't have an opposition, or if your candidate doesn't have an opponent, invent one. Once, when fighting an attempt to recall the mayor of San Francisco, Whitaker and Baxter waged a campaign against the Faceless Man—the idea was Baxter‘s—who might end up replacing him. Baxter drew a picture, on a tablecloth, of a fat man with a cigar poking out from beneath a face hidden by a hat, and then had him plastered on billboards all over the city, with the question “Who’s Behind the Recall?” Pretend that you are the Voice of the People. Whitaker and Baxter bought radio ads, sponsored by “the Citizens Committee Against the Recall,” in which an ominous voice said: “The real issue is whether the City Hall is to be turned over, lock, stock, and barrel, to an unholy alliance fronting for a faceless man.” (The recall was defeated.)
Attack, attack, attack. Said Whitaker: “You can't wage a defensive campaign and win!” Never underestimate the opposition. Never shy from controversy, they advised; instead, win the controversy.
This is still the Republican model. It was Trump's model.
The key to the success of CAMPAIGNS, INC. is also in this ominous line:
They succeeded best by being noticed least.
Make sure you get Lepore's book. It's essentially about how our truths became less than self-evident.