One of the major failures of the Bush administration was FEMA’s inability to adequately respond to Hurricane Katrina. Bush had made signifiant cuts to the organization before the storm hit and hired the woefully inept and deeply unqualified Michael Brown to head it. The devastation caused to New Orleans was itself a product of crumbling infrastructure and lack of investment into the levee system built to prevent flooding. Combined with the federal government’s failure to provide support, over 1500 people lost their lives.
Those of us who were politically active and aware through the Bush years were stunned by the administration’s deregulatory binge that saw deep cuts to virtually all aspects of government with little to no reasoning behind them. They operated on an extremist version of free market and deregulatory ideology that not only saw devastation after Katrina, but the collapse of post invasion Iraq and the implosion of Wall Street and much of the global economy. Bush and his cronies wanted deregulation and free markets at all costs, everywhere, regardless of the consequences and regardless of the evidence.
After Obama took power in 2008 and some semblance of sanity was restored to the basic functioning of government, the US did by all indicators pretty damn well. No major natural disasters that weren’t handled well, no free market militancy exported abroad, and no economic collapse at home. Obama was not perfect, but he believed in the role of government and hired competent people to run it. In 2016 however, Donald Trump is forging his own path that makes the Bush years look like Stalinist Russia. As Jonathan Chait notes in an excellent column today:
Many, if not most, functions of government are designed to mitigate risk. Social insurance protects individuals from the risk of outliving their savings, or of facing unaffordable medical costs. Economic regulation protects society from dangers like financial risk, environmental danger, or crime and other social disorder. Laissez-faire ideology often amounts to an acceptance of greater risk. (This is a basic description of the trade-off, which holds regardless of whether you think Republicans are generally eliminating regulations that are important or unnecessarily burdensome.) By scaling back access to health insurance, they would expose more people to the risk of high medical bills, for the benefit of enjoying lower taxes and premiums right away. Much of their deregulatory agenda would allow business to operate more cheaply by taking fewer precautions to protect workers, consumers, and the environment.
Trump has embraced this aspect of Republican dogma to a degree that goes well beyond even the staunch pro-business style of government seen under Reagan and other modern Republican presidents. The Trump administration’s mania for reducing federal power runs so deep that it can be difficult to tell where deregulatory fervor ends and incompetence begins. Large portions of the federal bureaucracy simply lie vacant, leaving its remaining workforce puzzled whether they are the victims of deliberate neglect or a president unable to staff the Executive branch.
This, in short, is a disaster in the making. As Chait writes, “During Trump’s year in office, a great many terrifying things have happened. But the most terrifying are the things that have not happened, yet. Most of them probably never will. But one nuclear war can ruin your whole day, and the same holds true of a wide array of low-probability disasters that have all grown less improbable under Trump.”
Those of us who saw this coming desperately urged everyone to vote for Hillary Clinton to avoid this type of extreme danger. As bad as anyone believes she might have been, Clinton has always been an incredibly competent manager who hired highly competent people. She would have made sure FEMA was funded, the federal government staffed, and a system in place to deal with disaster. Trump for example, has hired the likes Rick Perry to run the Department of Energy, a man whose response as Governor to severe droughts in Texas was to call for a statewide prayer session. This is will undoubtedly end badly, and one hopes the states can at least mitigate the extreme lack of leadership in the White House for as long as they can.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.