Michael Lewis Takes on the Trump Administration

Readers will be horrified about how inept the president’s appointments to major agencies have been.


Michael Lewis takes up the Trump administration in his latest book.

Photo courtesy W. W. Norton & Co.

Risk is everywhere these days. In his new book, The Fifth Risk, Berkeley writer Michael Lewis posits that a most fearsome risk—willful ignorance—lurking within the United States federal government threatens the health and safety of 350 million people in America, if not approximately 7.7 billion people worldwide.

After the Trump administration’s immolating, clumsy transfer of power in 2016-17, Risk lays out a picture wherein vital data is being lost, erased, or obscured. Key government departments are overseen by largely unqualified cabinet leaders whose toxic approaches combine astonishing inexperience with let’s-shrink-government, who-cares-how-this-thing-works, anti-science, money-over-mission attitudes.

Setting the roughly 4,000 political appointees aside, Lewis reports that for the remaining approximately 2 million federal employees, problems in government are managerial, not ideological. Therefore, as a newcomer hits the Oval Office, cabinet appointments of experts and reliance on transfer of power manuals prepared by knowledgeable civil servants are vital. At the minimum, the new administration must understand the how, why, when, and where of the agencies they are about to oversee. Even when handled with care, transitions every four or eight years from one president to the next have enormous dysfunction “baked into the structure,” Lewis writes.

In the first chapter, Lewis describes the transition from Obama to Trump as nothing short of slipshod. Three subsequent sections describe the knowledge base, people, and data placed at risk under the current administration.

As in prior bestselling books, (The Big Short, Moneyball, The Blind Side, and others), Lewis blends a jaunty writing style with entertaining first-person anecdotes, shocking and meticulously researched data, interviews with experts, and facts drawn from peer-reviewed studies and news reports. He’s skilled at angling dramatic stories to prove ignorance is not bliss when it comes to Trump officials in charge of major departments like the Department of Energy. An item casually handed to him while visiting the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory that he writes resembles a $10 lump of “ersatz quartz” that a person could buy at Home Depot is actually material with the potential to explode like a pile of plutonium, one example. Or how about the fact that the general public and even those in charge of the USDA don’t seem to understand the huge role the department plays in functions beyond farming—like preventing and managing wildfires? Or in what way might voting be impacted by citizens—and their government representatives—who don’t understand the ramifications of cuts to the hugely misnamed Department of Commerce that governs the national census and weather service?

Lewis’ 256-page Risk paints a frightening picture. The best recourse may well be to read, be informed, and demand that the country’s leaders know and execute their duties responsibly.

The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis (W. W. Norton & Company, October 2018, 221 pp., $18.32)

This report was originally published in our sister publication, the East Bay Monthly.

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