During a grilling by the House Financial Services Committee on Tuesday, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson faced an actual expert on housing: Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA).
Porter, a former law professor who wrote the textbook on consumer law, asked Carson about REOs, a term related to foreclosures. He mistakenly thought she was asking about Oreos—as in the cookie—and Twitter lost its mind. At one point, the band REO Speedwagon was trending.
If Carson’s ignorance wasn’t enough, he later tweeted out a photo of himself with a package of Oreos.
Carson, a groundbreaking pediatric neurosurgeon-turned-failed presidential candidate, may no longer physically hold the lives of children in his hands. But the decisions he and his agency make affect millions of people—many of them low-income children. That he could casually joke away his ignorance is yet another outrage in an outrageous presidency.
But Carson is just an extreme example in an administration full of unqualified appointees, starting at the top. And while much has rightly been made of President Trump’s kleptocracy, the type of behavior Carson displayed is no less problematic.
Trump, the only president never to have served in the military or government, benefited from the perplexing but widespread assumption that anybody with private sector experience is qualified to run the country. Some wishful thinkers assured those alarmed by his election that he would surround himself with real experts once in office.
He has, of course, done the opposite. There are the garden variety grifters and criminals like former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and former EPA head Scott Pruitt. But then there’s Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who, during her confirmation hearing, appeared ignorant of a fundamental federal education law and was unfamiliar with one of the biggest debates about education policy. There’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau head Kathy Kraninger, who had no experience in consumer affairs, financial services or regulation, or government (and who was also thoroughly schooled in a hearing by Rep. Porter).
And then there’s Jared Kushner, poster child for mediocre rich men failing up, who reportedly blocked the views of legitimate State Department experts from reaching his father-in-law, presumably so that he could single-handedly broker Middle East peace.
The sheer idiocy is not limited to Washington Republicans. Alabama recently passed a law effectively banning abortion in all cases. Supporter Sen. Clyde Chambliss admitted ignorance of the reproductive system he was legislating: “I’m not trained medically, so I don’t know all the proper medical terminology and timelines and that sort of thing but from what I’ve read, what I’ve been told, there’s some period of time before you can know that a woman is pregnant… It takes some time for all those chromosomes and all that.” Chambliss has good company in Ohio, where state Sen. John Becker thinks that an ectopic pregnancy can be reimplanted into the uterus. And these are the men who are seizing total control over the pregnant people in their state.
Some argue that Trump’s authoritarian tendencies are curbed by his administration’s ineptitude. But there are real consequences of the wall-to-wall incompetence. It’s why the Department of Homeland Security confiscated children from their parents at the southern border with no tracking system or plan in place to ultimately reunite families. It’s why five migrant children have died in U.S. custody in the past six months—when none perished in the previous decade. It’s why Puerto Rico is still suffering the effects of Hurricane Maria two years ago, and why 3,000 Americans died in its aftermath. And we haven’t even gotten to Trump’s unqualified judicial nominees, laughable Fed picks, or disastrous foreign policy.
Elected officials are not experts on every subject they will encounter, and Cabinet heads can’t know everything about their departments. Not every energy secretary will be a Nobel Prize-winning physicist—though it certainly helps.
But the people appointed to the highest levels of government ought to have some basic knowledge of their own agencies, some curiosity to learn what they don’t know, and some empathy for the millions of people they purportedly serve.
Two converging forces have brought us this administration of dunces. One is Trump’s autocratic impulse to surround himself with people whose primary qualification is fealty to him.
The second is that the Republican Party has descended to a place where a functioning government, like widespread enfranchisement, would be a political liability. They deliberately broke government so that it cannot serve the American people, which makes the American people distrust government—and therefore more likely to vote Republican. It’s about as cynical as you can get.
Take all of this to its logical conclusion and you end up with Ivanka Trump—whose greatest success was hawking shift dresses and faux feminism on Instagram—leading the World Bank.
Democrats will continue to debate how to hold Trump accountable for his many transgressions. But they must also show the American people that he and his cronies are just plain bad at running the most powerful country in the world. Government of the ignorant is as much a threat to our democracy as government of the corrupt.