Rung choice: a workman up a ladder paints traffic lights in 1933. Photo: Getty
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I know it’s silly but I am superstitious: I’m trapped in the Hovel by a ladder in the doorway

Down and Out with Nicholas Lezard. 

I have to go out but as I open the front door I see a ladder propped up bang in front of me. Like many rationalists who revere science and the rule of reason, I am deeply superstitious, all the more so for knowing that it is very silly. It is the very silliness that exercises its grip on me.

Anyway, there it is. It’s bad luck to walk under a ladder and now I am paralysed by wondering if opening a door to find yourself already under a ladder can be said to constitute walking under it; and then by trying to work out whether I am slightly to the left or right of its centre, so that if I sidle out in that direction, I can claim that I have not, strictly speaking, contravened the injunction by not having passed through its vertical axis.

All this is very annoying, as I am cutting it a bit fine for the thing I have to go to and do not have time to go back in, have a cup of tea and hope that the workmen painting the bit above the front door will have finished and gone away by the next time I try to leave.

I muse a lot on fortune, though. Long-term readers of this column with unusually retentive memories may recall that I used to invoke The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, in which he remarked, while in prison after falling spectacularly out of favour with Theodoric the Great, that life’s all ups and downs, innit, although he put it rather more elegantly than that. We are all at the mercy of fortune’s wheel, he said: consul one moment, awaiting execution and sharing your bread with rats the next.

Because of my great good fortune of having been born in an affluent country at an epoch in history in which there are anaesthetics and medications that relieve asthma (once, gasping without an inhaler in the middle of a spidery house in the middle of nowhere in France, I found an old medical textbook that confidently asserted that asthma attacks were “never fatal”; had I been born even a century earlier, nothing on the broader scale of time, I would have been killed by medical ignorance), there is a certain resistance to the downward motion of the wheel. If you’re born to a poor family in most parts of the globe (and, increasingly, this one), then your lowly position on the wheel isn’t going to change very much.

So I’m not grumbling. But there is a certain contingency to all lives and somehow it has to be acknowledged. I once thanked Providence that I had met a certain person; she said that this sounded a little bit like thanking God. Maybe it is but I tried to wriggle out of this one by saying that it is a neutral way of not taking things for granted and Providence is nothing more than a shorthand for “what has happened” or “the way things have turned out” – although, yes, I did capitalise the word in my head, just in case Providence turns out, despite the lack of unambiguous evidence, to be a matter of the Abrahamic God, or the Fates, or some Nordic crones with a thing for spinning wheels, who have a stake or an agency in what goes on. I like to cover my bets, for the precise reason that one never knows what might happen.

Meanwhile, I know that very bad things indeed can happen, even if you have been born to become an adult in 21st-century Britain. It may not feel like that at the moment, when the worst here merely looks like the rise of Nigel Farage or any of the other clowns who constitute the political scene, but there are terrible things out there – the imagination can become a fire hose spewing out nightmares if you let it run away with itself and even if touching wood and thanking Providence are obviously futile gestures that will have no bearing on anything, they at least represent, like the coin in the chugger’s bucket, a token of consideration, the homage made to the sense that one ought to do something, however small, however feeble the gesture. And I am still aware, as indeed are the National Westminster Bank and all my other creditors, that I am too near the precipice to be able to walk with a carefree swagger through life.

Anyway, after a while, I decide to sidle round the doorway as far to the right as possible, the people in the shop next door thinking that I, always clearly on the brink of madness, have finally sailed off the edge. Breathing a sigh of relief at having outwitted the Norns, or whoever, I get run over by a No 13 bus on Gloucester Place. All right, I don’t actually but it could have happened

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Nigel Farage: The Arsonist

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Donald Trump ushers in a new era of kakistocracy: government by the worst people

Trump will lead the whitest, most male cabinet in memory – a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

“What fills me with doubt and dismay is the degradation of the moral tone,” wrote the American poet James Russell Lowell in 1876, in a letter to his fellow poet Joel Benton. “Is it or is it not a result of democracy? Is ours a ‘government of the people by the people for the people’, or a kakistocracy rather, for the benefit of knaves at the cost of fools?”

