I worry less about Kim Jong-Un than I do Betsy DeVos. The North Korean dictator, for one, doesn’t have dominion over the educational futures of nearly 51 million elementary and secondary students and countless more in college. Barring a nuclear attack, of course, the wealthy charter-school champion is poised to play a much larger role than Kim will in determining the future of United States. The sophomoric invective he directs at us pales in comparison to the utter disrespect that President Trump demonstrated by nominating her to lead the Department of Education in the first place. To build a United States government of the worst people, one must not merely be amateurish. It requires a special hatred for America to form a kakistocracy.
DeVos earned every bit of the hell she caught for botching her 60 Minutes profile last Sunday night. Even aside from her inarticulate espousal of insane Trump proposals like arming schoolteachers, DeVos flaunted the kind of casual incoherence that was funnier ten years ago when Sarah Palin ruined herself with that Katie Couric interview. It was difficult to laugh as CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl flummoxed DeVos, a dogged advocate of “school choice,” with rather basic questions about her alleged areas of expertise. It was difficult to muster even the kind of nervous snicker that you might let squeak out when a colleague or classmate embarrasses themselves by being unprepared for a presentation. The Secretary of Education not only failed the test; she clearly hadn’t cared enough to study.
Regarding public education, she told Stahl, “We have invested billions and billions and billions of dollars from the federal level, and we have seen zero results.” Stahl immediately noted that test scores have improved over the last 25 years and that DeVos was quite literally avoiding reality to adhere to her charter-school absolutism. She then tried to say that her priority was “investing in students, not in school buildings, not in institutions, not in systems,” surely news to the Baltimore students who continue to freeze in their dilapidated classrooms due to a lack of heat. DeVos has been in office for 13 months now, and she exhibited a rather cursory relationship with information that she should have mastered by now.
Those who have yet to hear (or sound) the deafening alarms about this administration use words like “polarizing” rather than “dangerous” to describe Trump officials like DeVos, still nurturing notions that this president and his Cabinet can actually operate the franchise they’ve been trusted with. The reality is that the United States is now learning to live without a functional president or government. They are out of ideas, save those that feed the cultural insecurities of their base. “Infrastructure Week” has become a punchline. Puerto Rico has been abandoned, as has Flint. What makes all this worse is that this was the plan, born from Trump’s lack of knowledge, varied bigotries, and intellectual incuriosity. We Americans are on our own, and what we saw Sunday night from DeVos was only a reminder.
As the most vulnerable in our society have long known, incompetence and willful disregard in Washington is common. Kakistocracies are not. Even conservatives in the Reagan era who preached the gospel of limited government saw some value in the actual practice of governance. Today, all that voters on the right seem to demand of their elected officials is headline fodder and comfort in the face of a more multicultural future. They voted less for a president than an emotion, and Trump’s results thus far bear that out. Even their few efforts to shape legislation have been darkly comical. A government that works is a pretty important thing, yet this one will always be more skilled at reproducing gruel for cable consumption than it will be at forming policy.
What both in this White House and from Republicans in Congress are giving us now is more akin to an aggressive virus than an operational Washington apparatus. Like the president they serve, DeVos and many of her fellow cabinet members have proven themselves not merely the antithesis of what their particular offices require, but a band of grifters wearing the masks of public servants as they seek to profit politically or financially from their service. Virtually every office is undergoing a hostile takeover. Scott Pruitt, friend of polluters, is busy dismantling the Environmental Protection Agency in the service of his polluter friends. Chair enthusiast Ben Carson is chosen to lead Housing and Urban Development – perhaps because he is “urban,” but also so that he might spread his brand of Horatio Algerism: those pick-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps myths that are only meant to blame the poor for their own plights. Jeff Sessions is living his best life in his efforts to implement Jim Crow, Jr. Budget director Mick Mulvaney is also busy making the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau kinder to the payday loan vultures who contributed to his Congressional campaign.
