Last night I read Evan Osnos’s May 21 New Yorker horror story, “Only the Best People: Donald Trump’s war on the ‘deep state.'” (Trump playing golf in the swamp is the cover illustration.) It’s required reading. No, let me put that differently: IT’S REQUIRED READING AND I’M TALKING TO YOU!!!
Osnos takes the mass of individual headline stories about how the Trump administration has devastated and corrupted our government agencies — Scott Pruitt, Ben Carson, Ryan Zinke are top-level bad guys — and binds them together into a fluent narrative that goes underneath Trump’s named creatures into the lives of usually unnamed career professionals who have been running our agencies for decades, but are now quitting or being sent to the “turkey farm” (You’ll have to read it to understand the foul reference. Yeah, I meant to spell it “foul.”)
Whole thing is virtually unbelievable as non-fiction. It reads like the craziest dystopian satire imaginable — and I’m not sure that description is evocative of the mad mad mad mad weirdness.
The image that popped into my mind was of a big wooden sailing ship infested by termites. And they’re eating, eating, eating it away.
I’ll give you one excerpt:
One of Trump’s most ardent lieutenants is Ryan Zinke…
Within the department [of the Interior], Zinke has adopted the President’s approach to expertise, loyalty, and dissent. In April, 2017, a scientist named Joel Clement, the director of the department’s Office of Policy Analysis, visited Zinke for a briefing. He noticed that Zinke had redecorated the office with a grizzly bear, mounted on its hind legs, and a collection of knives. Zinke has no professional experience in geology, but he routinely describes himself as a “geologist,” because he majored in geology in college. (In a 2016 memoir…Zinke wrote that he chose it by “randomly pointing to a major from the academic catalog.”) “He doesn’t read briefing materials,” Clement told me. “He comes over and sits down, and he says, ‘O.K., what are we here for?'” To keep Zinke’s attention, staff hewed to subjects related to his personal experience. “I briefed him on invasive species,” Clement said. “It was one issue where it looked like we might actually get a little traction, because in Montana they had just discovered mussels that could really screw up the agricultural economy.” The strategy failed. “He didn’t understand what we were talking bout. He started talking about other species–ravens and coyotes. He was filling the intellectual vacuum with nonsense. It’s amazing that he has such confidence, given his level of ignorance.”
A couple of months later, Zinke ordered the involuntary reassignment of dozens of the department’s most senior civil servants…
And that’s not the worst story.
As I was reading, I thought about the Dunning-Kruger Effect, the cognitive bias of illusory superiority, which explains that many people are not merely ignorant: they are unaware of being ignorant. They are too intellectually inadequate (to be euphemistic) to realize they’re intellectually inadequate. They don’t know that they don’t know and do not have the capacity to understand their inadequacy.
They think they know all there is to know.
Ladies and gentlemen, it’s not only voters to whom the Dunning-Kruger Effect applies. People equally and smugly afflicted are also running our government agencies.