Lewis (The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed Our Minds, 2016, etc.) turns timely political reporting he published in Vanity Fair into a book about federal government bureaucracies during the first year of the Donald Trump presidency. At first, the author’s curiosity about the relationship between individual citizens and massive federal agencies supported by taxpayer dollars did not lead him to believe the book would become a searing indictment of Trump. However, Lewis wisely allowed the evidence to dictate the narrative, resulting in a book-length indictment of Trump’s disastrous administration. The leading charge of the indictment is what Lewis terms “willful ignorance.” Neither Trump nor his appointees to head government agencies have demonstrated even the slightest curiosity about how those agencies actually function. After Trump’s election in November 2016, nobody from his soon-to-be-inaugurated administration visited federal agencies despite thorough preparation within those agencies to assist in a traditionally nonpartisan transition. Lewis primarily focuses on the Energy Department, the Agriculture Department, and the Commerce Department. To provide context, he contrasts the competent transition teams assembled after the previous elections of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Displaying his usual meticulous research and fluid prose, the author makes the federal bureaucracy come alive by focusing on a few individuals within each agency with fascinating—and sometimes heartwarming—backstories. In addition, Lewis explains why each of those individuals is important to the citizenry due to their sometimes-arcane but always crucial roles within the government. Throughout the book, unforgettable tidbits emerge, such as the disclosure by a Forbes magazine compiler of the world’s wealthiest individuals list that only three tycoons have intentionally misled the list’s compilers—one of the three is Trump, and another is Wilbur Ross, appointed by Trump as Commerce Secretary.
As with nearly all of Lewis’ books, this one succeeds on so many levels, including as a well-written primer on how the government serves citizens in underappreciated ways.