David Shulkin, Wilbur Ross and Ryan Zinke are authoring their own brands of disaster. Even the abrupt firing of Rex Tillerson, who let the State Department atrophy under his watch, opens the door for things to get worse: Koch-funded CIA chairman Mike Pompeo is poised to replace him. Gina Haspel, the deputy CIA head, will be nominated for the top job despite being dogged by her past tenure running a Bush-era black site prison in Thailand where suspected al Qaeda leader Abu Zubaydah had previously been subjected to waterboarding. In Trump’s kakistocracy, these are the folks who are getting promotions.
DeVos may end up doing the most lasting damage, though. For years prior to her nomination, the Secretary of Education been quite literally invested in the death of public education. Combining a religious fanaticism with a zeal for selling the false gold of school vouchers, DeVos was also a massive donor to Republican candidates and causes. Yet despite her crusade for charters, DeVos had no experience whatsoever working in schools, and it showed again on Sunday night.
She stumbled most prominently when the educational woes of her home state came up. “Your argument that if you take funds away that the schools will get better is not working in Michigan, where you had a huge impact and influence over the direction of the school system here,” Stahl said. DeVos had nothing for her then, but tried a Twitter retort the day after the segment aired. She only ended up proving Stahl’s point, as the figures showed that Michigan’s scores on reading and math tests began to decline more quickly than the national average after the state began to adopt her ideas.
That was a political own goal, compounding her terrible performance. But the interviews she gave to Stahl were a trainwreck not merely because she was clearly unprepared. It takes more than the worst people to make a kakistocracy, after all. It also requires the worst plans.
Playing her part in the Trump project to further imbue public policy with his outlook on the world. Asked about her misbegotten withdrawal of Obama-era guidance on campus sexual assault last fall, DeVos drew a false equivalence between the plight of rape accusers and the accused. “Well, one sexual assault is too many and one falsely accused individual is too many,” she said, as if men were incorrectly labeled (and convicted) as rapists as often as people are raped. DeVos was also evasive when Stahl addressed issues of systemic discrimination and inequality. When the topic of racially disproportionate school discipline came up, DeVos again tried to go micro, insisting that “it comes down to individual kids” – dismissing any systemic issues out of hand even as her Department seeks to exacerbate them by reversing the Obama guidance that seeks to prevent such discriminatory discipline. Of all the Cabinet secretaries, it is most alarming perhaps to see the Secretary of Education so recklessly disregard facts.
The issue of arming teachers also came up, and DeVos invalidated Trump’s idea even as she tried to promote it. “That should be an option for states and communities to consider. And I hesitate to think of, like, my first-grade teacher, Mrs. Zorhoff – I couldn’t ever imagine her having a gun and being trained in that way. But for those who are, who are capable, this is one solution that can and should be considered.” When asked about her clunky visit to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the site of a Valentine’s Day gun massacre that killed 17 people, DeVos volunteered that she had asked to lead a task force on improving gun safety in schools – something that is ostensibly within the purview of her job. (I hesitate to even put this in the air, but God help us if the Secretary asks her warmonger brother, Erik Prince of Blackwater infamy, for ideas on how to protect schools.) But since DeVos has no business in the job that she has, it stands to question why any President would trust her to discover a solution that actually works. Unless he just didn’t care.
There may be nothing that we can do. There are hints of White House disappointment in DeVos’ performance last Sunday night – but though she is easily Trump’s biggest liability in the Cabinet, there is a risk in alienating a multibillionaire donor like her. There is no momentum to pressure the President to give her the Tillerson treatment. But at the risk of sounding jingoistic, it matters that we have a working government and institutions that work. Even as those institutions so regularly fail people who look like me, it is more important than ever that we work to preserve them. People who truly love this country challenge it to improve, and we see no impetus from Trump and his apologists to do as much. This goes beyond mere ineptitude. By nominating and supporting DeVos and others as dangerously ignorant and opportunistic as he, Trump has proven that he isn’t merely incompetent. We should never forget that he is doing this on purpose.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect that Gina Haspel, Trump’s pick to head the CIA, did not oversee waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah, as previously reported by ProPublica.