In Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here, Senator Berzelius ‘Buzz’ Windrip wins the US presidency with a jingoistic platform that promises every American family an extra $5,000 per year, radical political reforms, and a return to traditional values. Once in office, however, he cannot tolerate dissent. He largely ignores his agenda and chooses instead to indulge his racial resentments and to disempower Congress. Before long, he needs paramilitaries to maintain order. Eventually, his presidency provokes a civil conflict. Lewis based his character on the legendary Southern Democrat Huey Long Jr, a larger than life character whose populist rhetoric was often noticeably at odds with his reflexive opportunism. Critics of the novel initially agreed that it was eerily prescient about European totalitarians like the new German chancellor, and about fascist demagogues in general, but the idea of a confidence trickster outmanoeuvring the American political establishment was thought to be too farfetched to be taken seriously.
Setting aside ideological comparisons between Lewis’s time and ours, it is clear that one of his key insights into modern populism is that its leaders are rarely interested in governance. This has proved as true in the shambolic post-Brexit UK government, or in Hungary and the Philippines as it has in the United States. During the last US election there was no shortage of warning signs. In July 2016, the New York Times reported that Governor John Kasich of Ohio, was approached by the Trump team shortly after he dropped out of the presidential race. Kasich had been highly critical of Trump during the campaign, declaring that he was “really not prepared to be president of the United States” – so he was surprised to find Donald Trump Jr sounding him out as a potential running mate for his father. The Trump team’s pitch was unusual: did Kasich want to be the most powerful VP in history, essentially in charge of “both domestic and foreign policy”? When Kasich’s adviser asked, somewhat incredulously, what would the president be doing if this were the case, he was told, casually: “Making America Great Again.”
President Trump has now been in office long enough for his governing priorities and management style to be a matter of public record. Whether or not one approves of his agenda, the unprecedented attrition of White House staffers and cabinet members suggests that the current administration is as unsuited to democratic governance as its sophistry towards Governor Kasich suggested. In just over a year, Trump has fired or accepted resignations from FBI director James Comey; acting US attorney general Sally Yates; Chief of Staff Reince Priebus; Communications Director Sean Spicer (then, shortly afterwards, the resignation of Spicer’s replacement Anthony Scaramucci); chief strategist Steve Bannon; Health Secretary Tom Price; National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn; Director of the National Economic Council, Gary Cohn; and Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, not to mention a score of lesser staffers such as Sebastian Gorka, Omarosa Manigault, Rob Porter, David Sorenson, and Hope Hicks.
Even more embarrassing than this long list of former employees – many of whom were forced out by scandal – is the performance of those who remain. Attorney General Jeff Sessions not only played a highly questionable role in the dismissal of James Comey, but he also abruptly rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program calling it “an unconstitutional exercise of authority by the Executive Branch.” Last year, the Department of Housing and Urban Development reportedly spent $31,000 on a new dining room set for Secretary Ben Carson’s office at the same time as it prepared extensive cuts to programs for the poor, homeless and elderly. (Carson also faces conflict-of-interest questions with regard to his son’s business interests with the federal government.) Commerce Secretary, Wilbur Ross – who, according to the president himself, “has lost his step” – reportedly falls asleep during meetings and has repeatedly been humiliated by Trump in front of his colleagues. Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, spent more than $100,000 on first-class air travel and charter flights during his first six months at the agency – justifying this by saying that he faced too much incivility from passengers in coach. And just last week, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos displayed, at best, an inexplicable ignorance of the challenges faced by underperforming schools.
Examples like these could be extended ad nauseam. Allan Lichtman, a history professor at American University recently told the Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin that the Trump administration was unquestionably “the most unqualified and inexperienced cabinet in the modern history of the presidency.” Even more worryingly, he noted that “More than any other group of cabinet officials the Trump appointees also are using the federal treasury as their personal expense accounts.” Notable exceptions to this pattern – such as Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao or Defence Secretary Jim Mattis – both brought considerable experience of government to their new roles, a fact that indicates the difficulties Trump has had in reconciling career civil servants to his egocentric and self-promoting style.
When all of this can occur in just over a year in a mature and well-defended democracy like the United States, less established democracies, like our own, should take notice. Modern governance is demanding work and can’t be reinvented by a single idiosyncratic leader, however charismatic he may be. The Trump administration is living proof that a functioning democracy requires a certain quota of knowledgeable and engaged citizens at its helm and that it can founder when this basic threshold is no longer met.