It has been said that Newt Gingrich is “a dumb person’s idea of a smart person.” Who coined that phrase is a matter of scholarly dispute, but there is broad agreement that the sentiment is applicable. I will go further and say this characteristic of Newt’s is not just a personal foible; it establishes a model for Republican politicians and operatives since his time in Congress.
Having had the opportunity as a former congressional staffer to experience his speakership up close, it was clear to me that Gingrich had a ready opinion on every subject from aardvarks to Zoroastrianism. He was usually wrong. But through a combination of confident and aggressive assertion, citation of “facts” and “statistics” that, while specious and cherry-picked, the listener was not in any position to immediately refute, and the glibness that masquerades as eloquence, he dominated his colleagues and set the House of Representatives on its path to becoming the extremely unfunny joke it is today.
Consistent with his pose as a public intellectual, Gingrich schmoozed with Alvin Toffler, the author of Future Shock. Yet one of his first acts on assuming the speakership was to abolish the Office of Technology Assessment, an agency solely responsible to Congress and which gave an appraisal of new technologies independent of executive branch puffery.
He also slashed the budgets of the General Accounting Office (GAO), the Congressional Research Service and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), impairing Congress’ ability to receive disinterested evaluation of a vast range of subjects. Who needs CBO (now a favorite whipping boy of congressional Republicans) when you know that tax cuts increase revenue?
What began with Gingrich has culminated in the nightmare of the Trump presidency, where wildly incompetent pseudo-experts run riot through the government and endanger the well-being of the general public. America has become a laboratory to test whether its institutions can weather the present flood of Republican expertise.
Republicans: Assuring National Insecurity
The national security functions of government have long been a subject of mystification: the public and the press have a tendency to regard its practitioners as a kind of priesthood possessing an arcane and special knowledge. But long before Trump, the GOP treated it as a political reward for crackpot ideologues whose credentials were thin or nil.
Bill Kristol, whose only qualification for anything was being the offspring of Irving Kristol, somehow blossomed in the late 1990s as a Republican national security expert. His current claim to fame is being wrong about everything; that has not prevented him from making a comfortable living via the “wingnut welfare” provided by right-wing media.
Paul Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defense under George W. Bush, caused my jaw to drop in February 2003, when he informed the House Budget Committee on which I served that the invasion of Iraq would probably result in fewer US casualties than the near-negligible number the military suffered in the Balkan intervention, and also that the invasion would pay for itself through Iraq’s oil revenues.
While his testimony immediately aroused concern if not derision in the country, most Republican committee members seemed to eat it up as the wisdom of a latter-day Clausewitz. On leaving the Pentagon, Wolfowitz’s gold watch for confecting such prophecies was the presidency of the World Bank.
The Republican so-called experts’ pronouncements weren’t exactly unplanned. In early 2001, just before George W. Bush’s inauguration, the Heritage Foundation produced a policy document intended to help the incoming administration choose personnel. The authors stated the following:
. . . the Office of Presidential Personnel must make appointment decisions based on loyalty first and expertise second, and the whole governmental apparatus must be managed from this perspective.
A decade and a half later, Trump’s operatives must have been impressed by one of the document’s authors, George Nesterczuk; he was nominated to become director of the Office of Personnel Management, but later withdrew his nomination, complaining about “partisan attacks” (possibly a euphemism for “careful scrutiny”).
Trump has built on Bush’s national security legacy. His first deputy national security adviser was K.T. McFarland, While she held national security positions in previous administrations, what probably commended her to Trump’s handlers was her stint as a national security “expert” on Fox News, a sinecure and career booster for the right-wing nomenklatura. From that perch, she recommended that Vladimir Putin be granted the Nobel Peace Prize. Foreign policy writer Jim Lobe describes her expertise here.
It also must have helped that she ran for the Senate in New York in 2006. Although she was heavily defeated in the GOP primary, she claimed that the campaign of the incumbent Democrat, Hillary Clinton, was spying on her through her bedroom window and flying helicopters over her house in the Hamptons. When called out on it, after denying she was serious, she later told a New York Post gossip columnist that news of her “helicopters” remark had unhinged her: “I sat in a ratty old robe, tears spilling down my face. To ease my anguish, I killed off half a pint of ice cream. Next morning, I was in the fetal position. Still crying.” To GOP talent scouts these days, anyone who spreads conspiracy theories about Clinton is bound to appear highly qualified.
