I can speak from firsthand knowledge that living through 11 presidencies of varying degrees of competence (and the occasional scandal or criminality) gives you some perspective on what we are experiencing today. Norman Ornstein
, political scientist and resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, has lived through 13 of them. What he sees with the Trump Administration is something so unique it needs a special word to describe it, a word that has been out of popular usage for nearly two centuries. The word is “kakistocracy.”
kakistocracy (English pronunciation: /kækɪsˈtɑkɹəsi/) is a system of government which is run by the worst, least qualified, or most unscrupulous citizens. ... It was also used by English author Thomas Love Peacock in 1829, but gained significant usage in the 21st century.
Orntein’s assessment of the Trump Administration, published in The Atlantic, is as considered as it is blunt:
Kakistocracy is back, and we are experiencing it firsthand in America. The unscrupulous element has come into sharp focus in recent weeks as a string of Trump Cabinet members and White House staffers have been caught spending staggering sums of taxpayer dollars to charter jets, at times to go small distances where cheap commercial transportation was readily available, at times to conveniently visit home areas or have lunch with family members. While Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price was forced to resign after his serial abuse, others—including Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, and Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, remain in place.
There's a reason this word has been out of vogue so long. The reason is that a kakistocracy requires two things that until this point in American history have been quite rare. First you need an Executive with a blatant, wholesale disregard for the country, the welfare of its citizens and the importance of its institutions. Second (unless such a person manages to be elected by trickery), you need a constituency willing to elect such a person. To find a bloc of voters with such an abominable disregard and low opinion of themselves and their country that they would knowingly put their futures in the hands of a thoroughly venal leader is a real rarity. The primary process usually winnows out such garbage. In this case, however Republican voters were already inured to Trump's personal style because he was a TV personality. So an institutional hurdle that exists for most candidates was immediately mooted. But the fact is that millions of Americans chose—with eyes wide open—to elect someone who clearly from his conduct and speeches during the campaign exemplified the absolute worst America had to offer.
As Ornstein notes, they had a remarkable assist from a thoroughly corrupt Republican Party which hastened to confirm Trump’s appointees, people clearly unfit or with obvious antipathy towards the Agencies they were designated to represent. When just a mere peek under the rocks revealed exactly how bad these people were, the GOP-led Senate rushed to push those realities (such as insider trading, profiteering and outright lying about allegiances to foreign governments) aside by steamrolling the confirmation process with little or no time for debate allowed. The results we see now, with Trump, for example, blatantly using his own properties as profitable whorehouses for lobbyists, is hardly surprising:
Foreign-government entities falling over themselves to stay in the hotel and schedule meetings and events there at premium prices may have violated the foreign Emoluments Clause, just one of a string of in-your-face elements of a president enriching himself via his office. Doubling the initiation fee at Mar-A-Lago to $250,000, and advertising that those putting on weddings there or at his Bedminster, New Jersey, country club might get a photo-op with the president of the United States, are equally outrageous examples.
Stacking his administration with equally corrupt or opportunistic family members such as Jared Kushner and Trump’s own daughter Ivanka, and using his own son as a conduit to collude with the Russians, simply added to the general atmosphere of insouciance and a collective thumbing of noses regarding any notions of propriety and legality that Americans have grown to expect from their leaders. Again, with a helpful assist from a GOP Congress that willfully turned a blind eye to these abuses.
But beyond the rot spreading from the head down in this Administration, there are real-life consequences to the majority of Americans who did not vote to be subjected to this:
Awful as the grifterish mentality and behavior may be, worse is the other part of kakistocracy—inept, corrupt, and disruptive governance. Impulsive, stream-of-consciousness communications from the president by tweet are one thing. Examples like a budget that aims to knock out our weather satellites and cut our ability to respond to a pandemic, along with the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) removing from its website information about the disastrous conditions in Puerto Rico while pumping up the good news, are another.
Again, the mood that has been fostered is one of callous indifference and willful disregard, often clothed in ideology but nonetheless wholly destructive to real American lives:
The moves undertaken now by Trump and his aides to sabotage Obamacare, after the embarrassing failures to enact a bill to repeal and replace it, are sadistic and outrageous. They include cutting off the funding to notify people about the period for enrollment on the health exchanges, and shortening the time to enroll, along with most recently ordering the head of Medicare and Medicaid Services to deny a critical waiver to Iowa which will result in many losing insurance and skyrocketing premiums for others.
