Vanity Fair: Inside Trump’s Cruel Campaign Against the U.S.D.A.’s Scientists

The U.S.D.A. headquarters, in Washington, D.C.
Photograph by Tom Fowlks.

by Michael Lewis | November 2, 2017

The folks at the Department of Agriculture laid on a friendly welcome for the Trump transition team, but they soon discovered that most of his appointees were stunningly unqualified. With key U.S.D.A. programs—from food stamps to meat inspection, to grants and loans for rural development, to school lunches—under siege, the agency’s greatest problem is that even the people it helps most don’t know what it does.

Ali Zaidi was five years old when his parents moved him from Pakistan to the United States, in 1993. Later he’d marvel at American parents who agonized over the trauma that some trivial relocation—say, from Manhattan to Greenwich, Connecticut—might inflict upon their children. His parents might as well have put him in a rocket and shot him to the moon and no one made any fuss at all about it. His father wanted to study educational administration (“He loved the idea of helping to run the places people came to learn”), and the one place he knew someone willing to teach him worked at Edinboro University, in northwest Pennsylvania. And so the Zaidis left Karachi, a city of more than eight million Muslims, for a rural town of 7,000 Christians. “We went from solidly upper-middle-class to trying to reach into the middle class,” recalls Ali. The people in Edinboro didn’t have a lot of money, but Ali sensed that his family had less of it than most. “The other kids pay a dollar-fifty for school lunch and you pay 50 cents—you know something is going on, but you don’t really know what.” There was no particular reason he needed to figure out what was going on. But, in the most incredible way, he had.

Even as a kid he was interested in politics. That helped. He got that from his parents. “They spent a lot of time talking about society. Good and bad. Justice. About what we owe people,” said Ali. In rural Pennsylvania most people were Republicans. Ali became a Republican, too. “I believe in personal responsibility,” he said. “It’s exciting when people come together because of their faith to do something for their community. To care about something more than themselves.” In high school he volunteered for America’s Promise Alliance, Colin Powell’s foundation to help underprivileged children; he knocked on doors for the presidential campaign of George W. Bush. He ran track and excelled in the 400-meter dash. He was bright and ambitious and good at school. On a family trip to Boston he got his first, brief glimpse of Harvard and, without giving much thought to how he would pay for it, decided that was where he’d like to go to college. Faculty members at his high school thought Harvard was a bit of a stretch, and they encouraged him to apply to Penn State or the University of Pennsylvania, recalls Ali. He thought they were trying to lower his expectations. In the end he applied to Harvard, and only to Harvard, because, as he put it, “after you applied to one place, why would you waste money to apply to other places?”

Harvard admitted Ali to its class of 2008 and gave him financial aid. Around the same time, the C.E.O. of America’s Promise passed through rural Pennsylvania and asked to meet with volunteers. Ali went to the meeting, and one thing led to another: before he knew it Alma Powell, the group’s board chairman, asked him to join the America’s Promise board. At the time he thought this was preposterous. The America’s Promise board was filled with the biggest names in Republican politics and the C.E.O.’s of huge corporations. “I thought it was crazy,” recalls Ali. “They’d fly me to D.C. and put me up in a hotel.”

The Iraq War happened. Guantánamo Bay happened. Hostility toward his fellow Muslims found a greater welcome in his party than elsewhere. Yet Ali remained a Republican. Six or seven months after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast he traveled there, with America’s Promise, to help. In New Orleans he saw poverty he’d never imagined. “They had to rebuild these schools, and the kids were effusive,” he said. “The thing that got me was that they weren’t happy because they had just got their school back. They were effusive because suddenly they had a school that worked in the first place.” If you had asked Ali, before he went to New Orleans, what he thought of people who didn’t help themselves, he would have said, “My parents had to start all over again. What’s the big deal? Just suck it up.” The sight of little kids post-Katrina jolted him. “It kind of blew my mind: if you are in kindergarten you should at least get a fair shot. It was just eye-opening: to see how much your geography could determine the opportunities available to you.”

Now he sensed that poverty came in many flavors. He’d been lucky to have his particular parents and his particular community. He was reminded of the first time he’d run on a track with spikes. “You just fly on the track.” The poor kids he saw in New Orleans were trying to run the same race in life that he was. But he was wearing spikes and they weren’t. “There’s a real idealism that you have to indulge to think that people in New Orleans were now going to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. There were no bootstraps.”

