Friday, April 7, 2017
David Brooks: The Coming Incompetence Crisis, or Those who ignore history are condemned to retweet it
Trump’s greatest achievements are in the field of ignorance. Up until this period I had always thought of ignorance as a void, as an absence of knowledge. But Trump’s ignorance is not just an absence; it is a rich, intricate and entirely separate universe of negative information, a sort of fertile intellectual antimatter with its own gravitational pull.
I just read that the Trump administration has filled only 22 of the 553 key positions that require Senate confirmation. This makes me worry that the administration will not have enough manpower to produce the same volume and standard of incompetence that we’ve come to expect so far. Granted, in its first few months the administration has produced an impressive amount of ineptitude with very few people. On his worst days Sean Spicer can produce more errors than 10 normal men on their best days. Kellyanne Conway can flail her way through television confrontations 24/7 and still have the stamina to lose to the Teletubbies on Saturday morning.The White House staffing system is successfully answering the question, How many scorpions can you fit in a bottle? And in general, the personnel process has been so rigorous in its selection of inexperience that those who were hired on the basis of mere nepotism look like Dean Acheson by comparison.
But still, I worry that at the current pace the Trump administration is going to run out of failure. So far, we’ve lived in a golden age of malfunction. Every major Trump initiative has been blocked or has collapsed, relationships with Congress are disastrous, the president’s approval ratings are at cataclysmic lows. But can this last? By midsummer, during the high vacation and indictment season, we could see empty hallways in the West Wing and a disorienting incompetence shortage emanating from Washington. The executive branch could simply go dark. CNN’s ratings will plummet. Columnists will wither and die. Liberals will have to go without the delicious current of schadenfreude and their daily ritual baths of moral superiority. Now I’m not underestimating the president’s own capacity for carrying on in an incompetent manner almost indefinitely. I don’t think we’ve reached peak Trump.
The normal incompetent person flails and stammers and is embarrassed about it. But the true genius at incompetence like our president flails and founders and is too incompetent to recognize his own incompetence. He mistakes his catastrophes for successes and so accelerates his pace toward oblivion. Those who ignore history are condemned to retweet it.
Trump’s greatest achievements are in the field of ignorance. Up until this period I had always thought of ignorance as a void, as an absence of knowledge. But Trump’s ignorance is not just an absence; it is a rich, intricate and entirely separate universe of negative information, a sort of fertile intellectual antimatter with its own gravitational pull. It’s not so much that he isn’t well informed; it’s that he is prodigiously learned in the sort of knowledge that doesn’t accord with the facts of our current dimension. It is in its own way a privilege to be alive at the same time as a man who is the Albert Einstein of confirmation bias, a man whose most impressive wall is the one between himself and evidence, a man who doesn’t need to go off in search of enemies because he is already his own worst one.
But even Trump will eventually hit the limits of human endurance. I know what it is like to be profoundly incompetent, and it is exhausting. Just to take a small example by way of illustration, in the days before GPS I was (and remain) profoundly incompetent at comprehending driving directions. I would ask for directions and all would start off normally: “Go down Fourth Street and take a right on Poplar.” But then all would slide into a fog of incomprehensibility and I would keep nodding furiously to try to persuade the person that I could follow what was being said: “Then you toggle over that spur of the thruway that goes under the overpass before the six roundabouts of the gargle.” By this time entire hemispheres of my brain had shut down, and as the person kept talking, my entire existence slipped into a catatonic mist: “After that it’s just six wheedles up the perplex and after a quick stop at the bolint it’s the 27th driveway on the right.” The incompetent person in the Trump administration has to live in that stupor shroud every day.
So I hope the Trump team learns to delegate — carelessness in one office, backbiting in another. I hope the president continues to play golf (I don’t get those progressive critics who say Trump is ruining the world and then they complain because he takes time off). I hope his team continues to take advantage of the fact that it takes only one inexperienced stooge to undo the accomplishments of 100 normal workers. And I hope it continues to negatively surpass all expectations. I remain a full-fledged member in the community of the agog.
One of the things I’ve learned about incompetence over the past few months is that it is radically nonlinear. Competent people go in one of a few directions. But incompetence is infinite. The human imagination is not capacious enough to comprehend all the many ways the Trumpians can find to screw this thing up.