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Crises and Competence

How the decades-long gutting of government—worsened by Trump’s failings—exacerbated the pandemic, the protests, and more.
June 9, 2020
Crises and Competence

In 1986, Ronald Reagan cheerfully gibed: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’” Then it seemed amusing. But 34 years later, the convergence of COVID-19 and a racial conflagration makes Reagan’s quip sound myopic.

No doubt the responsibilities, size, and authority of government are subject to legitimate debate. In one case, the ministrations of government can be salutary; in another, suffocating. Few would argue that centralized control of the economy has truly succeeded anywhere.

But undifferentiated loathing of government is irrational and anti-historical. Only government can safeguard national security and conduct vital diplomacy—that’s why defense spending rose considerably on Reagan’s watch, and why his latter-day admirers’ efforts to cast him as a tribune of small government are oversimplified. Only government can ensure the safety of our food and drugs and protect our natural environment. And government can help navigate our racial fissures, and provide the economic and public health interventions indispensable to combating a deadly pandemic.

Now, when we most need an effective and responsive federal government, our president has eviscerated it. But Donald Trump is hardly sui generis. As Max Boot notes: “Trump . . . is himself the product of decades of right-wing revolt against government and increasingly against reason itself.”

What was once a philosophical preference for limited government has degenerated into phobia. “Long before Trump,” GOP strategist Stuart Stevens observes, “the Republican Party adopted as a key article of faith that more government was bad. But somewhere along the way, it became ‘all government is bad.’ Now we are in a crisis that can be solved only by massive government intervention. That’s awkward.”

This intellectual devolution owes much to political calculation. As Norman Ornstein told Dana Milbank: “Newt Gingrich gave [Republicans] the theme that the best thing they can do is discredit government and blow up all of government.”

The GOP’s increasingly reflexive demonization of “big government” melded neatly with the demand of its donor class for lower taxes. Hence the anti-tax rhetoric of Grover Norquist, who famously proposed to shrink government “to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”

Echoing Norquist’s evocation of infanticide by tax cuts, Milton Friedman analogized the federal government to an unruly child:

How can we ever cut government down to size? I believe there is one and only one way: the way parents control spendthrift children, cutting their allowance. For governments, this means cutting taxes. Resulting deficits will be an effective—I would go so far as to say, the only effective—restraint on the spending propensities of the executive branch and the legislature. The public reaction will make that restraint effective.

Wrong. Instead, we saddled our kids with tax cuts for the rich which exploded the national debt. But this unmediated contempt for government spawned the election of a monumentally unqualified ignoramus: if government was hateful, all we needed was a president who hated it. Writes David Corn:

Trump could only be acceptable to voters who had long been told that government was the problem. He was the antithesis of government experience and expertise. And he made that a selling point and convinced 63 million people to vote for him, as if they were picking a winner on a reality television show. After all, he was amusing and a kick in the ass of the libs who thought credentials and seriousness actually mattered.

But COVID-19 turned these snickers into a death rattle. Continues Corn:

Trump’s inaction and actions will likely lead to the deaths of thousands of Americans who might otherwise have survived this plague.

That is quite a judgment to hang on one man. But Trump deserves it. And the Republican establishment and conservative movement share the blame. They devoted decades to spreading the anti-government virus. . . . And ever since Trump gained the White House, they have accepted and even championed his brand of know-nothingism and turned a blind eye to his dishonesty, incompetence, bigotry, and troubling behavior. They acted as if it did not matter that the man in the White House was not capable of doing the job.

There were honorable exceptions—including John McCain and Mitt Romney, the party’s two prior nominees. But the GOP writ large enabled Trump to turn our government into a Potemkin village—with malign consequences that far transcend the coronavirus.

The damage is staggering and comprehensive. In The Fifth Risk, Michael Lewis details the Trump transition team’s woeful lack of preparation, and the administration’s neglect, mismanagement, or gutting of key government agencies. Trump’s mercurial behaviors only deepen this dysfunction: According to the Brookings Institution, turnover at the upper levels at the White House was 83 percent during the first year and a half of the administration.

Our government, Boot concludes, now mirrors Trump’s incapacities: “Given that Trump is incompetent, ignorant and often irrational, his failure to surround himself with a strong, stable team exacerbates his own deficiencies and makes it nearly impossible coordinate a sensible national response to the worst pandemic in a century.”

But COVID-19 is merely the apotheosis of Trump’s misrule. In a recent New Yorker article, Susan Glasser details “an administration that in some ways barely exists relative to its predecessors, especially when it comes to crucial areas of domestic, economic, and international security—or even straightforward crisis management.”

