This Ezra Klein piece on risk management has some good things in it, but it also irritated me quite a bit. Here is the lede:
A few months ago, I had dinner with a friend who argued that it was time to rethink Donald Trump’s presidency. After all, the economy was fine, we hadn’t ended up in a nuclear war, and the tough posture toward China was paying some trade dividends. Maybe the madman routine was working. Maybe it really was just a routine, and Trump was managing the presidency well enough. Wasn’t it time for critics like me to rethink their most dire warnings? Wasn’t it time to admit we’d gotten him wrong?
There were, even then, obvious rebuttals, and I made some of them. The lethal mismanagement of the Hurricane Maria response, for instance. But there was a power to the argument. The worst hadn’t happened. Didn’t that require a reckoning?
No, it did not. (I really hope this “friend” is a narrative device, and Klein isn’t actually on intimate social terms with somebody who was both sufficiently dimwitted and sufficiently fascist-adjacent to make such an argument).
“We put a malevolent imbecile in charge and nothing bad has happened yet” is, in fact, the way really stupid people think about things. Leaving aside that as of a few months ago many terrible things had in fact happened as a result of the Trump administration — Klein gestures at this but doesn’t provide any details besides mentioning the non-response to Hurricane Maria — playing Russian roulette with the nation doesn’t become a better choice because the first couple of trigger pulls didn’t set the gun off.
In my younger and more vulnerable years I drove a car while significantly intoxicated a number of times. How many precisely I wouldn’t hazard to guess but it was certainly several. (When it comes to alcohol I’m a lightweight, so I definitely shouldn’t have been driving ten minutes after finishing a third beer.)
I never got caught and I never got into an accident. What does this prove about the hazards of drunk driving? Obviously nothing, because anecdotes are not data. Getting lucky doesn’t make stupid decisions less stupid. But there’s another more important point here: Arguments about Trump routinely conflate his total worthlessness as a human being with the evil ideology his presidency more or less randomly advances, i.e., authoritarian revanchist ethno-nationalist conservatism. Klein again:
We play for the highest of stakes. We must do what we can to improve our odds.
No one bears a heavier burden in that respect than the US president. But Trump is reckless with his charge. That reflects, perhaps, his own life experience. He has taken tremendous risks, and if they have led him to the edge of ignominy and bankruptcy, they have also led him to the presidency.
This is the sort of bad writing that can turn an otherwise well-functioning brain to mush. Trump’s risk-taking has not “led him to the edge of ignominy and bankruptcy” — it has sent him far over that edge and hurtling into a financial and moral void, many times. Trump is a bankrupt and a moral degenerate, and this kind of pretending that he’s somehow something else is just another way of minimizing and rationalizing what a catastrophe making him president was and is, just as Klein’s friend minimized and rationalized that decision at the beginning of the piece.
But Klein engages in another sort of minimizing and rationalizing:
The only way to manage that much risk effectively is to manage the government effectively. But Trump has never pretended to do that, or to want to do that. This can sometimes be mistaken for conservative ideology, but it’s more properly understood as disinterest.
Trump likes being the protagonist in the international drama that is America. He doesn’t want to make sure the world’s most massive, complex, and sprawling bureaucracy is well-run. He has shown little interest in nurturing the parts of the federal government that spend their time worrying about risk. His proposed budgets are thick with cuts to those departments, his proposed appointees often manifestly incompetent, his comments marinated in disrespect for the institution he oversees.
Oh my Jesus. This is contemporary American conservatism in a nutshell. Contempt for expertise, hatred and fear of bureaucracy, nepotism and cronyism transformed into ideology — if the government is just a big grift anyway, interfering with the wonders of the Invisible Hand, why not let your friends make a profit from it while drowning it in a bathtub? — it’s all there. That’s not Trump, that’s the Republican party.
Yes, Trump is an astoundingly horrible person in terms of pure character: If you were to rank the 44 men who have been president of the United States in terms of the half dozen most important character traits that a president should have, he would rank dead last in every single one, usually by a mile. But he also represents a horrible ideology. Indeed the only “good” thing about him is that his complete degeneracy as a human being interferes with the efficient advancement of that ideology.
The Republican party is an eschatological death cult being exploited by various laissez faire looters, who aim to steal everything that’s not nailed down before the opening of the Seventh Seal. That Donald Trump is currently astride this rough beast is not exactly bad luck.