On Governance and Knowledge

There is a very good profile of former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster in the New Yorker this week. The article is lengthy, detailed and very, very interesting. Most of it is decidedly not about Donald Trump, which is a pleasure, really. It’s always nice to read a discussion of policymaking in which his presence doesn’t interject itself unduly.

But there is one sentence about Trump at the very beginning of the article that stood out in sharp relief. It was a description of how staff disseminates information to this misbegotten president, saying, “Trump receives a thick briefing book every night, but nobody harbors the illusion that he reads it.”

Nobody harbors the illusion that he reads it.

Of all the things that make Donald Trump unfit for the office he holds, this may be the most striking. He doesn’t care enough about the job to execute the most basic duty, that of taking on information about the country and the world. He cannot be bothered to learn the things he doesn’t know. He’s pig ignorant of 90% of the issues facing the world and he isn’t ashamed of it.

His refusal to read and learn are possibly the worst of his sins, in my opinion. And the fact that his followers think being unschooled and untrained is a positive trait is their biggest sin.

First of all, lets just talk about what it takes to refuse to take on new knowledge in 2018. This is the heart of the information age. Data, facts, analysis, research, discussion are the currency of our time. At no other point in history has so much been knowable to so many. We could all set ourselves down to read for a thousand years and still not scratch the surface of the collected human knowledge available to us. The scope of knowledge we can all tap with the click of a button should excite anyone with even the slightest bit of curiosity about the world.

Donald Trump has access to not only what is knowable to all, but what is knowable to only a select few. He is literally handed a book of the most protected information on the planet every night. And he…just doesn’t read it. He doesn’t read it.

How stubbornly attached to his own ignorance is he that he doesn’t even possess the interest to crack open the book and look at the things he can – he SHOULD – know? Never mind that those things are crucial to doing his job and doing it well, doesn’t he have even the slightest spark of curiosity?

As a voracious reader myself, I find this attitude mystifying. I cannot imagine being handed written material and not wanting to read it.

But even more than that, as a student of government, as a person who has dedicated much of my career to learning about public policy and doing my best to be educated and informed on matters, I feel personally slighted – no – I feel deeply insulted that there is a large cadre of Americans who are so dismissive of the work I, and my husband, and our friends and colleagues do that they think this facsimile of governance, this Potempkin White House is just fine.

On election night my husband and I despaired for what it says about our chosen paths that so many Americans dismiss our knowledge as unnecessary to the process of leading. We wondered why have we all put so much time and effort into the craft of policymaking when 40% of the American electorate thinks it’s just fine for a president to fly by the seat of his pants, no education, no training, and no attempts to acquire either.

Government service is public service and it’s a skilled career that should generate respect. The people who do this work, the type of people who compile the briefing books Trump blithely refuses to read, are studious and serious about it. They do this work for the good of the public they serve. A public who thinks so poorly of them that they elevated a gameshow host to the highest office in the land, thinking showmanship will serve instead of seriousness of purpose.

But as hurt and insulted as I am to know just how little Trumpist America thinks of my skill set and the knowledge I hold dear, I can promise all of them one thing. We will come out the other side of this adminstration intact as a republic but it won’t be because of the rallies or the wall or the briefing books that gathered dust in favor of 280-character pronouncements. It will be because the people who write the briefings are steadily, studiously, and seriously doing the work of governance.

If we have any sense as a nation, we’ll thank them for saving us when the time comes.

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