Jacob S. Hacker is a professor of political science at Yale University and the author of “The Great Risk Shift: The New Economic Insecurity and the Decline of the American Dream.”
On Nov. 8, 2016, in an elegant townhouse in Northwest Washington, current and former Obama administration officials gathered to celebrate the election returns. By the end of the night, they were wondering what they could say to their career staffers as a radically different ruling class descended on Washington.
This is the story that prefaces “The Best People,” an essential exposé of the first two years of the Trump administration written by the veteran journalist Alexander Nazaryan. Other books have provided richer detail or surveyed a broader panorama, but this is the first to fully capture just how dysfunctional — and destructive — Trump’s executive branch has turned out to be.
“The Best People” takes its title from a promise by Trump early in his improbable campaign. Distancing himself from Roger Stone, the GOP bad boy who now faces multiple criminal charges, Trump boasted: “I’m going to surround myself only with the best and most serious people. We want top-of-the-line professionals.” That Trump would soon cycle through such top-of-the-line professionals as Corey Lewandowski and Paul Manafort should have raised red flags. But even the outward cast of his campaign could not have prepared Washington for just how far from the best the Trump team would be.
Nazaryan’s narrative starts like one of those redemptive family memoirs. Trump is the distant, mercurial father; his Cabinet, squabbling, ne’er-do-well children vainly seeking his warmth. Only in this filial saga, the redemption never happens, the hero never shows up. Instead, kleptocrats and incompetents are replaced by sycophants and functionaries — the latter, ironically, even more capable of dismantling effective governance. Thus, at the Environmental Protection Agency the grandiose Scott Pruitt gave way to the anonymous Andrew Wheeler. Yet the quiet coal industry lobbyist has proved much better than the preening Pruitt at eroding the legacy not just of Democrats Barack Obama and Bill Clinton but also of Republicans Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush (champions of the EPA and the Clean Air Act, respectively).
I once thought that Trump’s executive branch could be divided into two groups: clueless plutocrats such as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and calculating ideologues such as Mick Mulvaney (the anti-government conservative who started as Office of Management and Budget director, then, after a stint gutting the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, became acting White House chief of staff, essentially running Trump’s domestic policy). I am now convinced that, with the notable exception of former defense secretary Jim Mattis, and perhaps departed chief of staff John Kelly, virtually everyone Trump tapped for leadership has had bad motives, bad manners and bad ideas, and we’re just lucky so many of them proved bad at their jobs, too.
The missteps and misdeeds of Trump’s team have been so flagrant and frequent that their cumulative effect is more exhaustion than outrage. (And apparently they have no respect for publishing deadlines: Since I received the advance copy of Nazaryan’s book, at least five top officials have resigned or been fired, including Labor Secretary Alex Acosta — for his role in a 2008 sweetheart plea deal for Jeffrey Epstein — and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.) In an executive branch where “acting director” may as well be permanently affixed to Cabinet-meeting nametags, who can even remember those innocent days when Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price toured the country on taxpayer-funded private jets while trying to persuade wavering Republicans to strip health insurance from 30 million Americans?
After all, no sooner had Price resigned than Pruitt found himself in the same jam — though, in fairness, he was more successful in trashing essential protections from within his lavishly decorated and elaborately secured office. Shortly thereafter, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke was tweet-fired by Trump amid a dozen investigations into his extravagant use of taxpayer funds — for example, summoning the U.S. Park Police to investigate a car idling in his neighborhood. By then, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s conjugal viewing of the solar eclipse (taxpayer bill: $33,000) or Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson’s dining room set ($31,000) barely left a blip in the collective conscience.
Most of these tragicomedies are well known. Yet, by tracing their common threads, Nazaryan drives home the sheer breadth of the damage they’ve inflicted. In his telling, the outrageous behavior was just the surface manifestation of a deeper contempt for government and those whom government is meant to serve. What Trump didn’t give to hacks and fixers he outsourced to the Heritage Foundation and the Federalist Society. Some destroyed by design; others through inattention and incompetence. The result was less Team of Rivals than Game of Thrones: petty tyrants betraying their own armies as they sought to win the favor of an imperious leader with even less interest in good governance than they had.
Nazaryan captures the cluelessness and corruption well; he is less strong on the radicalism behind it all. He rightly sees Pruitt’s and Zinke’s deregulatory depredations as a marker of the GOP’s descent into industry-friendly anti-statism. Yet he also suggests that Trump was somehow thwarted by his underlings, at one point even describing him as “a president held hostage by a party to which he barely belonged.”
In fact, the most egregious acts were most consistent with Trump’s feral philosophy and with the aims of a Republican Party that is now decidedly his. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross (a billionaire who seems to be the reason the word “vulpine” was invented) was not acting on private impulses when he sought to put a question about citizenship on the decennial census, overriding Census Bureau officials who said it would discourage nonnative residents from responding. He was acting on his boss’s and his party’s anti-immigrant fervor and oft-displayed interest in reducing the representation of poorer and darker-skinned citizens.
Nor is it likely that Trump loses sleep over his Federalist Society Supreme Court, a counter-majoritarian bulwark that has sanctioned most of the voter suppression, partisan gerrymandering and plutocratic influence-buying — er, free speech — that has helped fuel the radicalization of the Republican Party. Bizarre behavior shouldn’t be allowed to obscure basic instinct: Trump is not a break with the Republican Party’s drift toward anti-government extremism; he is a funhouse mirror reflection of it.
The Obama officials who nibbled hors d’oeuvres on election night may well have believed that, in Nazaryan’s words, “they had gathered to celebrate the handing-over of the federal government to people just as accomplished as they.” But had Hillary Clinton won, people just as accomplished as they would have faced political dysfunction and GOP obstruction much greater than anything the Obama administration had confronted. It would be far preferable if dedicated public servants who believed in expertise ran the executive branch. But unless we fix our broken politics — and a broken party — even the best can only do so much.
By Alexander Nazaryan
270 pp. $28