How reverse Darwinian selection afflicts Trump’s Washington
In the 1960s, at the very dawn of the New Right rebellion, William F. Buckley, Jr., declared that he would rather be governed by persons selected from the phone directory than the faculty of Harvard. Conservative egghead bashing has a long pedigree, and even Buckley, an aspiring patrician with one of the most laboriously affected accents ever heard, felt obliged to join in the populist trolling.
Over the succeeding five decades, the conservative movement and its chosen vehicle, the Republican Party, have substantially achieved the goal of systematically devaluing expertise, thereby accomplishing one of their most cherished ideological goals: to prove to the American people that government doesn’t work.
As I have written before, the Republican push for non-expertise got a big boost during the Gingrich speakership. It continued its long march through institutions during the riotously incompetent planning and conduct of the Iraq war under George W. Bush, and has reached ghastly perfection with Donald Trump.
Just look at a few of the uniquely awful Trump personnel at the top tier: Mike Pompeo, John Bolton, Stephen Miller, Ben Carson, Betsy DeVos, departing Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Their unsuitability is matched by Trump appointees at lower levels.
The conclusion is inescapable: one could get better people for the jobs by recruiting candidates from the checkout line at a dollar store. Would such people be qualified for their positions? Probably not. But they might occasionally heed reasonable advice rather than reflexively doing the opposite, and they almost certainly would not unanimously possess the iron and unerring resolve of the current Trump team always to do the stupid, unethical or immoral thing.
Recently leaked vetting documents show what the Trump administration looks for in personnel. Despite warnings that former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt and former HHS Secretary Tom Price had considerable ethics and management problems, they were hired anyway. In their jobs, they proceeded to demonstrate just those same qualities the administration had been warned about.
Their downfall was less the result of their grifting and self-dealing than the fact that the capo in the White House was irritated by the conspicuous swaggering of these two arrogant underlings. They ought to have realized that such public flaunting of their bad-assery is reserved for the mob boss and his immediate family.
The vetting criteria for General David Petraeus, who was mooted for either secretary of state or national security adviser, are particularly telling. There were legitimate grounds for rejecting Petraeus: he was a major player in the Iraq debacle, a policy disaster that Trump roundly condemned during his campaign. The general’s government career as CIA director ended abruptly when the FBI found he had been sharing code-word level classified information with his lover, who just happened not to be his wife. Petraeus compounded the damage by lying to the FBI.
But why was he rejected for a position in the Trump administration? Vetting personnel at the Republican National Committee “red flagged” Petraeus because he opposed torture – possibly the one unambiguously praiseworthy thing about the man.
As with personnel, so inevitably with policy. Flipping a coin before deciding among critical policy options would seem statistically to produce a better result than what we have seen in the Trump administration. By some strange reverse-Darwinian principle, Trump and his coat-holders invariably default to the worst conceivable option. Examples follow.
Let us imagine you are in charge and want to improve this country’s terms of trade with China. Three broad options present themselves:
- Enact long-term, non-tariff, World Trade Organization-compliant measures to restructure the US economy, such as tax benefits for manufacturing, programs for apprenticeships, tax incentives for companies that hire manufacturing labor, and various encouragements to American firms for on-shore production.
- Risk a tariff war with China by imposing duties on its imports, but first get our allies (who are also damaged by Chinese behavior) on board so that there is a united policy front. This move would prevent export shifting by China to those countries, and hinder it from working side-deals with them that would undermine U.S. economic goals.
- Get into a tariff war with the second-largest economy in the world on our own because we made superhuman efforts to systematically alienate our allies and non-Chinese trading partners.
Of course, Trump picked option 3 because it was objectively the worst option.
Now, let's try tax cuts:
- Enact tax cuts for low and middle income people, but make them revenue neutral by increasing marginal rates on the rich, taxing non-productive or destructive Wall Street practices, and by closing absurd loopholes like the one that results in a hedge fund manager paying taxes at a lower rate than his secretary or a cab driver.
- OK, let’s now assume you’re not fiscally responsible: tax cuts for everybody and they're not paid for, but the cuts are heavily biased towards low and middle income people on the principle that the wealthy already got a huge windfall from the Bush tax cuts.
- Enact tax cuts that are theoretically for everybody, but in reality 83 percent of the dollar value will go to the top one percent of individuals. Oh, and the revenue loss blows the deficit through the roof, even in a nominally booming economy.
Naturally, Trump, with united assistance from the Republican Congress, chose option 3.
Now let us assume that for some reason you are dissatisfied with the Iran nuclear agreement (The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) that your predecessor signed. Let us run though the options:
- Recognize that for all the generalized railing against it because the plan was the handiwork of the Obama administration, and for all the massive financial pressure of the Israel Lobby, Iran had been compliant with JCPOA’s terms. The agreement is the best single means of preventing that country from becoming a nuclear-armed state, and, like our arms agreements with the old Soviet Union, it is inherently imperfect but better than other options, like war.
- Articulate which provisions of the agreement are technically defective rather than just ranting about JCPOA without ever having read it. Engage diplomatically with the other signatories of JCPOA to amend the agreement.
- Unilaterally withdraw from the agreement, alienate the other countries guaranteeing JCPOA by making them potentially subject to the additional sanctions you are imposing on Iran (which, it must be repeated, was complying with the agreement), and engage in juvenile trash talk and saber-rattling. Put a cherry on the cake, even as you claim you want a diplomatic solution, by sanctioning the leader and foreign minister of Iran, thus making it impossible for the Europeans or anyone else to engage with the country diplomatically.
The answer to the Iran policy conundrum is of course now playing out in the news headlines.
Throughout American history, there has always been a strident minority opinion that aggressive and self-righteous stupidity is nobler and more virtuous in the sight of God than prudent and circumspect intelligence. This view now controls most of our government and is in a position to make its will the law of the land. Sooner or later, we shall see whether the higher laws of natural selection act to weed out stupidity in as spectacular and unpleasant a fashion as occurred with the Habsburg and Ottoman empires.