How bad is it?

Paul Constant

January 23, 2018

On Saturday, thousands of women’s march protesters made downtown Seattle feel as vibrant and alive as it does on any weekday. You could tell who the protesters were by their signs, by their pink knit hats, by the spontaneous chants that joyfully erupted on street corners and in public spaces.

Much of the media failed to acknowledge the hundred thousand protesters who gathered peacefully at Cal Anderson Park and marched down to Seattle Center, but if you were on the street, these protesters were impossible to ignore. They were everywhere, demanding to be seen and heard. It was the one-year anniversary of Donald Trump’s inauguration and the first day of a government shutdown that the Republican administration could have avoided a thousand different ways.

The 2018 Women’s March felt like a moment to reassess, to remember what we’ve lost in the last year, what happened and what didn’t happen during Donald Trump’s first year in office. But I’m not the first—or the millionth and first—to note that a week in the Trump presidency feels like six months of any other administration. It’s almost impossible to keep the scope of the Trump administration’s damage inside an average human brain that also has to do things like work and manage a life.

I’m thankful, then, for journalist David Cay Johnston’s brand-new book It’s Even Worse Than You Think: What the Trump Administration Is Doing to America. What Worse does is essential — it tracks the actual policies of the Trump administration and tallies the cost of those policies to date. It holds Trump accountable for all his lies. It looks at everything that has happened, and lays it out in plain English.

Though I haven’t read Fire and Fury in its entirety yet — the published excerpts seemed to tell most of the story of the book — I have not been comfortable with those who argue that the book is merely a distraction from the “real” damage being done to the United States. From what I’ve read thus far, Fire is a tabloid-style gossip account of the Trump presidency, and I couldn’t imagine anything more appropriate. Trump is our first real gossip-column president — he’s been a staple in gossip columns his entire adult life, even feeding tips about himself to gossip columnists for decades under pseudonyms. Fire, then, is exactly the book that Trump deserves.

But I’d like to make a deal with you right now. If you’ve read Fire, please also read Worse. Really, it’s the perfect companion piece: While Fire depicts the chaos of the inside of the Trump administration, Worse lays plain all the chaos the Trump administration is exacting on the America outside the White House.

Jordan Barab, the second-in-command at President Obama’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), tells Johnston what it was like in the beginning of the Trump administration:

After the election, Barab’s concerns that the Trump administration would be bad for workers increased when he asked where the Trump beachhead team was and learned that none was coming. Each incoming administrator sends people to scope out federal agencies, learn who does what, and get a feel for the place in advance. Then the incoming administration sends its landing team, the people who will initially implement its policies at each agency.

When no beachhead team came, Barab figured it meant worker safety simply was not a priority for Trump. He hoped that was the worst of it, nothing more than apathy about worker safety. But when the landing team arrived, Barab realized trouble was coming for American workers, and it was not official apathy but the start of assaults on workers’ rights and safety. “Most of them had no idea they were going to Labor and had no interest in worker issues, either,” Barab said.

What they did have was a mandate to delay, repeal, or weaken regulations that protected workers as part of Trump’s plan to eliminate “any regulation that is outdated, unnecessary, bad for workers, or contrary to the national interest.”

In other words, they’re intentionally tearing everything down. They’re trying to radically change the idea of what the federal government is and what it can do. More importantly: they’re winning.

They’re doing the same thing on an international scale. Johnston also details all the ways America has abdicated its global role as guardian and leader. From Trump begging on the phone with the Mexican president that “We are both in a little bit of a political bind because I have to have Mexico pay for the wall—I have to” to Trump’s shameless promotion of business interests in the Middle East, Johnston details the chaos that Trump has sown around the planet.

Johnston also tenaciously tracks all of Trump’s promises and reports when there’s been no progress on those promises. Specifically, Trump promised a hotline “answered by a real person 24 hours a day to make sure that no valid complaint about the [U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs] ever falls through the cracks.” Johnston notes that “no hotline had been set up at the White House or at any other government facility. The White House said it did not know when a hotline might be activated.” Johnston also observes that Trump’s budget proposes cuts for the VA, not additional funding, so the hotline is unlikely to be created within the next year at least.

It’s kind of dizzying—and more than a little sick-making—to read this whole case so meticulously laid out between two covers. Johnston is a competent and trustworthy score-keeper, tracking every failing of the Trump administration so that we can fully comprehend what we’ve lost.

Assuming that Trump stays in office for the next three years, I hope Johnston will publish a book every January, so that those marching in the streets can remember everything that has been done to their country, and so that those who eventually vote Trump out of office can figure out how to restore or replace all the damage that his administration has done to the country.

As I was reading Worse, I could picture those four books all lined up in a single boxed set—something flashy, with an image that is only evident when you put all four spines together in order. It’s a set I’d like to see in every library around the country so that we don’t forget the evil that we all allowed to happen in our lifetime.

What would I title the boxed set? Easy. I’d call it The Price.

Books in this review:
  • It's Even Worse Than You Think
    by David Cay Johnston
    Simon and Schuster
    January 15, 2018
    320 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the LA Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

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