What Trump Leaves Behind

A lousy column indirectly makes an important point.

Catherine Rampell’s latest column is headlined “Trump knows he’s going to lose. He’s already salting the earth behind him.” It makes exactly the same claim in nearly the same words in the lede sentence. She fails rather spectacularly to demonstrate either claim. What she does do, however, is point to how much damage Trump and his Republican enablers have done to the government and thus the country.

Her main evidence, taking up the bulk of the piece, is Trump’s appointment of the unqualified hack Judy Shelton to the Federal Reserve Board. At best, she’s a lunatic who wants to take us back to the gold standard. At worst, she wants to politicize a body that can only function if it’s perceived to be nonpolitical by openly coordinating with the administration.

So, that’s bad and the Senate should soundly reject her. But Trump nominated her on July 2, 2019—at which time it was quite possible, if not more likely than not, that he’d win reelection. So, rather clearly, his selection isn’t an attempt to “salt the earth” for the next administration. Rather, this is the caliber of individual with which he routinely surrounds himself.

Still, she devotes several paragraphs to the matter.

Her close is even weirder if it’s intended to support the headline thesis:

Outgoing presidential administrations have engaged in petty, puerile pranks against their successors, such as stealing W keys from computer keyboards. This administration may be seeding something more sinister, across multiple critical institutions:

This landmine in the Fed. A hollowedout State Department. Brain-drained statistical and scientific agencies. A shredded social safety net. A gutted immigration system, so financially mismanaged that about 75 percent of its employees are slated for furlough in two weeks. A hobbled higher-education system, once the envy of the world, now struggling to attract global talent because the administration has made it so difficult for that talent to study here. Perhaps a permanently lost tax-revenue stream from the past several decades of unrealized capital gains.

Of course, much could change before November. What might Trump do if, after so much destruction and earth-scorching, he wins reelection?

Perhaps he hasn’t thought that far ahead. Or maybe he’d revel in the “Mad Max“-style landscape he’s now cultivating. William Tecumseh Sherman left flames in his wake; Trump appears to prefer everything on fire, at all times, around him.

Again, none of this is evidence that Trump thinks he’s going to lose or that he’s intentionally sabotaging things for his successor. This is how he’s governed since Day 1. While post hoc ergo propter hoc (after, therefore because) is a logical fallacy, it’s at least an understandable one. Rampel is engaging in its opposite.

In the incredibly unlikely event Trump is re-elected he’ll keep “salting the earth.” Not because he’s trying to leave his successor a mess but because he’s an awful President who thinks career professionals are a Deep State standing in the way of implementing his moronic policies. And he’s not entirely wrong on that.

In the much more likely event that Joe Biden is inaugurated next January 20th, he’s going to inherit a mess that he won’t be able to clean up in a single term. Even aside from the calamitous effects of the pandemic—which, to be clear, would have been calamitous under a President Hillary Clinton, simply less so—it’s going to take years to rebuild the hollowed-out federal workforce.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Donald Trump
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Kylopod says:

    Since the 1990s, the pattern has been clear. Democrats get into the White House having to clean up Republican messes. That’s what happened in 1992, 2008, and presumably this year. Republicans, in contrast, cheat their way into the White House while the country is doing well—as in 2000 and 2016. The asymmetry of this situation goes a long way in explaining why we’re so behind other developed countries in so many ways. The system is skewed to support the conservative reactionary party for no good reason, while the liberal party only regains its power when the other screws up badly, throwing it off course from actually solving the country’s systemic problems in any uniform or sustained way.

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  2. MarkedMan says:

    A nit, but one I can’t leave alone: the “W” keys thing was a lie. It didn’t happen. But once lazy pundits get something like that in their head they can never let it go. It’s like the equally false claim that Gore claimed to have invented the Internet.

    Stephen Colbert called this out on the first of the old “Colbert Report” shows: Truthiness. Things that sound so deliciously true that they are more powerful than facts.

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  3. James Joyner says:

    @MarkedMan: I, too, thought that most of that had been debunked but there’s actually a rather extensive GAO report documenting the incidents.

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  4. MarkedMan says:

    @MarkedMan: Too late to edit but I should make it clear that while the GAO investigation into the Bush claims that the Clinton officials had “trashed the White House” did find items in disrepair, total costs for the hundreds of offices was less than $15k and included things like replacing worn out carpeting. The actual “vandalism” was mostly that some staff members had grabbed souvenirs in their way out, taking some items that had the presidential seal. 62 keyboards were replaced and the Bush Administation claimed it was because the “W” key had been stolen, we will never know if that is the case or if they were just eight year old grimy keyboards. Because despite the fact that virtually every cell phone had a camera at the time, not a single one took a picture of this supposed trashing. Odd, isn’t that?