As one example, Glasser cites the Department of Homeland Security, where Trump forced out Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and, a year later, has yet to appoint a successor—or a permanent deputy secretary, chief of staff, or undersecretary for management. Another is the TSA, where 20 of 75 top positions are either vacant or filled by acting officials.

At the Defense Department, more than one-quarter of Senate-confirmed positions are vacant or filled by temporary officials, according to the Washington Post and the Partnership for Public Service. Trump’s priority is subservience: As Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer relate in Foreign Policy, Trump has dispatched an enforcer to vet DOD officials for loyalty.

The same pathology rots the State Department. Of 20 confirmed or acting assistant secretaries, only five were selected from the foreign service. Some of these positions are still empty. Loyalty tests abound; respected career professionals like William Taylor and Marie Yovanovich are cashiered; Trump sycophant Mike Pompeo treats the department like a satrapy. Former deputy secretary William Burns wrote of Trump’s mismanagement that “not since Joe McCarthy has the State Department suffered such a devastating blow.”

Equally damaging is Trump’s ongoing dismissal of top intelligence officials. In the Washington Post, nine former leaders of intelligence agencies protested: “As we collectively fight this deadly disease, the intelligence institutions that help protect us all from current and future threats are also under attack from an insidious enemy: domestic politics. We cannot let the covid-19 pandemic be a cover for the deeply destructive path being pursued by the Trump administration.”

At Justice, Attorney General William Barr is taking a wrecking ball to his own department, relentlessly dismantling any barrier to presidential abuses. As Donald Ayer, a Republican deputy attorney general under George W. Bush, wrote in the Atlantic:

In just over a year, Barr has repeatedly undermined the Justice Department’s strong tradition of independent, unprejudiced fact-finding, where conclusions are protected against political interference. . . . He has disrespected the integrity and authority of the department’s experienced career attorneys by repeatedly putting political cronies into special oversight roles to review the work of others and engineer changes in the government’s advocacy positions for transparently political reasons.

Inevitably, Trump’s universal contempt for governance, disdain for expertise, and hostility toward oversight breeds rampant demoralization. Throughout the government, career professionals are leaving in droves.

This degrades the civil service. No doubt bureaucrats make an easy target for Trump’s tropes about the “deep state.” But as Daron Acemoglu explains in Foreign Affairs:

By upholding nonpartisan rules and procedures and relying on technocratic expertise, professional bureaucrats . . . function as a kind of guardrail for administrations, preventing their more extreme or nakedly partisan policies from being implemented. A professional civil service has also been the last, most powerful defense against natural disasters and health emergencies. . . .

The president’s hostility to impartial expertise has forced many of the most capable and experienced federal employees to quit, only to be replaced by Trump loyalists. His persistent attacks against those who contradict his untruths or point out problems with his administration’s policies have created an atmosphere of fear that impedes bureaucrats from speaking up. This reticence partly explains the slow, muted, and ineffective initial response to the coronavirus outbreak.

Determined to avoid accountability, Trump has extended his ruinous jihad by firing or replacing inspectors general charged with independent oversight of federal operations. The list is impressive:

  • Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community’s inspector general. His sin? Sending the Ukraine whistleblower complaint to Congress. Said Trump: “Not a big Trump fan, that I can tell you.” This is a blatant warning to other inspectors general: Oversight of Trump means career suicide.
  • Glenn Fine, chairman of a new panel to oversee $2 trillion in pandemic stimulus spending. His sin? Existing. The job remains vacant.
  • Christi Grimm, the principal deputy inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services. Her sin? Issuing a report that documented the severe shortage of testing, kits, and masks hospitals needed to fight COVID-19. This painfully accurate account was derided by Trump as a “typical fake news deal.”
  • Steve Linick, inspector general at the State Department. His sin? Multiple offenses recounted by the Washington Post: issuing a report that top officials had harassed staffers and accused them of disloyalty to Trump; giving documents to the House impeachment probe; and investigating alleged abuses by Pompeo.

Reviewing the wreckage, Mitt Romney protested: “The firings of multiple Inspectors General is unprecedented; doing so without good cause chills the independence essential to their purpose. It is a threat to accountable democracy and a fissure in the constitutional balance of power.”

That is precisely Trump’s aim. His end game is to destroy any governmental constraints on his behavior—at once arrogating autocratic powers while eroding the efficacy of government itself—for which his threats to militarize a racial crisis serves as but one example. Writes Acemoglu:

The playbook often starts with a would-be autocrat filling state institutions with loyalists who will parrot what the leader wants to hear. Then come the inevitable policy mistakes, as ideology and sycophancy overwhelm sound advice. But without independence and commitment to expertise, politicians, top bureaucrats, and judges double down on their mistakes, sidelining anyone who speaks out against them. As public trust in state institutions dwindles and civil servants lose their sense of accountability to the public at large, the transformation to Paper Leviathan can be swift.

