Making Ignorance Great Again

by Paul Krugman, New York Times

Donald Trump just took us out of the Paris climate accord for no good reason. I don’t mean that his decision was wrong. I mean, literally, that he didn’t offer any substantive justification for that decision. Oh, he threw around a few numbers about supposed job losses, but nobody believes that he knows or cares where those numbers came from. It was just what he felt like doing.

And here’s the thing: What just happened on climate isn’t an unusual case — and Trump isn’t especially unusual for a modern Republican. For today’s G.O.P. doesn’t do substance; it doesn’t assemble evidence, or do analysis to formulate or even to justify its policy positions. Facts and hard thinking aren’t wanted, and anyone who tries to bring such things into the discussion is the enemy.

Consider another huge policy area, health care. How was Trumpcare put together? Did the administration and its allies consult with experts, study previous experience with health reform, and try to devise a plan that made sense? Of course not. In fact, House leaders made a point of ramming a bill through before the Congressional Budget Office, or for that matter anyone else, could assess its likely impact.

When the budget office did weigh in, its conclusions were what you might expect: If you make huge cuts in Medicaid and reduce subsidies for private insurance — all so you can cut taxes on the wealthy — a lot of people are going to lose coverage. Is 23 million a good estimate of those losses? Yes — it might be 18 million, or it might be 28 million, but surely it would be in that range.

So how did the administration respond? By trying to shoot the messenger. Mick Mulvaney, the White House budget director, attacked the C.B.O., declaring that it did a “miserable” job of forecasting the effects of Obamacare. (It got some things wrong, but overall did pretty well.) He also accused the office — headed by a former Bush administration economist chosen by Republicans — of political bias, and smeared its top health expert in particular.

So, Mr. Mulvaney, where’s your assessment of Trumpcare? You had plenty of resources to do your own study before trying to pass a bill. What did you find? (Actually, the White House did do an internal analysis of an earlier version of Trumpcare, which was leaked to Politico. Its predictions were even more dire than those from the C.B.O.)

But Mulvaney and his party don’t study issues, they just decide, and attack the motives of anyone who questions their decisions.

Which brings us back to climate policy.

On climate change, influential conservatives have for years clung to what is basically a crazy conspiracy theory — that the overwhelming scientific consensus that the earth is warming due to greenhouse-gas emissions is a hoax, somehow coordinated by thousands of researchers around the world. And at this point this is effectively the mainstream Republican position.

Do G.O.P. leaders really think this conspiracy theory is true? The answer, surely, is that they don’t care. Truth, as something that exists apart from and in possible opposition to political convenience, is no longer part of their philosophical universe.

The same goes for claims that trying to rein in emissions will do terrible economic damage and destroy millions of jobs. Such claims are, if you think about it, completely inconsistent with everything Republicans supposedly believe about economics.

After all, they insist that the private sector is infinitely flexible and innovative; the magic of the marketplace can solve all problems. But then they claim that these magical markets would roll over and die if we put a modest price on carbon emissions, which is basically what climate policy would do. This doesn’t make any sense — but it’s not supposed to. Republicans want to keep burning coal, and they’ll say whatever helps produce that outcome.

And as health care and climate go, so goes everything else. Can you think of any major policy area where the G.O.P. hasn’t gone post-truth? Take budgeting, where leaders like Paul Ryan have always justified tax cuts for the rich by claiming the ability to conjure up trillions in extra revenue and savings in some unspecified way. The Trump-Mulvaney budget, which not only pulls $2 trillion out of thin air but counts it twice, takes the game to a new level, but it’s not that much of a departure.

But does any of it matter? The president, backed by his party, is talking nonsense, destroying American credibility day by day. But hey, stocks are up, so what’s the problem?

Well, bear in mind that so far Trump hasn’t faced a single crisis not of his own making. As George Orwell noted many years ago in his essay “In Front of Your Nose,” people can indeed talk nonsense for a very long time, without paying an obvious price. But “sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.” Now there’s a happy thought.

Trump’s Incompetence Won’t Save Us

Since last November when the nightmare truly began, I’ve been struck by how many friends and relatives have admitted that when they voted for the Orange Man-Child they were simply “making a statement” that they were tired of “business as usual,” they viewed any current elected official as corrupt, and they wanted to “drain the swamp” and install someone who would do just that, never mind that the person they voted for had no experience whatsoever in government. 

In virtually every area of our lives we seek out the best people to help us solve our problems, even going so far as to pay for membership in organizations like Angie’s List and Consumer Reports to give ourselves every possible advantage in getting the best doctors, the best lawyers, the best carpet installers, the best plumbers. We ask friends about their experiences with dentists, with restaurants, with day care.