    Anyway, apologies for taking the thread off topic in the second post.

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  5. James Joyner says:

    @MarkedMan: Overall, I think it amounted to some minor shenanigans and some petulant destructiveness. Somewhat understandable, really, given the hard feelings over the Florida fight.

    But, no, cellphone cameras weren’t actually a thing in January of 2001. They had been invented in South Korea the previous year but the first US models didn’t hit until 2002.

    And, yes, let’s not spend the thread rehashing a 20-year-old brouhaha.

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  6. Joe says:

    @MarkedMan: Every cell phone had a camera in 2001? You know the iPhone didn’t come out until 2007.

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  7. KM says:

    @Joe :
    But there were these things called disposable cameras. Should for some reason there not be enough official photography equipment to document such destruction, someone could have popped out to the local corner store to grab a handful. So, pics or it didn’t happen still applies.

    And yes, cellphones had cameras back in 2001. Not all but if you were working in the WH you could afford the better quality models. My damn cheapo indestructible Nokia pay-by-the-minute had one back in the day. Terrible quality, could only take like 3 shots but it had a camera. Cellphones existed before Apple you know – Kyocera’s 1st cam phone model first came out in ’99 and Blackberries and Motorola back in the day would have had some features.

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  8. Michael Reynolds says:

    I read the column last night as I was falling asleep and could not find the meat of it. I’m relieved that @Joyner had the same reaction to the column as I did. I thought maybe I’d had a stroke in my reading comprehension area of the brain.

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  9. MarkedMan says:

    @James Joyner🙁 My bad on the 2001 cell phone camera thing. For some reason I was mentally adding ten years to when they arrived.)

    As to your more important issue of the damage he is leaving behind, I think it’s more of a Republican issue. They have successfully installed hundreds, perhaps thousands of anti-environmentalists in the EPA, anti-labor fanatics at the Department of Labor, pro-business libertarian kooks at the Consumer protection bureau, well, the list goes on. Added to that are corrupt lawyers at the DOJ, unhinged partisans as judges and… it’s just too depressing to think about…

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  10. Kathy says:

    @KM:

    Cellphones existed before Apple you know

    Not only that, but MP3 players and smart phones existed before the ipod and iphone.

    Apple just hypes better.

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  11. Kathy says:

    Back on topic, the upside of some natural disasters, namely floods and volcanic eruptions, is they leave behind fresh, nutrient rich soil on which life thrives. This is not some kind of organic Earth cycle, nor some mystical metaphor, but simply a side effect, and the fact that these things happen often enough that life has adapted to them.

    We haven’t’ adapted to wanton, malicious destruction, and may we never have the chance to.

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  12. Northerner says:

    @Kathy:

    We haven’t’ adapted to wanton, malicious destruction, and may we never have the chance to.

    Well, we’ve adapted enough to recover from the wanton, malicious destruction of two world wars (and the chemicals used in the Vietnam War etc), so actually as a species we’re fairly resilient. However, that doesn’t mean Trump should be trying to test our ability to recover.

    Perhaps the biggest test is going to be climate change (though war and some other pollutants could give it a run for its money), and that’s beyond the influence of any single leader (the USA is only the second largest producer of greenhouse gases — see the wikipedia page on greenhouse gas production). Biden is going to be much better than Trump (on this as on everything else), but it’s not going to be something he can control either.

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  13. Nightcrawler says:

    No, he didn’t think he’d lose a year ago, so I’ll buy he wasn’t purposefully destroying things on his way out the door back then. However, both he and the GOP are doing so now.

    They remind me of my ex-tenants. They left three months early because they’d been paying the rent sporadically, and my husband and I told them that they could either get out, or we were going to file for eviction (that’s not cheap; it’s better to just tell deadbeats to leave — most of the time, they will, to avoid having an eviction on their record). So they did, but in their last 10 days in this unit, they destroyed as many things as possible: stuffing garbage in the attic, pouring soda into the carpet, kicking kitchen cabinets in, pouring grease down the sink.

