None of his business

With this new virus and all, I'm starting to think that giving Trump the reins of the federal bureaucracy was a mistake

Welcome back to The Long Version, a newsletter by Jonathan Myerson Katz.

On May 8, 2018, Donald Trump made what could turn out to be the defining mistake of his life: He fired the top White House official in charge of planning for a global disease pandemic, Adm. R. Timothy Ziemer, and disbanded his global health security team.

The president is starting to realize, if not how bad that was, at least how bad it looks. Last Friday, he barked at PBS correspondent Yamiche Alcindor for asking about it. Then he stammered, like an arrested mobster: “I didn’t do it … I don’t know anything about it.”

That realization is late. Just two weeks earlier—when even paltrier testing meant the number of confirmed U.S. cases of Covid-19 was even lower—the president defended his fatal paring down of health officials, telling a White House press briefing that: “Some of the people we cut, they haven’t been used for many, many years.”

“I’m a business person,” Trump explained. “I don’t like having thousands of people around when you don’t need them.”

At that moment, Trump was exactly who most of his supporters voted for in 2016: the outspoken businessman who would ignore the experts and shake up the government. The idea that the problems out there were caused by some nebulous them (or (((them)))) pulling the strings, that all of government was a swamp, and that a board-game businessman alone had the balls and brains to fix it had obvious appeal to those convinced they wouldn’t get hurt in the bargain.

Allowing the reins of the federal bureaucracy to pass into the hands of someone that ignorant, corrupt, and self-interested, it’s safe to say, was our greatest mistake. It happened because millions of people still have a fundamental misunderstanding of what government does, and can do.

The Long Version

A hundred years ago, when another pandemic virus was ravaging the world, another political outsider was in the White House. Woodrow Wilson had spent just two years in elective office, as governor of New Jersey, before running for president. Way unlike Trump, most of that career was as a scholar, helping create the field of political science.

When Wilson began his studies, the United States was a third-rate regional power ruled by officially sanctioned corruption. Back then, Americans broadly accepted that when a new president took power, he would fire his predecessor’s appointees and hand their jobs to his party loyalists and campaign supporters. Politicians defended this “spoils system.” “Administrations don’t make parties,” the New York Republican boss and U.S. senator Roscoe Conkling boomed in 1877. “Parties go before administrations and live after them.”

Professor Wilson disagreed. He echoed his contemporaries, such as Max Weber, in calling for a “sharp line … between those offices which are political and those which are non-political or administrative.” Hiring for federal jobs on merit, he said, would help make government functions more effective and “buisnesslike.”

The future president anticipated the backlash. To those who feared this would create an “offensive official class,” Wilson promised the opposite. “It will not be the creation of permanent officials, but of statesmen whose responsibility to public opinion will be direct and inevitable.”

Reform won out. In 1883, President Chester Arthur signed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, which created a new class of federal jobs to be assigned on the basis of competitive exams. It also made it illegal to fire or demote such officials for political reasons. When Wilson became president, from 1913-1921, he oversaw the largest expansion of the professional federal bureaucracy of his time. In 1939, the Hatch Act banned most executive branch employees from participating in explicitly political activities. Congress instituted further reforms in the aftermath of Watergate.

Everything was great from then on, and nothing bad ever happened again, the end.

Psych.

Politics and administration kept mixing in ways the reformers realized, and others they didn’t. As president, Wilson began to fear that the new bureaucracy was too powerful for a democracy to control. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to him that his despicable administrative legacy—overseeing the racial segregation of the civil service—was a result of his lifelong racist bias, not “scientific” rationale.

In an even more urgent example, Wilson’s quasi-dictatorial censorship measures during World War I helped make the 1918 flu the deadliest respiratory disease outbreak in American history, at least so far. Professionalized administration did not keep the economy from crashing in 1929 or 2007. Bureaucrats actively helped politicians throw bodies into the meat grinders of the Vietnam, Afghan, and Iraq Wars.

