I never thought I’d be grateful for incompetence, but that was before Trump.
Paul Krugman recently addressed the “qualifications” of several of Trump’s appointees, under the headline “The Gang That Couldn’t Think Straight.”
A few days after President Trump was inaugurated, Benjamin Wittes, editor of the influential Lawfare blog, came up with a pithy summary of the new administration: “malevolence tempered by incompetence.” A year later, that rings truer than ever.
In fact, this has been a big week for malevolence. But today’s column will focus on the incompetence, whose full depths — and consequences — we’re just starting to see.
Krugman then takes readers on a stroll through some of those “best people” Trump promised us. There’s FEMA, of course–over half of Puerto Ricans still lack electricity, and the delivery of food and water is, shall we say, less than optimal.
And what about that opiod epidemic? As Krugman notes, we’ve heard rhetoric, but seen zero action. Recently, however, Trump has chosen a nominee to handle that effort: a 24-year-old former campaign worker, with no relevant experience and who, it appears, has lied on his résumé . Trump has been in office a year, and is just getting around to appointing someone to an important senior position in the Office of National Drug Control Policy. You might think, given that length of time, that his administration would have at least vetted their potential nominee.
Meanwhile, the Trump-appointed director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention resigned after Politico reported that she had purchased tobacco-industry stocks after taking office. This was unethical; it was also deeply stupid. And the C.D.C. isn’t some marginal agency: It’s as crucial to safeguarding American lives as, say, the Department of Homeland Security.
As Krugman notes, these aren’t isolated examples. A lot has been made of the fact that so many positions in the administration remain unfilled a year into the President’s term; there has been less public discussion about the unprecedented number of appointees who have been forced out over falsified credentials, unethical practices or racist remarks.
The obvious question is “why”? Why are so many positions unfilled? And why are so many of the people who have been appointed so…undistinguished (to put it mildly)? (Okay–ragingly incompetent.) Krugman says it reflects both supply and demand: “Competent people don’t want to work for Trump, and he and his inner circle don’t want them anyway.”
I have a number of former students who work for government agencies; they aren’t at the “appointee” level–they are the “faceless bureaucrats” who actually keep government functioning. When Trump was elected, I got anguished emails from several of them, asking whether they should stay or go. Most elected to remain, explicitly to protect the missions of the agencies they serve.
At the level of appointees, however, it is hard to disagree with Krugman’s statement that competent people don’t want to work for Trump. The likelihood of emerging from his cesspool unscathed diminishes every day. (Would you hire Sean Spicer? Kellyanne Conway? Any of the current White House doofuses? )
By now it’s obvious to everyone that the Trump administration is a graveyard for reputations: Everyone who goes in comes out soiled and diminished. Only fools, or those with no reputation to lose, even want the positions on offer. And in any case, Trump, who values personal loyalty above professionalism, probably distrusts anyone whose credentials might give some sense of independence.
Krugman goes on to point out the dangers inherent in incompetence, and I know he’s right. But I’m just grateful; think how much more damage these yahoos could cause if they actually knew what they were doing!