He returned to college and rejoined the Harvard Republican Club. The surface of his life remained unchanged. But a new crackling sound in his head made the political program playing there more difficult to hear. One day he attended a debate between his two most famous professors: Michael Sandel, the philosopher, and Greg Mankiw, the economist who had served as chair of George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers. “Someone got up and asked, ‘If you are a storeowner after Katrina, should you hike up the price of flashlights?’ Greg Mankiw said yes, without hesitation.” Ali remembers thinking: Greg Mankiw is a good guy. But that answer is absolutely wrong. We don’t just have markets. We have values. “I started to think, Ah, man, I’m probably not a Republican.”

A year or so later he listened to a speech by the junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama. One line from it stuck in Ali’s head: “Poverty is not a family value.” He worked as a field organizer in Obama’s campaign. “The biggest disappointment was that it was a little bit of a cliché: Harvard liberal,” said Ali. “Whereas my politics before were not a cliché.” Two years later he graduated from Harvard, and Obama was sworn in as president of the United States. Ali knew he had at least a shot at a very junior position in the new administration. “I had for whatever reason in my mind decided that I should go to the place where it wasn’t sexy but the sausage came together.” That place, he further decided, was the White House’s Office of Management and Budget. His first job in the new administration was to take the budget numbers produced by the senior people and turn them into a narrative: a document ordinary people could read.

One day in his new job he was handed the budget for the Department of Agriculture. “I was like, Oh yeah, the U.S.D.A.—they give money to farmers to grow stuff.” For the first time he looked closely at what this arm of the United States government actually does. Its very name is seriously misleading—most of what it does has little to do with agriculture. It runs 193 million acres of national forest and grasslands, for instance. It is charged with inspecting almost all the animals people eat, including the nine billion birds a year. Buried inside it is a massive science program; a bank with $220 billion in assets; plus a large fleet of aircraft for firefighting. It monitors catfish farms. It maintains a shooting range inside its D.C. headquarters. It keeps an apiary on its roof, to study bee-colony collapse.

A small fraction of its massive annual budget ($164 billion in 2016) was actually spent on farmers, but it financed and managed all these programs in rural America—including the free school lunch for kids living near the poverty line. “I’m sitting there looking at this,” said Ali. “The U.S.D.A. had subsidized the apartment my family had lived in. The hospital we used. The fire department. The town’s water. The electricity. It had paid for the food I had eaten.”

To prepare for the transition after the 2016 election the U.S.D.A.’s staff had created elaborate briefings for the incoming Trump administration. Their written material alone came to 2,300 pages, in 13 volumes. A lot of people who work in the Department of Agriculture grew up on or around farms. They like to think of the Department of Agriculture as a nice, down-to-earth bureaucracy. They consider themselves more bipartisan, and less ideological, than people at the other federal agencies. “Our plan was to be as hospitable as possible,” said one of the transition planners. “We made sure the office space was gorgeous.”

To make the Trump people feel at home the U.S.D.A. people had set aside the nicest rooms on the top floor of the nicest building, with the nicest view of the National Mall. They had fished out of storage the most beautiful photographs from the U.S.D.A.’s impressive collection and hung them on the walls. They had brought in computers and office supplies, and organized a bunch of new workstations. When they heard that Joel Leftwich, the guy Trump wanted to lead his U.S.D.A. transition team, had been a lobbyist for PepsiCo, they brought in a mini-fridge stocked with Pepsis. That was just the way they were at the U.S.D.A. They didn’t think: How the fuck can people paid to push sugary drinks on American kids be let anywhere near the federal department with the most influence on what American kids eat? Instead they thought: I hear he’s a nice guy!

No one showed up that first day after the election, or the next. This was strange: the day after he was elected, Obama had sent his people into the U.S.D.A., as had Bush. At the end of the second day the folks at the Department of Agriculture called the White House to ask what was going on. “The White House said they’d be here Monday,” recalled one. On Monday morning they worked themselves up all over again into a welcoming spirit. Again, no one showed. Not that entire week. On November 22, Leftwich made a cameo appearance for about an hour. “We had thought, Rural America is who got Trump elected, so he’ll have to make us a priority,” said the transition planner, “but then nothing happened.” (The U.S.D.A. did not respond to questions from Vanity Fair.)

More than a month after the election, the Trump transition team finally appeared. But it wasn’t a team: it was just one guy, named Brian Klippenstein. He came from his job running an organization called Protect the Harvest. Protect the Harvest was founded by a Trump supporter, an Indiana oilman and rancher named Forrest Lucas. Its stated purpose was “to protect your right to hunt, fish, farm, eat meat, and own animals.” In practice it mainly demonized organizations, like the Humane Society, that sought to prevent people who owned animals from doing terrible things to them. They worried, apparently, that if people were forced to be kind to animals they might one day cease to eat them. “This is a weird group,” says Rachael Bale, who writes often about animal welfare for National Geographic.

One of the U.S.D.A.’s many duties was to police conflicts between people and animals. It brought legal action against people who abused animals, and so maybe it wasn’t the ideal place to insert a man who was preternaturally unconcerned with their welfare. The department maintained its composure—no nasty leaks to the press, no resignations in protest—even as Klippenstein focused, bizarrely, on a single issue. Not animal abuse but climate change. “He came in and wanted to know all about the office on climate change,” says a former U.S.D.A. employee. “That’s what he wanted to focus on. He wanted the names of the people doing the work.” The career staffer running the transition politely declined to give Klippenstein the names, but he said he bore no ill will toward him for asking. Klip—as he became known affectionately—had reassured everyone by saying, to anyone who would listen, that just as soon as this transition was over he was going straight back to his small livestock farm in Missouri. Bless his heart! Everything on the farm was still normal! (And just you never mind why Uncle Joe likes to be alone with his favorite sheep.)

It was obvious to everyone inside the U.S.D.A. that Klip was in an impossible position; no one person could get his mind around all the things the department did. Just a couple of weeks before the inauguration, Klip was joined by three other Trump people. The four-person team made a show of sitting down with some of the roughly 100,000-person U.S.D.A. staff to hear what they had to say. These briefings lived up to their name: the entire introduction to the U.S.D.A.’s vast scientific-research unit lasted an hour. “At most of the federal agencies, there were no real briefings,” says a former senior White House official who watched the process closely. “They were basically for show. The Trump transition sent in these teams in the end just to say they were doing it.”

The Department of Agriculture normally closes for business on Inauguration Day. It’s the only federal agency with an office building on the National Mall, which, once upon a time, had been the site of an experimental farm. The building is now used as a staging post during the inaugural by the National Guard and Secret Service. Just before the inauguration a Trump representative called the U.S.D.A. and said he wanted the building to remain open, as he was sending 30-something new people in. Why the sudden rush? Why force the government to turn on the lights and staff the cafeteria and go to the rest of the trouble to animate a federal building on a day no one was working? Even getting people into the building would be difficult, with snipers on the roof and the Metro station closed. A member of the Obama transition team wondered how the newcomers could have been vetted so quickly by the Office of Presidential Personnel. Nine months later, Politico published an eye-popping account about these new appointees. Its reporter Jenny Hopkinson obtained the curricula vitae of the new Trump people. Into U.S.D.A. jobs, some of which paid nearly $80,000 a year, the Trump team had inserted a long-haul truck driver, a clerk at AT&T, a gas-company meter reader, a country-club cabana attendant, a Republican National Committee intern, and the owner of a scented-candle company, with skills like “pleasant demeanor” listed on their résumés. “In many cases [the new appointees] demonstrated little to no experience with federal policy, let alone deep roots in agriculture,” wrote Hopkinson. “Some of those appointees appear to lack the credentials, such as a college degree, required to qualify for higher government salaries.”

What these people had in common, she pointed out, was loyalty to Donald Trump.

“It’s the places in our government where cameras never roll that you have to worry about most.”

Nine months after they’d arrived a man I’d been told was the best informed of all the department’s career employees about the haphazard transition couldn’t tell me how many of these people were still roaming the halls. And what fingerprints they left were characteristically bizarre. They sent certified letters to several senior career civil servants, for instance, telling them they were being reassigned—from jobs they were good at to jobs they knew little about. “Too close to the Obama administration is what people are saying,” noted one U.S.D.A. career staffer. They instructed the staff to stop using the phrase “climate change.” They removed the inspection reports on businesses that abused animals—roadside circuses, puppy mills, research labs—from the department’s Web site. When reporters from National Geographic contacted the U.S.D.A. to ask what was going on with animal-abuse issues, “they told us all of this information was public, except now you had to FOIA it,” said Rachael Bale. “We asked for the files, and they sent us 1,700 completely blacked-out pages.”

By the time I set out to get the briefings the Trump people had not, it was late summer. Of the 14 senior jobs at the U.S.D.A. that required Senate confirmation, only one had been filled: former Georgia governor Sonny Perdue was named secretary of agriculture, in April. If Trump’s interest in a subject is to be judged by the speed with which he appointed his Cabinet secretaries, the Department of Agriculture is screwed: Perdue was dead last.

