When the president tweeted out a boast claiming credit for the lack of commercial airplane fatalities in 2017, it seemed like a very typically Trumpian gesture. There were the familiar elements: boasting about a trend that long predated his administration (airplane crashes have been exceedingly rare for two decades), the random capitalization (“I have been very strict on Commercial Aviation… there were Zero deaths in 2017”), and the l’état-c’est-moi assumption of total responsibility.
But this claim also sounded a distinctly un-Trump-y theme. It was boring. Indeed, the absence of a plane crash is the prototypical example of a news story that never gets reported. This alleged historic achievement contained nothing Big or Beautiful or certain to make us all so Rich. It centered on the management of risk, a rare consideration for a president normally consumed with instant gratification.
Indeed, another tweet, later in the same day, reflected the more familiar Trump approach to risk management. In it, he topped Kim Jong-un’s boast of nuclear capability with his own boast of “bigger and more powerful” nuclear capability. So here, on the same day Trump was assuring the public that their chances of dying in a commercial plane crash remain exceedingly remote, he was elevating the risk that they will die in a massive nuclear holocaust. On the plus side, he got a fleeting sense of satisfaction from flaming an adversary on social media. The North Korea tweet is Trump’s usual idea of a shrewd long-term cost-benefit tradeoff.
During Trump’s year in office, a great many terrifying things have happened. But the most terrifying are the things that have not happened, yet. Most of them probably never will. But one nuclear war can ruin your whole day, and the same holds true of a wide array of low-probability disasters that have all grown less improbable under Trump.
Throughout Trump’s presidency, Michael Wolff observes, he has been “singularly focused on his own needs for instant gratification, be that a hamburger, a segment on Fox & Friends or an Oval Office photo opp.” This is not only a matter of cognitive ability. A monomaniacal obsession with the short term has characterized Trump’s entire career. He does not think strategically. He lives for the moment. Trump wrote in The Art of the Deal that he prefers to keep his workday unstructured, because “you can’t be imaginative or entrepreneurial if you’ve got too much structure. I prefer to work each day and just see what develops.” He makes decisions impulsively, has leveraged his assets precariously — “I’m the king of debt,” he bragged — and went into bankruptcy six times. He specialized in unethical maneuvers that enabled him to take short-term profits while burning his partners — like tunneling money out of his failing casinos, defrauding customers, or refusing to pay contractors the agreed-upon price.
Why, besides ethics, haven’t more business owners tried Trump’s patented method of ripping people off? Because over the long run it poisons your ability to find willing partners. Indeed, mainstream banks eventually refused to deal with Trump, which is what led to his unusual dependence on Russia and other shady foreign sources for capital. In many ways, his presidency has followed the arc of his business career — short-term leverage plays that benefit Trump and his inner circle before his counter-parties wise up.
The Republican Party’s hostility to government has made it a willing partner for much of this agenda. Many, if not most, functions of government are designed to mitigate risk. Social insurance protects individuals from the risk of outliving their savings, or of facing unaffordable medical costs. Economic regulation protects society from dangers like financial risk, environmental danger, or crime and other social disorder. Laissez-faire ideology often amounts to an acceptance of greater risk. (This is a basic description of the trade-off, which holds regardless of whether you think Republicans are generally eliminating regulations that are important or unnecessarily burdensome.) By scaling back access to health insurance, they would expose more people to the risk of high medical bills, for the benefit of enjoying lower taxes and premiums right away. Much of their deregulatory agenda would allow business to operate more cheaply by taking fewer precautions to protect workers, consumers, and the environment.
Trump has embraced this aspect of Republican dogma to a degree that goes well beyond even the staunch pro-business style of government seen under Reagan and other modern Republican presidents. The Trump administration’s mania for reducing federal power runs so deep that it can be difficult to tell where deregulatory fervor ends and incompetence begins. Large portions of the federal bureaucracy simply lie vacant, leaving its remaining workforce puzzled whether they are the victims of deliberate neglect or a president unable to staff the Executive branch.
Coverage of Trump’s erratic behavior and spectacular crack-ups has obscured a spate of news stories chronicling a pattern across the breadth of the federal government. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has gutted his workforce and driven out hundreds of experienced career diplomats, leaving the department a shell. The Department of Energy — which, among other things, safeguards the nuclear arsenal from espionage, theft, and accident — has been disastrously mismanaged, as Michael Lewis described in horrifying detail. Trump has appointed nobody to run the Office of Science and Technology Policy. His administration has denigrated, and proposed a 25 percent budget cut for, the Office of Financial Research, a brain center created after the 2008 economic meltdown to help policy makers assess systemic risk in the financial system. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which protects against threats like pandemics and bioterrorism, has hundreds of positions vacant. The Department of Justice “has begun 2018 without Senate-confirmed leaders in at least six of its most important divisions,” reports NPR.
The same story has played out across the federal government, where the workforce has shrunk across the board — not through any planned reforms, but through neglect and decay that drives away the most talented employees (who can most easily obtain better jobs elsewhere) leaving behind leaderless and demoralized bureaucrats teetering on dysfunctionality. Any modern state, and especially one that has assumed a leadership role in the liberal international order, requires competent administrators to protect its citizens from a wide array of disasters. They serve as a form of insurance. You can cancel your insurance policy and have some more money in your pocket right away. But when you are insuring yourself against as many risks as the federal government does — financial crises, wars, natural disasters, disease outbreak, terrorism, and on and on — the cumulative risk grows that something, or several things, will go terribly wrong.
One precursor for this pattern is the Bush administration, whose disdain for technocratic expertise led directly to its catastrophically underplanned invasion of Iraq. None of the correct lessons from Bush’s failure have taken hold within the party. Instead, Trump is intensifying the same errors. Where Bush — and, especially, Dick Cheney — regarded his diplomats in the State Department and experts at the Central Intelligence Agency with suspicion, Trump looks at them with almost blinding hatred. The Russia investigation has caused Trump to regard the entire security and law enforcement apparatus of the federal government as a hostile “deep state.”
Trump would therefore be predisposed to ignore briefings and intelligence even if he were a shrewd, high-functioning populist demagogue. He is obviously not. Washington has grown consumed with concern about the president’s mental functioning. A psychiatrist recently briefed some senators on Trump’s mental fitness. His public actions and speech patterns suggest the possibility of serious cognitive impairment.
What is most evident is the lack of strategy or planning. Because Trump lurches from day to day, his advisers are forced to do the same. They have held him off from blowing up the Iran nuclear agreement with a series of delaying tactics. Almost every day brings a new leak from an adviser terrified the president will blunder into war with North Korea. “You just don’t know what’s going to send him over the edge,” one tells Axios. This can be seen merely by following Trump’s Twitter feed, where he has conducted public diplomacy with Kim Jong-un almost precisely the same way he carried out his social media feud with Rosie O’Donnell.
A war with North Korea that could kill millions is merely one of the skyrocketing risks that Trump has created. Our brains have difficulty measuring low-probability, high-impact events like this. The chipper stock market seems to have paid them no heed whatsoever.
But the notion that Trump would represent a massive gamble was present in the minds of his supporters all along. Michael Anton, now the White House director of strategic communications at the National Security Council, wrote a famous essay before the election casting a Trump presidency as a desperate and probably doomed gamble akin to passengers on hijacked Flight 93 rushing the cockpit. Trump ally Peter Thiel has told friends, “There is a 50 percent chance this whole thing ends in disaster.” Trump, his inner circle, and political allies are all currently cashing in on the short-term upside of a massive leveraged gamble with America’s future. The cost can only be dimly imagined in our nightmares.