Yet when it comes to trusting someone to run the most complex political and economic entity on the planet, the government of the U.S., somehow—inexplicably– experience becomes a liability and rank amateurism a virtue.

The fact that the Popular Vote Loser had rung up seven bankruptcies, had paid out a $25 million fraud settlement, had stiffed countless vendors, been sued twice by the feds for housing discrimination, was provably incompetent in running something as simple as a real estate business, and was unable to secure any loans from any U.S. banks to run his failing enterprises was completely lost on these voters. I had friends in Florida get angry with me and declare loudly that “it’s time for a businessman to run this country,” and they were unconvinced when I reminded them that we had recently tried that with Bush Jr and that turned out well. And had they checked the record on this latest republican offering?

In this excellent piece by Masha Gessen in the NYT, she describes the incompetence and general lack of curiosity and appreciation of complexity that seems to be the hallmark of most latter day authoritarians, not just ours, and the destruction and havoc putting someone like that in office can cause. 

Damn good writing. 

[Masha Gessen is a contributing opinion writer and the author of “The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.”]

Can an autocrat be ridiculous? Can a democracy be destroyed by someone who has only the barest idea of what the word “democracy” means? Can pure incompetence plunge the world into a catastrophic war? We don’t like to think so.

We imagine the villains of history as cunning strategists, brilliant masterminds of horror. This happens because we learn about them from history books, which weave narratives that retrospectively imbue events with logic, making them seem predetermined. Historians and their readers bring an unavoidable perception bias to the story: If a historical event caused shocking destruction, then the person behind this event must have been a correspondingly giant monster. Terrifying as it is to contemplate the catastrophes of the 20th century, it would be even more frightening to imagine that humanity had stumbled unthinkingly into its darkest moments.

But a careful reading of contemporary accounts will show that both Hitler and Stalin struck many of their countrymen as men of limited ability, education and imagination — and, indeed, as being incompetent in government and military leadership. Contrary to popular wisdom, they are not political savants, possessed of one extraordinary talent that brings them to power. It is the blunt instrument of reassuring ignorance that propels their rise in a frighteningly complex world.

Modern strongmen are more obviously human. We have witnessed the greed and vanity of Silvio Berlusconi, who ran Italy’s economy into the ground. We recognize the desperate desire of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to be admired or at least feared — usually literally at his country’s expense. Still, physical distance makes villains seem bigger than they are in real life. Many Americans imagine that Mr. Putin is a brilliant strategist, a skilled secret agent turned popular leader.

As someone who has spent years studying Mr. Putin — and as one of a handful of journalists who have had an unscripted conversation with him — I can vouch for the fact that he is a poorly educated, under-informed, incurious man whose ambition is vastly out of proportion to his understanding of the world. To the extent that he has any interest in the business of governing, it is his role — on the world stage or on Russian television — that concerns him. Whether he is attending a summit, piloting a plane or hang-gliding with Siberian cranes, it is the spectacle of power that interests him.

In the past few months, Americans too have grown familiar with the sight of a president who seems to think that politics consists of demonstrating that he is in charge. This similarity is not an accident (nor is it a result of Russian influence). The rejection of the complexity of modern politics — as well as modern business and modern life in general — lies at the core of populism’s appeal. The first American president with no record of political or military service, Donald Trump ran on a platform of denigrating expertise. His message was that anyone with experience in politics was a corrupt insider and, indeed, that a lack of experience was the best qualification.

Since taking office, he has been largely consistent, purging experienced staff from agencies like the State Department and appointing officials who have no relevant experience and often have nothing but disdain for the mission of their agencies. It’s hardly a coincidence that plagiarism has become a regular occurrence among the Trump team — from Melania Trump’s convention speech to the cake at an inaugural ball to an aspiring assistant secretary’s master’s thesis. If the value of political expertise is less than negligible, then the theft of expertise is barely a transgression. (The Putin government is similarly afflicted: A number of cabinet ministers plagiarized material for their dissertations, as did the president himself.)

Mr. Trump has communicated repeatedly his apparent belief that the presidency should be a job of simple decisions and clear gestures. This was why during the campaign he reportedly asked a foreign policy adviser repeatedly why the United States can’t use nuclear weapons “if we have them.” That is why, in the wake of using the “mother of all bombs,” he bragged of giving the military “total authorization” — because why complicate things by restraining the generals? It is also why Mr. Trump announced on Thursday that the United States will pull out of the complex, sprawling, painstakingly negotiated Paris climate accord, which he apparently made no effort to understand but every effort to recast for his public in deceptive, primitive terms.