    Notably, this was all on top of the things they destroyed long before they knew we wanted them out. They were filthy people. I found out they’d been breeding dogs. To keep their dog-breeding activities a secret from the neighbors, they kept them indoors most of the time, and the place smelled of piss and was infested with fleas. Our contractor had to use the same type of chemicals that crime scene cleanup places use to sanitize and get rid of the smell of decomposing bodies and hoarding situations.

    There were many other signs of damage that was clearly done over a period of time. For example, the attic was filled with way more than 10 days of garbage.

    Did I mention they had three children, including an infant, living in this filth?

    We literally gutted the place; it doesn’t even resemble the house they trashed. Hell, it barely resembles the house we rented out to them 5 years ago. Since we had to rip it apart anyway, and I knew we were going to be mired here for a long time because apocalypse, we went more upscale when we put it back together.

    DT and the GOP have done, and are doing, the same thing to the country that my ex-tenants did to the house. In the beginning, yeah, their actions were just the way they governed. However, now that they know they’re going down, they’ve decided to destroy as many things — and kill as many people — as they possibly can on their way out the door.

    At least my tenants didn’t kill people. They just destroyed a house. We were able to put the house back together. All the people the GOP have murdered are gone.

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  14. Gustopher says:

    I don’t think Trump has gotten to the deliberately salting the earth phase yet. He’s just been using salt as fertilizer.

    When he realizes that he’s lost, things are going to get much worse. Or maybe he will get sad and detached and the government will mostly coast for a few months… that would be nice.

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  15. CSK says:

    @Gustopher:
    It would be nice if Trump got sad and detached, but if “John” weren’t his middle name, “Vindictive” would be.

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  16. Kylopod says:

    @Nightcrawler:

    No, he didn’t think he’d lose a year ago, so I’ll buy he wasn’t purposefully destroying things on his way out the door back then. However, both he and the GOP are doing so now.

    It’s trickier than some people realize to discern what Trump is actually thinking, since on the one hand he lies and gaslights to a massive degree, and on the other he’s incredibly stupid and ignorant and probably does genuinely believe at least some of the BS claims he makes. The recent flap with the cognitive test is a perfect example. Personally, I think he bombed the test and is covering it up. But I also think he really believes the test is the equivalent of an IQ test, and that passing it is a point of pride. So (if my assumptions are accurate) he’s lying about what happened with the test but not his understanding of what the test represents. He’s seriously deluded about the latter–but is accurately revealing the way he thinks about it.

    So when he calls all the polls showing him losing fake news, does he really believe it? It’s worth remembering that reports suggest he himself was surprised on Election Night 2016. Although he was saying he was definitely going to win, he didn’t actually believe it. So what does he think now when he looks at the polls? I think he realizes his electoral chances are in deep jeopardy. And I think he’s genuinely scared of losing in a way he wasn’t in 2016, which he didn’t enter expecting to win anyway. But I’m not ready to assume he’s in any way resigned to losing, as the above article suggests. I think the metaphor of the cornered rat is more appropriate. He’s desperate and flailing, and he’s going to try to do whatever he can to stay in power. Which, frankly, scares the hell out of me.

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  17. CSK says:

    @Kylopod:
    Is he unaware of the thousands of people who have publicly derided him precisely because he believes–or at least desperately wants to promote the idea–that the MoCA is an I.Q. test? Twitter is full of videos of people’s five-year-old children reciting those five words. Hell, there are videos of people’s dogs taking that test. Trump is a laughingstock. Does he not know this?

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  18. CSK says:

    I just Googled the words “Donald Trump” and “laughingstock” and got 113,000,000 results.

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  19. Kylopod says:

    @CSK:

    Is he unaware of the thousands of people who have publicly derided him precisely because he believes–or at least desperately wants to promote the idea–that the MoCA is an I.Q. test?

    My sense is that he’s got a genuine difficulty grasping the concept of a bare minimum threshold. Another example of it is his repeated claim to be the “least racist” person ever. Even though he’s lying, he does actually look at these things as a contest in which one person can be at the top. If he understood that the cognitive test wasn’t a test of intelligence, he wouldn’t be bragging about it.

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  20. CSK says:

    @Kylopod:
    This just occurred to me: I wonder if he says these things mantra-like in the hope that they’ll sink into the brains–for lack of a better word–of his culties, who will then believe them and repeat them. I have seen his ardent fans over at Lucianne.com repeat that Trump is the “least racist” person ever.

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  21. Kylopod says:

    @CSK:

    This just occurred to me: I wonder if he says these things mantra-like in the hope that they’ll sink into the brains–for lack of a better word–of his culties, who will then believe them and repeat them.