The implementation of a kakistocracy has not gone unnoticed either by our allies or our adversaries on the world stage. Despite his purported moderating influence, for example, the fact is that Secretary of State Tillerson’s performance at his job in matters of state has been abysmal and embarrassing, with backbiting and insults between himself and Trump predominating and no clear policies being pursued whatsoever. Having never been invaded by a foreign power in living memory, most Americans are possessed with a blissful indifference to foreign affairs except when it comes down to outright war, which always occurs elsewhere, outside the confines of the U.S. It’s reasonable to assume that the thoroughly impotent and embarrassingly inept image Trump now projects for this country on the world stage will lead directly to that consequence, simply because a rudderless world power that simultaneously eschews any type of diplomacy invites other powers unhampered by such weaknesses to fill the vacuum. Eventually our interests will collide, and that is when the incompetence of this Administration will really show itself. That is already happening with Russia, and it will likely soon happen with China.
Ornstein also takes note of the fact that nearly three quarters of all key policy positions in the Executive Branch remain unfilled. The level of incompetence and the risk to American interests abroad from this is staggering and only beginning to manifest itself. The persons who are appointed are largely incompetent idealogues, screened specifically for their loyalty to Trump, and little else. Ornstein uses the example of the current nominee for Chief Scientist at the Department of Agriculture who is simply a virulent, right-wing talk show host.
The behavior of those appointees is also uniformly venal. Looting seems to be the priority of most of Trump’s appointments, coupled with a willful neglect of Americans’ interests and a bizarre and unseemly sense of entitlement. Treasury Secretary Mnuchin’s depradations and wasteful taxpayer-financed travel with his trophy wife are well-documented. The head of the EPA is also no exception to the crass venality we are witnessing:
The New York Times reported that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has filled his schedule almost exclusively with meetings and fancy dinners with coal-mining, chemical company and others EPA regulates—often followed by moves to deregulate them—while scheduling almost no meetings with environmental groups. Pruitt has also spent $25,000 in taxpayer money to put a soundproof phone booth in his office, raising red flags about why this was necessary.
The spectacular flameout of all attempts by the Republican Congress to repeal the Affordable Care Act (a failure that in its bungled execution inadvertently helped preserve health care for millions of Americans) is also indicative of the thorough dysfunction of that institution (at least on the Republican side) and its inability to accomplish anything, even with a favorable Administration. And the only thing worthwhile the Administration has accomplished was the appointment (by Assistant A.G. Rod Rosenstein, due to A.G. Sessions’ recusal) of Special Counsel Mueller to investigate its conspiracy with the Russian government to sway the election that brought it to power in the first place. That is hardly something worth boasting about, but it illustrates the depths to which this country has sunk in the space of less than a single year.
Watching a train wreck like this may have its charms for a certain class of voter for whom anger and prejudice is their only governing impulse. But ultimately the train leaves the rails and heads straight for the spectators, the rest of us who have to live and work in this country. Other kakistrocacies have turned out very, very badly. The word was famously used by English Author Thomas Love Peacock, who at the time could only come up with one analogue—The French Revolution, where a Republic that had at times dominated the Western world nearly devoured itself with ineptitude and corruption:
Anarchy is not so much the absence of government as the government of the worst—not aristocracy but kakistocracy—a state of things, which to the honor of our nature, has seldom obtained amongst men, and which perhaps was only fully exemplified during the worst times of the French revolution, when that horrid hell burnt with its most horrid flame. In such a state of things, to be accused is to be condemned—to protect the innocent is to be guilty; and what perhaps is the worst effect, even men of better nature, to whom their own deeds are abhorrent, are goaded by terror to be forward and emulous in deeds of guilt and violence.
But the French Revolution is not something to be pined for. Its result was horrific violence, death, and ultimately, dictatorship. Ornstein knows this as well as anyone:
“Can’t anybody here play this game?” was Casey Stengel’s famous lament about his inept 1962 New York Mets. The same lament could apply to the Trump administration and its majority team in Congress—but the problem is deeper and worse when ineptitude joins with venality and recklessness, and when the stakes are far more than baseball pennants.