Rex Nutting: The Shallow State is thriving under Trump

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Among the more conspiracy-conscious on both the right and the left, a belief has taken hold that there’s a powerful and sinister Deep State consisting of a secretive and permanent bureaucracy — a military-industrial-intelligence complex if you will — that actually runs the government and thwarts the will of the people, the Congress and even the president.

There’s been much less discussion about the growth of a Shallow State, which has accelerated under President Donald Trump, and which may be nearly as nefarious, given time and entropy.

What is the Shallow State? It’s a withering of the government’s capabilities. If the Deep State is all about accumulating more power to serve an elitist agenda, then the Shallow State is about giving up power to serve that same agenda.

In researching this column, I came upon a thoughtful essay by David Rothkopf in Foreign Policy from early in the Trump administration, titled “The Shallow State.” Rothkopf warns of the growth of a force that’s the opposite of the Deep State: “It not only actively eschews experience, knowledge, relationships, insight, craft, special skills, tradition, and shared values, but … it celebrates its ignorance of and disdain for those things.”

Fearing the unknown

Trump’s voters, he says, fear what they don’t know, and what they don’t know is nearly everything. They can’t handle even the search for truth, so they seek out media and political leaders who will tell them the easy lies that confirm their pre-existing beliefs.

It’s only gotten more apparent in the 14 months since Rothkopf wrote his essay.

Trump’s administration is certainly shallow in Rothkopf’s terms. Instead of deep knowledge of the world and its problems, we get shallow 280-character platitudes. Instead of studying briefing books and listening to his expert advisers in order to understand our nation’s problems and to help him decide the best course, our president wraps himself in his own ignorance. He proudly listens to his gut and his heart instead of his head.

Trump has surrounded himself with equally unqualified and incurious people. He’s stuffed his Cabinet with people who seem to be the most unsuitable people imaginable.

If there’s any bureaucracy that we all agree needs to be better managed, it’s Veterans Affairs. No offense to Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, but … seriously? He has zero experience managing a large workforce.

If the Deep State is all about accumulating more power to serve an elitist agenda, then the Shallow State is about giving up power to serve that same agenda.

As inexperienced as Jackson is, it’s the pattern with Trump’s appointments.

To lead the State Department, Trump chose a man who disdained diplomacy. To head up the Treasury, he picked an extravagant spendthrift. For housing and urban development, he nominated a good-natured brain surgeon who warned Trump that he wasn’t qualified and proved it by taking the job anyway.

He put a man who doesn’t believe in trade in charge of trade. He put a man who thinks protecting the environment violates God’s law in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency. A woman who is hostile toward public education is in charge of education. People who don’t believe in science are in charge of science.

Shallow in a second way

Trump’s government is shallow in another way. There are hundreds if not thousands of jobs still unfilled in the government, including 38 ambassadorships. Now, perhaps the United States can get by without a top diplomat in Ulaanbaatar, but there are some important relationships on the vacancy list as well, such as South Korea, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Germany, South Africa, Ireland, Australia, the European Union, and, soon, Mexico.

Why is this important? Because even in a world of Twitter, email and 24/7 cable news, it’s good to have the president’s personal representative on the ground. The personal touch is invaluable in diplomacy. When a crisis erupts, you want someone who knows the people over there. It’s not a time to rely on an intern looking it up on Wikipedia.

Trump says the vacant jobs at the State Department aren’t necessary because he is the only one who matters. “We don’t need all the people they want,” he told Laura Ingraham of Fox News. He doesn’t need any help, because facts don’t matter.

About half of 656 key Senate-confirmed jobs throughout the executive branch are still unfilled, largely because Trump hasn’t nominated anyone. The Senate has also been slower than usual in confirming nominations.

It’s not just top jobs that are empty. The Washington Post reported that about 70,000 federal workers had quit or retired in Trump’s first six months, 42% greater than during the same period in Obama’s presidency. A lot of human capital is walking out the door.

Morale is low, and not just because of the guy at the top. Budgets have been frozen for years, limiting pay raises, promotions, and the new hiring to meet the needs at agencies such as the VA, the border patrol, cybersecurity, and the IRS.

People want a government that works

Trump and the Republicans seem to want a smaller government, and if that’s what the people want, they should get it. But Trump never realized that seizing the levers of power would require a lot of hands on deck. Or that people actually want the federal bureaucracy to work well. They want their Social Security check. They want the mail delivered. They want veterans to receive medical care. They want clean air and water, and food that doesn’t kill you, and airplanes that don’t crash.

Both kinds of shallowness threaten the Republican agenda.

Trump and his supporters think there are too many regulations. But getting rid of regulations isn’t as easy as snapping your finger. It requires federal workers to study the legality and impact of withdrawing a rule, and it requires someone in charge to sign off on the decision.

At the EPA, Scott Pruitt has been getting a lot of praise from conservatives, despite his wasteful and rampant personal corruption, because he’s getting rid of a lot of environmental rules. Or is he? The New York Times reported earlier this month that the EPA’s work is so sloppy that the deregulation agenda is threatened.

“In their rush to get things done, they’re failing to dot their i’s and cross their t’s. And they’re starting to stumble over a lot of trip wires,” Richard Lazarus, a professor of environmental law at Harvard, told the Times. “They’re producing a lot of short, poorly crafted rule makings that are not likely to hold up in court.”

Already six of Pruitt’s efforts to roll back rules have been struck down by the courts, and others seem destined for the same fate. The EPA’s justification for canceling an Obama administration rule to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases from cars was shockingly inept.

The government is becoming so shallow that even the Republican agenda is at risk. Those who believe that the best government is no government might rejoice, but Republicans should heed the warning of what happened to their party after President George W. Bush hired shallow people to run the occupation of Iraq and to handle the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina.

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