But haltingly, sometimes paradoxically, the attempts to keep the professional bureaucracy from being infected by individual parties or cults of personality paid off. Generations went into government imbued with the idea that their ultimate goal was to serve the public and improve society somewhat.

Take Thomas Frieden, Obama’s CDC director. The Columbia-educated physician had been a model of a career public servant: a New York City public health official under two Republican mayors (Giuliani and Bloomberg), and an advisor to the World Bank and World Health Organization.

Frieden and his CDC showcased both the advantages of a professional bureaucracy, and its shortcomings. Along with the World Health Organization, it helped the United Nations cover up its guilt in introducing cholera to Haiti. After he stepped down on the day of Trump’s inauguration, Frieden was forced to settle charges of sexual abuse and harassment.

But Frieden’s CDC also took seriously the full name of the organization: the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It helped local officials contain and manage the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, sticking to science and ignoring the racist fearmongering of, well, Donald Trump.

In 2011, his staff advised Steven Soderbergh on his movie Contagion, in hopes of preparing the public for they might expect if a novel virus was allowed to spread around the world. He talked at the time about what the CDC’s experts did out of sight, every day, to keep billions of people safe:

A decade later, thinking like a businessman—or better said, the TV version of a businessman—Trump ignored calls to ramp up the CDC and the National Institutes of Health budgets, and tried to gut them instead. His transition team ignored, and in one case reportedly slept through, a pre-inauguration briefing on how to handle a pandemic.

Trump’s first CDC chief was forced to resign after getting caught buying stock in tobacco companies. He then appointed Robert Redfield, a conservative former Army doctor who engaged in faulty, possibly corrupt, advocacy during the HIV/AIDS crisis. Redfield’s only apparent qualifications, journalist Laurie Garrett wrote, were his “hardcore, right-wing credentials.”

The result has been a spoils system-like CDC that would make Roscoe Conkling proud; a partisan leadership which, out of loyalty or fear, has failed to stand up to early White House pressure to downplay the epidemic and accordingly fumbled the response to Covid-19. Testing, which experts agree is the most important step in containing the epidemic, has been a fiasco. Trump has followed his pattern of appointing unqualified loyal “insiders,” such as the vice president and idiot son in law, to oversee the response, only to regret it bitterly.

The president has shown no remorse or even understanding of what he’s done. In the February 26 briefing, he displayed that he still had no idea what the CDC did to prevent outbreaks—the teams dedicated to early detection, lab work, and control— because, quote: “When we need them, we can get them back very quickly.”

Compare that to Frieden’s forgotten message from a decade ago. “We can’t say that we can control everything. But we can say that we can always be better prepared today than we were yesterday, and better prepared tomorrow than we were today.”

Elections have consequences

The relentless march of the SARS-CoV-2 virus is a yet another reminder that we are all connected. Almost everyone who confronts the disease finds themselves trying their hands at social responsibility and theories of more effective administration.

In the century since the political-administrative reforms began, the U.S. government has become a robust architecture of control, too complex for any individual—even an actually intelligent president—to comprehend. In the right hands it could help billions of people. But at a minimum, hundreds of millions of people in this country, and billions more around the world, have no choice but to be dependent on American transportation systems working, markets functioning, nuclear bombs not exploding, and—yes—diseases being stopped in their tracks without any of us even knowing it.

Trump’s strain of self-centered corruption—always poised to squeeze the maximum personal benefit out of any situation, everyone else be damned—never went away. It was always circulating in the political biome, waiting for a vector to transfer it back into the host.

That the man who posed as a no-nonsense businessman, through his stupidity and pathological narcissism, has dealt such a swift and stunning blow to the American capitalist system itself is a fitting irony. But it is one that Wilson himself warned us about. “Business-like the administration of government may and should be—but it is not business,” the scholar-president wrote. “It is organic social life.”

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Jonathan Myerson Katz is a journalist and the author of The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster. His next book, Gangsters of Capitalism, will trace the origins and contradictions of America’s empire. Follow him on Twitter @KatzOnEarth.

Updated 3/19/2020