Cover image of "It's Even Worse Than You Think," a book about Trump's "political termites."

Most of the books I’ve read about Donald Trump focus on the man himself, his relations with the people surrounding him in the White House, and his behavior. David Cay Johnston’s book is somewhat different. Trump’s erratic actions and insults are acknowledged throughout. He is unquestionably the star of the story. But It’s Even Worse Than You Think: What the Trump Administration Is Doing to America spotlights the policies Trump has promoted and the people he’s named to senior positions in government. The picture is devastating. He calls Trump’s appointees “political termites.”

As Johnston notes at the outset, “the Trump presidency is unlike anything that came before, a presidency built on open public contempt for Constitutional principles.”

Item: kleptocracy is the new normal

In a blatant violation of the law and the US Constitution, Trump is brazenly promoting his own businesses, most notably the Trump International Hotel in Washington and Mar-a-Lago in Florida. He is personally raking in many millions of dollars as a result. (Johnston’s detailed description about how the scheme works is eye-opening.) And Trump is not alone in self-dealing. Key appointees are promoting the industries and the individual companies where they previously worked, and in some cases they’re directly profiting from the policies they promulgate or the regulations they eliminate. Others, including at least one billionaire, are routinely traveling on the government’s dime although their predecessors carefully paid for their own travel when on personal business.

Donald Trump frequently spoke about “draining the swamp” in his campaign. As one former official put it, “we thought they were talking about lobbyists, but they meant civil servants . . . the civil servants were the swamp.” Instead, Trump has appointed industry allies, including many lobbyists, to run the agencies they have sued, lobbied, or otherwise weakened in the past. And the damage they are doing is little reported in the news media. I’ll cite just two examples.

It’s Even Worse Than You Think: What the Trump Administration Is Doing to America by David Cay Johnston (2018) 321 pages ★★★★★ 

Item: Trump’s “political termites” are undermining our government

Trump is attempting to defund a long list of government agencies, including not just such long-time Republican candidates for oblivion such as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting but less-well-known agencies including the Trade and Development Agency (TDA). The TDA encourages exports of high-value American goods and assists domestic companies that require assistance to operate successfully overseas, thus helping create jobs for American workers; its elimination would run counter to Trump’s repeated insistence that he will create “job growth the likes of which our country has not seen in a very long time.” (That’s just one of many ways in which the Trump Administration is discouraging rather than encouraging job growth, a subject to which Johnston devotes a chapter of its own.)

To ensure that these agencies are crippled even if Congress declines to defund them, Trump has appointed men and women like Betsy DeVos, Scott Pruitt, Rex Tillerson, and others with lower profiles who will make it difficult or impossible for their employees to perform their duties effectively. And they’re doing a very good job of that—by failing to appoint the high-level officials needed to approve their work, by instituting policies and procedures designed to frustrate them, or simply by creating an environment within the agency that discourages aggressive action on behalf of the public.

Item: Trump’s “forgotten man” is forgotten by his Administration

On the campaign trail, in his inaugural address, and in myriad ways since, Donald Trump has continued to emphasize that he is in office to protect the “forgotten man.” He continually proclaims his concern for workers. But the actions he and his “political termites” have taken, and insist they will continue taking, are anything but supportive of middle-class working families. (Poor people are not just forgotten—they’re not even mentioned among the forgotten.)

For example:

  • Moving to emasculate the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau subjects millions of us once again to the unrestrained predations of predatory lenders.
  • Eliminating environmental regulations exposes us all to foul air and polluted water and erodes one of our country’s proudest accomplishments, our National Parks.
  • Opening up our coastal waters for oil and gas exploration endangers the livelihood and the quality of life of millions of Americans who live near the shore.
  • Eviscerating OSHA ensures that “‘workers will pay the price for rolling back these hard-earned protections—in injury, illness, and death,'” in the words of one critic quoted by Johnston.

And “[s]pending less on scientific research is not a policy to make or keep America great and it certainly is not a policy to put American workers first.” As Johnston notes, “research shows that at least half of American economic growth since World War II stems from advances in science and technology”—and a disproportionate share of those advances have come from government labs or work financed by government grants.

The damage will last for decades

Yes, even if you faithfully follow the political news, you may conclude, as I did, that “it’s even worse than you think.” It’s profoundly disturbing to read, chapter after chapter, the evidence of the damage Donald Trump and his “political termites” has already done to our country. Johnston ranges far afield, detailing the devastation at State, Education, the EPA, the VA, and other critical agencies.

Even if Trump is forced out of office before his term is up, or the Democrats win control of both houses of Congress in the 2018 election and the presidency in 2020, cleaning up the mess may take decades.

  • Simply recruiting and training replacements for all the experienced foreign service officers, scientists, and regulators fired or forced to resign will take many years.
  • Restoring the morale of the departments they led won’t be easy, either. Nor will the tedious work of recovering or rewriting the hard-fought regulations that protected our health and our financial wellbeing.
  • And who knows how long the Federal courts will remain under the sway of Neil Gorsuch and like-minded “strict constructionists?” (Johnston’s portrait of Gorsuch is unflattering to say the least. Yes, the newest Supreme Court Justice is even worse than I thought.)

David Cay Johnston is an investigative reporter specializing in economic and tax issues, to which he gives a great deal of attention in It’s Even Worse Than You Think. He has won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting and is the author of six previous nonfiction books.

I’ve reviewed several other books about Donald Trump. See Fire and Fury review: Exposing the chaos in the Trump White HouseCollusion exposed, but is there more? Is Donald Trump a Russian agent?, and A conservative explains how Donald Trump corrupts democracy. In fact, this is one of 15 books about Donald Trump and his impact on American democracy.

Like to read books about politics and current affairs? Check out Top 10 nonfiction books about politics.

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