Another early pick for the Trump national security team was Sebastian Gorka named deputy assistant to the president for terrorism issues. Although this pompous little martinet insists on being called “Dr.,” his Hungarian Ph.D. sounds suspiciously like the product of a diploma mill. His reputation since then has been “widely disdained within his own field.”
His professional seriousness may be inferred by his proposal to keep Muslims out of Hungary by affixing pigs’ heads to the country’s border fences, and by showing up at Trump’s inaugural ball costumed and bemedalled like the Balkan despot in a Marx Brothers movie.
His garment and insignia pin were seen as a reference to Vitézi Rend, a Hungarian organization that is a legacy of Hungary’s collaboration with Nazi Germany, causing some Senate Democrats to publicly wonder why Gorka’s membership in the group (a charge Gorka has strongly denied) did not make him excludable from the country. It may also account for his never receiving a security clearance high enough to be appropriate to his sensitive White House position.
Gen. Kelly: New Broom or Partisan Hack?
McFarland and Gorka are now gone from the White House. Is this a sign that a new seriousness is prevailing at the White House? Although McFarland landed on her feet (Trump nominated her to be ambassador to Singapore), Gorka’s departure from government was widely attributed to the arrival of Gen. John Kelly as White House chief of staff (predictably, Fox News is now providing Gorka with wingnut welfare).
But as we have seen in the distasteful episode involving Kelly’s public feud with a Florida congresswoman over Trump’s perfunctory condolence call to the widow of a fallen soldier, the usual press and public tendency to genuflect to a high-ranking military officer could be misplaced in his case. At the same White House press briefing in which he insulted the congresswoman, his reputation was further tarnished by his refusal to call on reporters who didn’t have a connection to Gold Star military families, thus suggesting that military members are of a higher social caste, as in Wilhelmine Germany.
While his comments about the congresswomen might have been inflammatory (in three decades on the Hill, I never heard an administration staffer insult a member of Congress in a room full of reporters), they might have been attributable to a faulty memory. But when documentary evidence surfaced that his statements were false, he refused to retract them, proving that he was not misinformed, but doubling down on a lie.
Lying and bullying are not necessarily signs of professional incompetence, but what about Kelly’s own expertise? When he was commander of the US Southern Command, he publicly stated that the border area where Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay meet is a training ground for Hezbollah, a wacky belief out of the right-wing paranoia factories. With the existence of very real national security threats and the need to prioritize them, do we really need government officials who fall for such stuff?
Given the ongoing horrific situation in Puerto Rico, it is surprising that the media have not dug further into the state of disaster preparedness at the Department of Homeland Security under Kelly. Could it be that his prioritization of Trump’s border wall caused him to neglect other responsibilities in his portfolio, such as overseeing the Federal Emergency Management Agency? If budgets are statements of priority, that would seem to be the case.
The most visible positions in the Trump administration that show the real-world implications of Republicans’ preference for inverted expertise are those requiring credentials in science, as the well-known controversies involving the Environmental Protection Agency and government climate policy already have shown.
My first brush with the GOP mindset about science came during my tenure on the Senate Budget Committee in the mid-2000s. When the issue of Agent Orange toxicity came up at the staff level, the committee analyst for health care issues authoritatively stated to me that the chemical’s adverse health effects were unproven, and that the controversy was the result of whiny Vietnam veterans trying to get on board the government benefits gravy train.
In the real world, exhaustive research has shown the chemical’s powerful carcinogenic effects and the potential triggering of birth defects; Dow Chemical, a producer of the product, had known about these side effects since the 1960s. The analyst in question went on to work his magic on health care policy at Bush’s Office of Management and Budget.
A decade later, Republican science policy has progressed to the point where, as a matter of routine, studies are quashed, scientists purged, and policies resembling a voodoo spell promulgated. To justify ridding its boards of scientists who ever received a grant from the EPA and replacing them with industry-friendly shills, administrator Scott Pruitt referenced the Book of Joshua for support.