Is there a better, more apt description of the incoming Trump administration than “kakistocracy”, which translates from the Greek literally as government by the worst people? The new US president, as Barack Obama remarked on the campaign trail, is “uniquely unqualified” to be commander-in-chief. There is no historical analogy for a President Trump. He combines in a single person some of the worst qualities of some of the worst US presidents: the Donald makes Nixon look honest, Clinton look chaste, Bush look smart.

Trump began his tenure as president-elect in November by agreeing to pay out $25m to settle fraud claims brought against the now defunct Trump University by dozens of former students; he began the new year being deposed as part of his lawsuit against a celebrity chef. On 10 January, the Federal Election Commission sent the Trump campaign a 250-page letter outlining a series of potentially illegal campaign contributions. A day later, the head of the non-partisan US Office of Government Ethics slammed Trump’s plan to step back from running his businesses as “meaningless from a conflict-of-interest perspective”.

It cannot be repeated often enough: none of this is normal. There is no precedent for such behaviour, and while kakistocracy may be a term unfamiliar to most of us, this is what it looks like. Forget 1876: be prepared for four years of epic misgovernance and brazen corruption. Despite claiming in his convention speech, “I alone can fix it,” the former reality TV star won’t be governing on his own. He will be in charge of the richest, whitest, most male cabinet in living memory; a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

There has been much discussion about the lack of experience of many of Trump’s appointees (think of the incoming secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who has no background in diplomacy or foreign affairs) and their alleged bigotry (the Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, denied a role as a federal judge in the 1980s following claims of racial discrimination, is on course to be confirmed as attorney general). Yet what should equally worry the average American is that Trump has picked people who, in the words of the historian Meg Jacobs, “are downright hostile to the mission of the agency they are appointed to run”. With their new Republican president’s blessing, they want to roll back support for the poorest, most vulnerable members of society and don’t give a damn how much damage they do in the process.

Take Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general selected to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Pruitt describes himself on his LinkedIn page as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda” and has claimed that the debate over climate change is “far from settled”.

The former neurosurgeon Ben Carson is Trump’s pick for housing and urban development, a department with a $49bn budget that helps low-income families own homes and pay the rent. Carson has no background in housing policy, is an anti-welfare ideologue and ruled himself out of a cabinet job shortly after the election. “Dr Carson feels he has no government experience,” his spokesman said at the time. “He’s never run a federal agency. The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency.”

The fast-food mogul Andrew Puzder, who was tapped to run the department of labour, doesn’t like . . . well . . . labour. He prefers robots, telling Business Insider in March 2016: “They’re always polite . . . They never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex or race discrimination case.”

The billionaire Republican donor Betsy DeVos, nominated to run the department of education, did not attend state school and neither did any of her four children. She has never been a teacher, has no background in education and is a champion of school vouchers and privatisation. To quote the education historian Diane Ravitch: “If confirmed, DeVos will be the first education secretary who is actively hostile to public education.”

The former Texas governor Rick Perry, nominated for the role of energy secretary by Trump, promised to abolish the department that he has been asked to run while trying to secure his party’s presidential nomination in 2011. Compare and contrast Perry, who has an undergraduate degree in animal science but failed a chemistry course in college, with his two predecessors under President Obama: Dr Ernest Moniz, the former head of MIT’s physics department, and Dr Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist from Berkeley. In many ways, Perry, who spent the latter half of 2016 as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, is the ultimate kakistocratic appointment.

“Do Trump’s cabinet picks want to run the government – or dismantle it?” asked a headline in the Chicago Tribune in December. That’s one rather polite way of putting it. Another would be to note, as the Online Etymology Dictionary does, that kakistocracy comes from kakistos, the Greek word for “worst”, which is a superlative of kakos, or “bad”, which “is related to the general Indo-European word for ‘defecate’”.

Mehdi Hasan has rejoined the New Statesman as a contributing editor and will write a fortnightly column on US politics

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era