Michael Lewis's latest book on America again produces a riveting read on what could be such a dry subject, writes Richard Fitzpatrick.
It was just after 1am in the morning when the penny dropped that Donald Trump had won the race to the White House in November 2016.
His running mate Mike Pence went to his wife, Karen, looking for a celebratory kiss. She turned away in disgust. “You got what you wanted, Mike,” she said. “Now leave me alone.”
Trump stared vacantly into the TV screen. The way the writer Michael Lewis puts it, Trump was like a dog that has chased a car and caught it.
Now what does he do?
His staff hadn’t even prepared an acceptance speech. Neither had Trump done anything to prepare himself to take over the running of a federal government.
Why study for an exam that you might never take, asks Lewis rhetorically.
In typically contrarian fashion, Lewis has turned potentially dry subject matter — the US civil service, which employs 2 million people, and Trump’s disregard for its institutions — into a good yarn.
In the book, entitled The Fifth Risk, he examines how ill-prepared and hostile Trump is towards his state departments and the dangers that negligence brings.
“You assume your civil service will just run things no matter who is elected, but it’s different in the United States,” says Lewis.
The first consequence is decay. A fifth of America’s top 6,000 civil servants quit in the first year of Trump’s administration, which is now edging towards a third.
“You’ve lost people with expertise in things like testing nuclear weapons,” says Lewis.
“The government’s job is to keep us safe. There are risks it has to manage and there are signs that they are being managed poorly.
"We won’t see all of these effects for decades. He’s been extraordinarily lucky that nothing really horrible has happened.”
Yet. Lewis elicits five of the most pressing risks affecting the United States from John MacWilliams, a former chief risk officer at the Department of Energy.
They include North Korea; Iran; risk of sabotage or disaster to the country’s electrical grid; and an accident with nuclear weapons, which is an ever-present danger.
Back in 1961, for example, a US nuclear bomb fell accidentally out of a plane.
The bomb, which was 250 times more powerful than the hydrogen bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, landed on a field in North Carolina, with three of its four safety mechanisms tripped.
Had the fourth one triggered, nuclear fallout might have descended as far away as New York and Washington, DC.
The fifth risk is more mundane and less specific albeit more insidious. It’s to do with project management skills.
How will the president — if his administration is poorly schooled — deal with the aftermath, say, of an unexpected pandemic or a terrorist chemical attack?
When questioned, Lewis explains the groundswell that has swept Trump into power: “To generalise, people in the Trump camp are people with status grievances like the feeling that some white men have when they see a black man getting elected president.
“I’m from the South. I watched this visceral, racialist response [to Barack Obama’s presidency]. I could talk to white male friends my age or my father’s age and they would be viscerally angry about Obama without actually mentioning anything racial. It just bothered them.”
Lewis also refers to the legitimate mistrust of systems.
“The financial crisis put a fine point on this. People legitimately felt: Is this whole game rigged?
"Can the fat cats do whatever they want and essentially live with a safety net under them and still pay themselves lots of money and retain their privilege and power while the rest of us have to live with the consequences of capitalism?”
Since his bestselling memoir Liar’s Poker was published in 1989, Lewis has written some of the standout non-fiction books of our age, including Moneyball and The Big Short, both of which were made into popular movies.
He’s part of a continuum of great American reportage, following predecessors such as Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe. He dedicates The Fifth Risk to Wolfe, a friend of Lewis’s for 30 years, who passed away this year.
“I learnt from Tom by watching him at work,” says Lewis. “There’s no substitute for going out and seeing the world, reporting, asking people questions, insinuating yourself into people’s lives.
"The unaided imagination is a poor substitute for getting out and mixing it up in the world. Two: you really have to be yourself on the page. Find your voice.
"Third, just because you get to become a well-known writer doesn’t mean you have to be an asshole. He was a delightful guy, giving and modest.”
It’s a description that could also be applied to Lewis.
In 2011, Michael Lewis visited Ireland to write a landmark story for Vanity Fair on the collapsing Irish economy, which later formed a chapter in his book Boomerang.
He was returning to a country he visited regularly — in particular Waterville, Co Kerry — during several years spent living in London in the 1980s.
During his return visit to Dublin in November 2018, a couple of things struck him.
“In no particular order I feel a little chastened because I’m surprised by how quickly [the Irish economy] has come back,” says Lewis.
“It’s amazing to me that all these formerly empty buildings are now full — already. That’s a tribute to how strong an economy this place had before it went all in in the great debt bonanza of the early 2000s.
“Second, it is remarkable how little formerly organised anger there is. I know there was some marches and all the rest, but if you’d have told me that your government was going to do what your government did — and essentially repay Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs and lots of other financial actors 100 cents on the dollar on the bonds; even they didn’t really think they were going to get more than 50 cents on the dollar — and they were going to do this by really squeezing the ordinary Irishman until his pips squeak, I’d have said: ‘You’ll have a revolution.’
“It didn’t happen. The character of the nation is so different to the character of most nations. It’s impressive.”
Michael Lewis was in Ireland for an International Literature Festival Dublin event at St Patrick’s Cathedral.
The Fifth Risk is published by Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin.