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How to undo the president: The Big Short writer Michael Lewis turns his attention to Trump

Lewis’s fifth book, The Fifth Risk, explores the hazards of entrusting a country to an administration that loathes government.

By Sophie McBain

Michael Lewis has a gift for identifying seemingly dry, inaccessible subjects, such as the sub-prime mortgage market (The Big Short) or baseball statistics (Moneyball), and spinning them into epic stories with Hollywood appeal. His latest book, The Fifth Risk, excavates a tale that was easy to overlook in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. The day after Donald Trump’s victory, government officials waited to brief the incoming administration on the complex and vital task of running the United States of America. No one turned up.

Instead, Trump fired his transition team, deciding to fill thousands of government vacancies himself. Even the president’s anarchic chief strategist, Steve Bannon, was stunned. “Holy fuck, this guy [Trump] doesn’t know anything. And he doesn’t give a shit,” he said. Outgoing officials, expecting to brief dozens of new appointees, might eventually meet one, who was usually inappropriate, underqualified and fundamentally uninterested in the job. The department of energy, which among other things protects the US nuclear arsenal, is now headed by former Texas governor Rick Perry, who once said he wanted to abolish the entire department. The Fifth Risk explores the hazards of entrusting a country to an administration that loathes government and is motivated by avarice.

When I met Michael Lewis, who is 57, in a Manhattan hotel, I asked him what should most trouble us. He replied that apocalyptic possibilities, such as nuclear disaster, were less immediately worrying than, for instance, the defunding of scientific research.

Lewis then mentioned a concern omitted from The Fifth Risk. “It would not shock me if Trump is the source of another financial crisis,” he said. The president might, for example, refuse to repay Chinese debts. “You have no idea what a mess that is. If there’s no longer a safe asset, a flight from US securities, a flight from the dollar as a reserve currency…” Lewis, who achieved renown through his 1989 book Liar’s Poker, which chronicled his experience as an overpaid young Wall Street trader, is one of our finest financial journalists. If he’s worried, you probably should be.

Lewis believes Trump may be anti-government simply because he’s “mentally incapable” of understanding how it works. Most Americans similarly don’t understand the state’s role or consider it a “hostile, alien creature”. He said: “The way the British feel about Brussels is a bit like the way the Americans feel about their own government. But think about how weird that is.”

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In person, Lewis is chatty and affable; he delivers funny and outraged asides about Trump. “I had a grandfather who was an alcoholic and mean, and he lived longer than any of my grandparents, into his nineties. In the end, I concluded he basically survived on bile. He was pickled in his own ill-will towards the world. Trump’s the same way… he’s going to live to a hundred,” he said.

Michael Monroe Lewis was born in New Orleans in 1960, his father was a corporate lawyer and his mother a community activist. He initially aspired to become an art historian (having studied the subject at Princeton University) but was dissuaded by the paucity of jobs available and became a stockbroker at investment bank Salomon Brothers instead.

As a journalist, Lewis is an ardent admirer of Barack Obama, whom he profiled for Vanity Fair, interviewing the president over six months and even playing basketball with him. Many Americans who instinctively dislike Obama warm to him in person, Lewis told me. With Trump, by contrast, the reverse applies. “Every actual intimate interaction he has leaves another person wondering why on earth they ever thought well of him.” Perhaps, in the end, that might be Trump’s political undoing, he suggested.

Lewis did, however, develop an unlikely rapport with Bannon while researching the book. “I like him. Which shocked me. I tried to tell my kids and my wife, and they were like, ‘fuck you! Dad’s an asshole!’” he said. (Lewis is married to the fine art photographer and former MTV reporter Tabitha Soren, his third wife, and they have two daughters and one son.) He said he found Bannon “an interesting character… His capacity for moral outrage… and his ability to channel that into practical action. He’s a rich man’s Lenin.”

This year, Lewis moved from Vanity Fair, where he was a contributing writer for almost a decade, to Audible, the US’s largest audiobook producer. He has been an editor for the New Republic and the Spectator. “The single biggest difference between English and American journalists is glibness,” he said, in admiration of British irreverence.

The Fifth Risk is Lewis’s 15th book. He says whenever he finishes a big project, he plans to take a few months off to “test the proposition that I’m no longer a writer”. But then he finds himself flicking through his 50 Manila folders, filled with ideas that have sparked his curiosity, and within a few weeks, he’s writing again. 

This article appears in the 03 Oct 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The fury of the Far Right