And deadly. It is now widely known that, in 2018, Trump disbanded the global health security unit of the NSC—whose expertise, former Obama officials insist, would have enabled the government to combat the pandemic more quickly.

Instead, we foundered. As Lisa Monaco, a national security advisor to Obama, told the Atlantic:

Back in December, when we first saw [the coronavirus emerge], who was asking, “Do we have sufficient tests?” Who was asking, “Do we have sufficient personal protective equipment if this gets here and gets here at scale?” Who was asking, “What is our public-health capacity, and let’s model this out. If this really spreads, how many ICU beds are we going to need?” Who’s developing that list of questions and getting them answered?

Apparently, no one. As Dr. Asish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, lamented in March, “This is such a rapidly moving infection that losing a few days is bad, and losing a couple weeks is terrible. Losing two months is close to disastrous, and that’s what we did.”

Indeed. Disease modelers at Columbia estimated last month that we would have incurred roughly 36,000 fewer deaths had Trump initiated social distancing one week earlier, and avoided about 83 percent of all deaths had he commenced two weeks earlier.

Instead, as the death toll mounted, Trump fired Rick Bright, a respected federal epidemiologist who in January tried and failed to alert the top administrators of HHS that we were desperately short of respirator masks. Bright’s sin? Casting doubt on one of Trump’s quack cures, hydroxychloroquine.

Meanwhile, the callous leader of an incompetent federal government subcontracted out the pandemic to state governors. In a conference call, Trump told them: “Respirators, ventilators, all of the equipment—try getting it yourselves.” Implored to invoke the Defense Production Act to speed the production of viral supplies, he refused.

The result was Trump’s own real-life version of The Hunger Games. In late March the Washington Post reported that “a mad scramble for masks, gowns and ventilators is pitting states against each other and driving up prices. Some hard-hit parts of the country are receiving fresh supplies of N95 masks, but others are still out of stock. Hospitals are requesting donations of masks and gloves from construction companies, nail salons and tattoo parlors, and considering using ventilators designed for large animals because they cannot find the kind made for people.”

Confronted with a public health crisis of the first order, Trump gave America third-world governance. “When you go to war,” Andrew Cuomo told CNN, “you don’t say to the states, every state has to buy its own tanks, every state has to buy its own guns.”

Having failed to provide sufficient tests, Trump assigned to governors the responsibility for establishing a robust testing program. Concurrently, he attacked blue-state governors for not reopening an economy devastated by his failures to address the pandemic. Eschewing his basic responsibility to unite us, he cynically deepened our political and social fissures by embracing the protests of a small minority whose demented libertarianism includes the right to endanger the lives of others.

Meanwhile, Trump used COVID-19 as a cover for dismantling federal environmental protections—including fuel-efficiency standards. While insisting that financial relief for the states he has burdened so irresponsibly would further balloon the deficit, Trump has floated another budget-busting gift to wealthy donors: a holiday from capital gains taxes.

And now, as protests  over George Floyd’s killing continue across the country, Trump has resorted to abusing his office to inflame racial hatred and violence—another deadly distraction from his already lethal derelictions.

Nothing, it seems, can keep Trump’s pyromania from incinerating any semblance of presidential responsibility. As Naomi Oreskes told the New Yorker about COVID-19: “It’s completely predictable that this Administration did exactly what it did. They didn’t want to acknowledge the severity of the [pandemic] because this is a textbook example of why we need a federal government.”

Better, it seems, that thousands of Americans needlessly die. This carnage not only discredits Trump, but the mindless pseudo-philosophy he represents: the comprehensive abdication of the federal government’s practical and moral responsibilities. Writes Stephen Walt:

One may hope that the present crisis will remind enough Americans that having competent and reliable people in key leadership positions really matters, and that holding people more accountable for corruption, cronyism, or sheer incompetence is essential to effective public policies. Whether you favor a big welfare state or a small libertarian one, you should above all want it to be competently led and staffed with knowledgeable and dedicated experts.

Witnessing so much death and disturbance, one cannot but ponder how poorly Reagan’s casual nostrum has aged. Farhad Manjoo nails it: “The most comforting words I can think of now, amid so much uncertainty, chaos and confusion, are these: ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’”

Richard North Patterson

Richard North Patterson is a lawyer, political commentator and best-selling novelist. He is a former chairman of Common Cause and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.