    I definitely think there’s an element of that. It’s the way he operates. I’ve made the analogy before to Jedi Mind Tricks, and I think that’s essentially what he tries to do: He thinks if just says something over and over he can make people believe it through sheer force of will. And in fairness, it does have an influence over the weak-minded. But it’s still a bizarre thing to do. Most people, even highly dishonest people, understand that if you want to mislead others, you don’t do it by calling added attention to the thing in question. If the cop gives you a ticket, you’re not going to get out of paying it by telling everyone you meet that you’re the “greatest driver in the world.”

    And this gets into the complex relationship between Trump’s dishonesty and his delusion: the very fact that he lies so blatantly and so often is a reflection of his inability to understand how ineffective it is as a method of persuasion. Ironically, people who avoid telling blatant, easily disprovable lies are often better at tricking people. Trump has considerable power over his cult, but past politicians knew how to deceive larger numbers of people without being so cartoonishly dishonest. When Bush was asked why he went into Iraq and he said “the enemy attacked us,” he wasn’t technically lying (the statement was too vague to be a lie), but I think it reached more people because it wasn’t so blatantly false, but merely implied what he wanted people to think. Moreover, it only concerned his policies as president; he wasn’t getting into trivial stuff like the size of his crowds. Even a lot of raging egomaniacs would avoid that kind of behavior simply because they at least have the sense to realize how dumb it sounds. Even a person who wants others to think he’s an absolute genius usually has some understanding that simply declaring himself to be an absolute genius tends to have the opposite effect. Trump somehow never developed that level of understanding; he still thinks like a 4-year-old when it comes to this element of social behavior.

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  22. Kathy says:

    @Kylopod:

    You can’t lie effectively without some measure of empathy. Not without taking into consideration what the other person, or large number of people, will regard as plausible. Then you have to consider what they would regard as reflecting badly on you.

    Can you imagine Trump doing that?

    IMO, he’s telling the world the lies he tells himself.

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  23. Kylopod says:

    @Kathy:

    You can’t lie effectively without some measure of empathy.

    Really? From my understanding, sociopaths are typically very adept at lying. Trump is an exception, because he’s so incredibly stupid.

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  24. flat earth luddite says:

    @CSK:
    No, I don’t actually think he hears all the negatives. First, because I suspect he doesn’t recognize anyone outside his “group” as being actually, you know, real human beings. The ancient trope about the word for “stranger” being the same as for “enemy.” Secondly, he’s in that critically dangerous position of having staff and subordinates who are afraid to tell him the unpleasant truth, so all he hears on a daily basis is “No, boss, that suit looks great!”

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  25. Hal_10000 says:

    @Kylopod:

    Democrats get into the White House having to clean up Republican messes. That’s what happened in 1992, 2008, and presumably this year.

    I’ll agree with you on 2008 and (hopefully) 2020 but not 1992. Bush I raised taxes to deal with the deficit (as did Reagan), which cost him votes. He fought a very limited war and refused to get pulled into a quagmire. He managed the end of the Cold War. And even the GOP, after taking Congress, brought us balanced budgets. It was under Bush II that it went off the rails.

    Also will agree with James’ larger point. Trump isn’t scorching the Earth. He’s been burning the farm and eating the seed corn since the day he came into office.

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  26. Kylopod says:

    @Hal_10000:

    I’ll agree with you on 2008 and (hopefully) 2020 but not 1992. Bush I raised taxes to deal with the deficit (as did Reagan), which cost him votes. He fought a very limited war and refused to get pulled into a quagmire. He managed the end of the Cold War.

    I actually agree: Bush I’s achievements were underappreciated at the time. (He did briefly become extremely popular after Desert Storm, but that was all washed away by election time.) My framing it as another example of a “Democrat getting into the White House having to clean up Republican messes” is based on two factors. First, I’m not letting Reagan off the hook in producing some of the problems Clinton had to deal with. Second, Bush I presided over a recession that, fairly or not, damaged him politically (it technically ended in early 1991, but the effects of it were still being felt by election time, as unemployment remained stubbornly high and rising). Part of my point is that Dems only seem to win when a sitting Republican president becomes unpopular due to problems the Dems are forced to focus their attention on upon entering office. The two Republican presidents in this period, in contrast, got in under a popular Democratic president due to the quirks of the electoral college (and in the case of 2000, a highly questionable electoral victory). The asymmetry of the situation is what I was commenting on.

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