I make it a habit not to read books about politics, especially books about Donald Trump, because my sanity can only withstand so much. However, the “gaslight” category got me thinking about maybe breaking that rule. I had a copy of The Fifth Risk on my shelf, and I figured if anybody could get me through this, it would be financial journalist and nonfiction author of The Big Short and Moneyball, Michael Lewis.
The Fifth Risk describes the transition between the Obama and Trump administrations after the 2016 election. As always, Lewis presents complex ideas and hard-to-stomach truths in an entertaining and easy-to-understand manner. But even I underestimated how quickly this book would terrify me. Care to take a guess? If you said end of paragraph 1 on page 1, you’re a winner!
The story begins in February 2016, with ex-New Jersey Governor Chris Christie reading an article in the New York Times about meetings between the Obama White House and all the political candidates still in the presidential race (standard practice with every presidential race, because running a country takes some planning, it turns out). Christie couldn’t figure out why Trump was sending a guy to those meetings who knew nothing about government. He called Trump’s campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, and asked why they didn’t send someone qualified. Lewandowski’s response: “We don’t have anyone.”
That’s just the teaser. Things got much worse.
It’s not too late to turn back and read about that island of creepy dolls instead.
Apparently Trump believed that he and Chris Christie could leave the victory party a couple hours early and bang out a transition plan between them, because they are a couple of smart guys (never mind that Christie was eventually dismissed from the transition team because Jared Kushner didn’t like him for having prosecuted Kushner’s father a decade earlier). Never mind that well-known sociopath Steve Bannon even thought that Trump handling the transition by himself was insane (“Holy fuck, this guy [Trump] doesn’t know anything. And he doesn’t give a shit.”). On November 9, 2016, employees of every government agency waited for Trump team members to show up to learn what was happening in their respective areas, as newly elected administrations have been doing for decades. Nobody showed up. When people did finally start showing up weeks or months later, they had their own agendas and no interest in what the current administration was doing. As one government employee pointed out, you didn’t need to agree with the current administration or plan to continue the same policies, but you did need to know why the policies were in place and how the decisions to get there were made. At least, that’s what people believed until 2016.
With apologies to the legendary Jean Hagen
It’s easy to pin all the stupid on the Trump administration, and believe me, there’s enough stupid there to have us all wading around in thigh-highs, but many politicians are ignorant about the extent of the government’s responsibilities. Remember how Rick Perry said, in a Presidential debate, that he wanted to eliminate the Department of Energy?
To be fair, what he actually said was, “Oops.”
Do you have any idea what the Department of Energy does? Lewis writes, “Roughly half of the DOE’s annual $30 billion budget is spent on maintaining and guarding our nuclear arsenal. Two billion of that goes to hunting down weapons-grade plutonium and uranium at loose in the world so that it doesn’t fall into the hands of terrorists. . . . If nuclear power plants around the world are not producing weapons-grade material on the sly by reprocessing spent fuel rods and recovering plutonium, it’s because of these people.” In case you’ve forgotten, Mr. Can’t-Count-To-Three was put in charge of that same department he considered eliminating from 2017 to 2019.
Lewis also addresses the importance of other agencies that we tend to not think about very often, such as the USDA, the Department of Transportation, and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and how these agencies use data for public benefit. After Trump took office, access to data disappeared. “Both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Interior removed from their website links to climate change data. The USDA removed the inspection reports of businesses accused of animal abuse by the government. The new acting head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Mick Mulvaney, said he wanted to end public access to records of consumer complaints against financial institutions. Two weeks after Hurricane Maria, statistics that detailed access to drinking water and electricity in Puerto Rico were deleted from the FEMA website.” Data is information, and information is power.
This is not a partisan book. Sources have positive things to say about the transition between the Bush and Obama administrations. As stated earlier, you don’t need to agree with policies, but you have to understand them and how they came about. The sources are never identified by their political ideologies; in fact, they seem to care about the mission and the science more than anything else. In some ways, this book is a tribute to the unsung government workers who do so much more to serve the people of the United States than most of us will ever realize. Most of them could make a lot more money in private industries, but they choose to work for the federal government. As Lewis writes, “There was a rift in American life that was now coursing through American government. It wasn’t between Democrats and Republicans. It was between the people who were in it for the mission, and the people who were in it for the money.”
I have one complaint about this book. While it is an entertaining (though frightening) read, it does seem to have been rushed out the door a bit. Michael Lewis tells a compelling story, but there’s no wrap-up. It’s divided into three main segments plus the introduction, and it really needed an afterword to pull it all together.
That said, I do recommend reading this. It was written in 2018, and I’m glad I didn’t read it then, or I’d be having some serious panic attacks (even worse than the ones I currently have when I open my web browser every morning). As the rift between those in it for the mission and those in it for the money grows wider, it’s important for people to understand that there is more to running a government than even the smartest of us realizes.