Let Joe Do It

If you have chest pains, you go to a doctor, preferably a cardiologist. If you have a clogged sink, you call a plumber. If your car is not working properly, you consult an auto mechanic. So, why are millions enthralled with the idea of public officials who have absolutely no experience in government?  Call it the “let Joe do it” syndrome.

A prime example of this syndrome is the election of Donald Trump as the first president without either a government or military background. President Trump compounds his lack of prior experience with a deficiency of knowledge about government, politics, foreign affairs, or the Constitution. It gets even worse in his case because he demonstrates no interest in learning how to do his job, has no interest in listening to briefings by his advisers, and no inclination to appoint experts to positions of influence. In Trump, the nation is led by a know nothing who listens only to know nothings (that includes the cable television news he apparently consumes voraciously).

Candidate Barack Obama in 2008

Many of the people who voted for Trump complained in 2008 of what they called Barack Obama’s effrontery in running for office after only four years in the U.S. Senate. That criticism ignored Obama’s biography. He was president of the Harvard Law Review. He worked as a community organizer, an experience that provided him with a sense of the needs of the less fortunate in American society. He taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School, evidence of his deep knowledge of the American Constitution. Then, Obama served in the Illinois Senate. He clearly thought deeply about American politics, and unlike the incumbent, Obama was a student of American history and listened to the experts.

Now, we are in the era of the celebrity, as witnessed by Trump’s presidency. Cynthia Nixon, an actress, is challenging incumbent New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo in the Democratic primary. And there has been much buzz about Oprah Winfrey and the Democratic presidential nomination. Both may be very good at what they do, but is that a predictor of their performance as governor or president? The best putdown of Nixon came from Christine Quinn, the former speaker of the New York City Council. “It’s as if I decided I wanted to be an actor,” Quinn said. “I speak in public. I get my picture taken. I need to lose a little weight, but aside from that, why can’t I do this? Because I can’t. The years I might have spent developing skills in that area, I spent developing other skills.” As for Winfrey, she is obviously smart and very engaging, and she has the money to challenge Trump (who probably would look like a poor man next to her), but, again, what is her skill set?

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, just one of many unprepared Trump appointees.

Trump’s appointees are case-in-point of the disappearance of the expert. The president placed Ben Carson in charge of federal housing, a man who was a great pediatric surgeon and an inspiring rags-to-riches story, but who demonstrated on the campaign trail and in other public utterances that he knows little about everything else. Rex Tillerson may have been a brilliant chief executive of an oil giant (and one of the few Cabinet secretaries with a developed ethical sense), but he clearly knew little about diplomacy. As for Jared Kushner — appointed to run just about everything (whether or not it was in someone else’s bailiwick) — well, that callow youth cannot even get a security clearance. And, then there is Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, about whom nothing more needs to be said.

Lawrence Kudlow, President Trump’s pick to head the Council of Economic Advisers.

Recently named advisers do not fare any better. Trump named Lawrence Kudlow to run the Council of Economic Advisers, a job normally held by an economist (makes sense, does it not?). Kudlow has no academic background in economics, and as an unreconstructed and fanatic devotee of supply-side economics, he has been consistently wrong about economic trends. Just one example of Kudlow’s sagacity: During the presidency of George W. Bush, Kudlow insisted that there was no housing bubble and that no recession was in the offing. 

White House physician Ronny Jackson, new appointee to head Veterans Department, answering questions in January about the president’s health.

Just this week, Trump selected the White House physician, Dr. Ronny Jackson, a rear admiral in the Navy, to run the mammoth and bureaucratically inert Department of Veteran Affairs. Jackson may be a good doctor, but he has no management experience. But, Trump spends a lot of time with the White House physician and has come to like Jackson. It probably did not hurt that Jackson is a master of statistics, discovering that the president weighs precisely one convenient and coincidental pound under the obese Body Mass Index level for a someone of his reputed height. 

Trump’s reliance on advisers with little experience and less knowledge probably insures he will receive only the advice he wants. Even counselors with experience understand that the president does not wish to be challenged. According to Peter Navarro, an economist who serves as Trump’s trade adviser: “My function, really, as an economist is to try to provide the underlying analytics that confirm [Trump’s] intuition. And his intuition is always right in these matters.” Really? No, Mr. Navarro, that is not the job of an expert. It is, in fact, the precise opposite of what an expert should do. And, it is why we have a trade policy that eschews the wisdom of almost every other expert and may well launch a trade war with China.

This downplaying of the role of experts in politics and government is a manifestation of the distrust of experts in science and most fields of knowledge.  A century-and-a-half after Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, one-in-three Americans reject evolution entirely, and another third believe evolution unfolds according to divine plan. Despite the overwhelming testimony of climatologists and others who study climate patterns, only 45 percent of Americans are very worried about global warming.

Trump should be concerned about surrounding himself with toadies and ignorant advisers. It is no accident he has failed to enact so much of his agenda. Trump’s initial travel ban is an example of the chaos that results from not heeding the experts. If Trump had consulted with the Department of Homeland Security, his order probably would have taken into account the position of green card holders and been on much sturdier legal ground. 

On the other hand, perhaps it is a good thing the president is letting Joe do it.

Posted March 30, 2018

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