That is why Mr. Trump fired James Comey, the F.B.I. director. Mr. Comey was annoying, and Mr. Trump, the most powerful man in the world, wanted him to go away. In his subsequent interviews, he displayed a clear lack of comprehension of why the news media and the Washington establishment insisted on creating so many complications in the wake of such a simple act as dismissing an employee. The sequence of events that followed — from the appointment of a special counsel to Mr. Comey’s expected testimony in the Senate — would have been predictable in a conventional, complicated view of the political world. In the Trumpian universe, however, one effective gesture simply makes a problem go away.

Mr. Trump has admitted that being president is harder than he thought. He does not, however, appear to be humbled by this discovery. More likely, he is, in keeping with his understanding of politics, resentful because his opponents — his predecessor, the elites, the establishment — have made things so complicated. If they had not, things would be as he thinks they should be: One man would give orders, and they would be carried out. He would not have to deal with recalcitrant legislators or, worse, meddlesome investigators. One nation, with the biggest bombs in the world, would dominate every other country and would not have to concern itself with the endlessly intricate relationships among and between all those other countries. The United States would run like a business, an old-fashioned top-down company of the sort Mr. Trump used to run, the kind of company managed through the sheer exertion of power.

 Consider some of the latest revelations to have shocked the nation: Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, appears to have asked the Russian government, back in December, to provide the incoming administration with a secret communication channel based in Russian facilities. In the complicated world of American politics, Mr. Kushner’s behavior appears bizarre, dangerous and, most of all, inexplicable. In the Trumpian universe, there is likely to be a simple explanation, such as the incoming president’s desire to boast of a tremendous accomplishment before he took office, and his son-in-law’s being dispatched to negotiate an anti-terrorist alliance by making a few calls — the way Mr. Trump himself negotiated with Carrier, the air-conditioning company, a deal to keep several hundred jobs in the United States. Whatever the objective, pushing aside the accumulated national-security and foreign-relations expertise of the United States government came naturally to the budding Trump administration, which attacks institutions and attempts to render expertise irrelevant every step of the way.

 This is one way an autocracy can come into being. In other words, it is Mr. Trump’s insistence on simplicity that makes him want to rule like an autocrat. Militant incompetence and autocracy are not in opposition: They are two sides of a coin.

The Crack-Up

by Bob Ingram

Dorothy Parker looked down at Scott Fitzgerald in his coffin and offered her eulogy: “The poor son of a bitch.”
Shortly after, in 1945, Edmund Wilson collected Fitzgerald’s final Esquire essays into a book called The Crack-Up. The term has passed into common usage. We all pretty much know what it means, although now the preferred term is “losing it.”
Francis Scott Fitzgerald’s crack-up in all its sadness and tragedy still maintained the man’s inherent grace. He was that rare and now almost vanished person, a gentleman, even in his twisting downward spiral. Jesus, he wrote about his own crack-up, wrote with depth and awareness and humor and irony even as the waters closed over him. Now we call it “a class act.”
Guess who’s eminent crack-up is going to be totally classless, like the sordid life that has proceeded and produced it? Donald Trump will go down ugly and brutal, which is only apropos.
It is already beginning. The kitchen is too small and the heat is too high. “Covfefe” might be for Trump what “Rosebud” was for Charles Foster Kane.
I can’t believe they let him stagger around Europe and the Middle East like “a drunken tourist,” as an aide put it. And Trump doesn ‘t even drink. Maybe he should take it up.
He was “fatigued,” they said, from reading too much on AF One on the way over. TV and Diet Cokes, more like it. Lay’s Potato Chips. Two scoops of ice cream. Extra sauce. The dude is 70 years old and has the life habits of a pimply teenager.
You know how they show those pictures of how the presidents age over time? That’s over years. Trump is barely out of the gate and he’s looking totally raggedy already. Puffy, baggy eyes, skin like a cottonmouth, and he’s getting porky and moving with the grace of an aged anteater.
Our esteemed leader cannot take the pressure that is just beginning. Truly serious pressure from truly serious people. These aren’t caddies on his Scottish golf courses or hat-in-hand general contractors at one of his ticky-tacky building sites.
These are vetted, experienced Beltway veterans who have been around every block and know every alley and back door where frauds like Trump and his gang will look for refuge. There isn’t any. These people have time and resources and they will use them in their own way and the pressure will be unrelenting. These dogs hunt.
Trump will be finally, inescapably treed and he might snarl and tweet and offer up sacrifices, but in the end – one way or another – he will crack up. He Iacks the courage and moral fiber to withstand anything he cannot control. He is a sniveling, inveterate coward — a lowlife punk — and it will be there for all to see and then they will come for him.
And they will find him, like Nixon, wandering the ghostly halls of the mansion he has disgraced with his every breath, the distant dawn offering no reprieve. He will be alone in his crack-up as he has been alone in his life, trusting no one, loving no one, his shell now stripped for all the world to see the emptiness beneath it.
And recoil.