This week, the Trump administration botched the rollout of a relatively moderate immigration and refugee executive order that would have paused immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries for a set period of time and ended Syrian-refugee immigration indefinitely. Instead of vetting the executive order or coordinating with the relevant agencies, the Trump team simply unleashed it, leading to widespread chaos at airports and massive protests by the Left.
But something odd happened next.
Instead of chalking up the executive-order debacle to inexperience or incompetence, members of the Right suggested that this was all part of a Trumpian 4D chess play: Trump had suckered the media into becoming unhinged, thereby promoting his agenda to keep America safe.
Meanwhile, huge swaths of the political Left determined that it had to be part of some broader, more nefarious scheme, too. The media immediately labeled the executive order a “Muslim ban,” even though it clearly didn’t ban all Muslims. Trump, according to a Medium post by Yonatan Zunger, had launched the executive order as an early “trial balloon for a coup.” Racial activist Shaun King quickly tweeted out the piece, and it trended on Twitter.
So, according to the Right, Trump and his team are heartbreaking geniuses of Newtonian magnitude. And according to the Left, Trump and his team are evil geniuses of Darth Vader magnitude (to be fair, White House chief strategist Steve Bannon believes this about himself).
This isn’t anything new. During the Obama years, Obama supporters convinced themselves that every Obama move was a masterful manipulation of the political system; when Obama failed, it was the American people who had failed him, not the other way around. Meanwhile, the Right attributed to Obama Satanic powers — he couldn’t just be screwing things up like a self-assured narcissistic control freak. He had to be a political alchemist intent on securing a third term for himself in the White House, a man on the verge of opening FEMA camps.
But here’s the sad truth: All these interpretations are idiotic.
One of the oddest elements of the Trump administration for me is the feeling of personally knowing so many high-level members. Some members of the administration are smart and hard-working. A lot of them are dolts. But no matter the administration, we tend to think of those in the halls of power as more competent than we are: smarter, better, more sophisticated players with higher levels of knowledge. If they’re on our side, we trust them to take care of us; if they’re on the other side, we trust them to plan our demise.
But all of that’s an exaggeration of reality. Most of the people in government are fools and dolts and well-intentioned people suffering delusions of grandeur, people who think they can handle the rigors of power and handle the levers with grace and acuity. They can’t. Adults handling government are no different from adults handling everything else: they muddle through, but they’re generally not much better than passable.
Which is why the proper answer would be to minimize government power altogether.
But this would overthrow a century of mythmaking about those who staff our government. One of the great lies of the last century came courtesy of Woodrow Wilson, who along with others in the progressive movement argued that government was staffed by the best and brightest, bureaucrats of creativity and knowledge, men and women who could direct government from the top. This was the essence of fascism and Communism, too: that Mussolini or Hitler or Stalin could direct life from above, and that their brilliant philosophies would cure all ills.
The first step toward fighting government overreach is understanding that government looks a lot more like John Belushi from Animal House running his deathmobile through a panicking crowd while Kevin Bacon shouts “All is well!” than like a well-ordered Easter parade.
The fact that Trump has no true governing philosophy leaves Americans grasping for a master plan.
But instead of acknowledging that simple truth, we construct castles in the clouds, filled with uber-proficient Machiavellian geniuses. The more mysteriously a White House runs — the more vague the governing philosophy — the more likely we are to grant godlike wisdom and power to its occupants. The fact that Trump has no true governing philosophy leaves Americans grasping for a master plan. The Left finds that master plan in the supposed Death Star–like evils of Trump and company; the Right finds that master plan in the supposed media mastery of Trump and company.
But what if there are no experts?
Wouldn’t the answer, then, be to decentralize power? Wouldn’t we all worry less about Darth Vader if Darth Vader were running the Mos Eisley DMV rather than the Death Star?
That would require us to rethink how our politics works. It would require us to become more involved, not less, and less catastrophic in our thinking, not more. It would require us to see our neighbors, not a far-off elite, as our fellow governors. It would require a true populist reimagining.
Or we could just keep pretending that somebody’s got a plan when nobody truly does.