Pruitt has named Michael Honeycutt to head the EPA’s Science Advisory Board. Honeycutt decries EPA’s current too-strict standards for exposure to mercury (a neurotoxin causing severe brain damage), and believes ozone pollution levels can be relaxed if people just stay indoors. Another alternative scientist brought on board is Robert Phalen, who has stated that “modern air is a little too clean for optimum health.”
No catalogue of science experts would be complete without Sam Clovis, until lately Trump’s nominee for chief scientist at the Department of Agriculture. He is not a scientist, and his only agricultural expertise comes from having lived in Iowa, albeit in non-agricultural vocations. He has recently withdrawn his nomination, evidently because his real qualifications for an administration job are now being examined by Robert Mueller’s team of investigators.
Trump’s secretary of education is Betsy DeVos, a billionaire heiress to the Amway fortune, sister of Blackwater murder-squad entrepreneur Erik Prince, and a major Republican contributor. Her only qualifications for education policy expertise, other than those listed in the previous sentence, are her ambition to replace sound science teaching with biblical studies, and her desire that the flow of public money into public education be diverted to for-profit corporations. Her driving pedagogical zeal may be inferred from her statement that historically black colleges are “pioneers” of “school choice” rather than a forced adaptation to Jim Crow policies.
Trump’s other stellar Cabinet picks include failed presidential candidate Ben Carson as secretary of housing and urban development. His resume is rather thin on housing policy, but his theory, stated during the Republican primaries, that the Egyptian pyramids were grain storage structures rather than pharaonic tombs, may have clinched him the nomination for a job involving a cutting-edge knowledge of buildings.
Another distinguished public servant is Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, who during the Republican presidential primary debates in 2011 could not remember the name of the federal government department he wanted to abolish and now leads. He also said how surprised he was after being nominated to head DOE when he stumbled onto the fact that it is the entity responsible for America’s nuclear arsenal, an activity which consumes more than half the department’s budget.
This is surely testimony to Perry’s relentless intellectual curiosity, given that DOE’s Pantex Plant, the country’s primary nuclear weapons assembly and disassembly facility, is located in Texas, the state of which he was governor for 15 years.
This glaring lack of qualifications for the job in question, something that would horrify the human resources department of any private company wishing to stay in business, has spread outward and downward through the federal agencies. Despite Sam Clovis’s withdrawal from a position at the Agriculture Department, the hiring of similarly unqualified persons at that agency continues: “a gas-company meter reader, a country-club cabana attendant, a Republican National Committee intern, and the owner of a scented-candle company” are among the department’s new agricultural experts.
The Root Causes of Incompetence
Why has the GOP, the party that championed public land-grant colleges under Lincoln, created the Food and Drug Administration under Theodore Roosevelt, and backed the National Defense Education Act under Eisenhower, become the major political force behind aggressive and self-confident ignorance? The root causes lay both in elite and popular sources.
At the commanding heights of capital, do plutocrats like the Koch brothers want an EPA that forcefully curbs the prerogative of extractive industries to externalize their costs upon society in the form of pollution? Hence the new finding of an EPA adviser that mercury is not really bad for you, despite the common knowledge since the 19th century that the substance, which caused Mad Hatter’s Disease, is a powerful neurotoxin.
Do Robert Mercer or Peter Thiel wish to dispel the confusion about whether tax cuts for the rich create jobs and magically create revenue, but don’t exacerbate income inequality? Is it impossible that Republican politicians and operatives, at least at the higher levels, are so unaware of decades of empirical evidence to the contrary that they do not suspect what the real facts are — or that for-profit charter schools are not a panacea for public education? But they are not about to level with their constituents.
That said, the GOP did not conjure the current national receptivity to alternative facts out of thin air. They are taking advantage of one of the periodic waves of anti-intellectualism that have swept the popular mind since the days of the Salem witch trials. The present wave began with the rise of politicized Christian fundamentalism in the 1970s. Some reckoned that the tide was ebbing with the election of Barack Obama, but that was clearly a false dawn.
It is all very well to wax indignant over Republican politicians who routinely lie about the most elementary facts and denounce scientific consensus as a hoax. But they are routinely re-elected by an American population whose attitudes on evolutionary biology are closer to those in Turkey than in developed Western democracies, and who also believe in the paranormal, and in angels and the demonic.
The implications of mass ignorance were well known to the framers of the Constitution. In 1822, James Madison wrote, “A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”