The most frightening aspect of the looming Donald Trump presidency is not so much the likely outcomes, many of which are horrifying, as the unlikely ones. Running the federal government of the world’s most powerful country is hard, and many things can go wrong. Full control of government is about to pass into the hands of a party that, when it last had it, left the economy and the world in a shambles. These disasters occurred because the party’s ideological extremism made it unequipped to make pragmatic choices, and because its chief executive was a mental lightweight. Sixteen years after it last came to power, the party has grown far more ideologically extreme, and its head of state is much less competent. Many of the tail risks of an extremist party led by an unqualified president are difficult to foresee in advance. But one is especially glaring: the appointment of Michael Flynn (below right, with staffers K.T. McFarland and Michael Flynn Jr.) to be national security adviser…
Flynn’s portrait seems to reflect the worst qualities of Dick Cheney, but in exaggerated form. Flynn avidly subscribes to conspiracy theories. He believes Islamists have infiltrated the Mexican border en masse, guided along the way by Arabic-language signs Flynn claims to have seen himself. He also believes that Democrats have imposed Sharia law in parts of Florida, and shared a now-deleted tweet that suggested Hillary Clinton could have been involved in child sex trafficking. These claims were frequent enough that his subordinates at the Defense Intelligence Agency gave them a name, “Flynn facts,” which means a Flynn belief that is the opposite of a fact.
It is almost impossible to overstate the danger to American national security posed by the combination of Flynn and his staff. Because his appointment is not subject to Senate confirmation, and also because it has been overshadowed by the Rex Tillerson nomination and its connection to the fast-moving Russia story, Flynn has receded from the front pages. His appointment is unprecedented, like so many other other things Trump has done — indeed, the endless violations of precedent are what make Trump’s election so surreal, and its dangers difficult to order.
But it is the specific, mutually reinforcing characteristics of Flynn and his staff that invite the most alarm. He is a conspiracy theorist averse to any challenge to his suspicions, surrounding himself with a staff of fellow conspiracy theorists seemingly designed to shut out any challenge to his biases, providing advice to a novice president who is himself a conspiracy theorist. It’s under-informed, overconfident crackpots all the way down. As a comedic script, it would defy plausibility. Except there’s a terrifying chance that a lot of innocent people will die as a result.