There’s a drinking game played by people who have worked at the Department of Agriculture: Does the U.S.D.A. do it? Someone names an odd function of government (say, shooting fireworks at Canada geese that flock too near airport runways) and someone else has to guess if the U.S.D.A. does it. (In this case, it does.) Even people who have worked at U.S.D.A. for years wind up having to chug. So it’s no use pretending that I can actually explain to you everything the place does. I was looking to get a sense of the big risks that increase when a limb of the federal government is neglected or misunderstood or badly managed.

I’d had a bunch of conversations with people who had run the department under past administrations: former secretaries and deputy secretaries of agriculture. They reached a bipartisan consensus: the best way to get a quick grip on the details of the department is to march through the seven little boxes of its organization chart. (See above.) For example, if you want to know the likelihood that the geese loitering near the La Guardia Airport runway will cause your plane to crash-land in the Hudson River and become the subject of a major motion picture, you go to see the undersecretary or deputy undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs, which oversees the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which handles the bewildering set of conflicts in America between people and animals. (The people tend to get their way.) If you want an up-to-date snapshot of which farmers are most dependent on federal aid, you go see the people who manage the little box marked “Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services.”

These undersecretaries and deputy secretaries occupy public offices, but they are not really public figures: no one outside the department knows their names or faces. And their little boxes are not equally exposed to the whims and idiocies of any given presidential administration. The question of the day, at least it seems to me, is: Where in these little boxes is the greatest damage likely to be done, through neglect or mismanagement or malice?

Take the little box labeled “Natural Resources and Environment.” It’s not as abstract as it sounds. Employing around 40,000 people, it contains the U.S. Forest Service. Its 193 million acres of forests and grasslands are important to the future of the climate. Its most recent undersecretary, Robert Bonnie, was described to me by one of his superiors as “maybe the single best undersecretary we’ve ever had.” Bonnie himself is a seriously interesting person—and filled with concerns about what the Trump administration might do to his former department. But when I asked him to name his No. 1 concern, he said, “Wildfires.”

But if you worry about everything, you wind up worrying about nothing. Even as the Trump administration forbids its employees to use the phrase “climate change,” there’s no sign that this will contribute in any special way to America’s growing wildfire problem, caused over the last two decades not only by climate change but also by not enough clearing of dead brush and by people building homes too close to combustible landscapes. The career people at the U.S. Forest Service, because they have direct lines into Congress, don’t need the White House behind them in the way many other departments do. Fighting wildfires is the most visible thing the U.S.D.A. does. It’s the places in our government where the cameras never roll that you have to worry about most.

Ali Zaidi had been the first to point this out to me: that the seven little boxes inside the Department of Agriculture are not equally vulnerable. And he would know. He’d spent two years as a grunt in the Office of Management and Budget, before moving into ever more important White House jobs. He’d been one of those young people with the gift for getting old people to forget how young he was, and found himself thrust into jobs normally reserved for much older people. In 2014, at the age of 27, he was put in charge of a team of experts overseeing the Department of Agriculture’s entire budget—along with the budgets of NASA, the Department of Energy, the Department of the Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency, and a couple of others. He’d been forced to get his mind fully around the federal department that had underpinned his childhood: it wasn’t easy. “Of all the budgets, it’s the weirdest,” he said. It was weird, first, because the U.S.D.A. did so many different things. It was weird because so many Americans had no idea how much their lives depended upon it. And it was weird because of the sheer sums of money sloshing around the place, dispensed by government employees no one had ever heard of. If you took a follow-the-money approach to what might go wrong inside the U.S.D.A., you ended up inside the box run by Kevin Concannon.

Hunger Games

I found Concannon at home in the woods of Maine. On the phone he’d told me that he’d spent most of his career running health and nutrition services for several different states. Back in 2008 he’d retired to this place, purchased long ago, with his wife. The woods were near the sea, and so they had bought a small boat. “I was sort of unhappy being retired,” he said. “We had the boat. But after two weeks in the boat we said, ‘O.K., what are we going to do now?’ I don’t understand people who say they can’t wait to retire. It’s like living your life in jail or something.” Not long after he’d had that thought he got a call from the newly appointed secretary of agriculture, Tom Vilsack. “I hired him for several reasons,” said Vilsack. “But the first is: heart.”

Concannon was pushing 70, but he came out of retirement to take charge of the box inside the U.S.D.A. labeled “Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services.” He’d run the place right up until the Trump people finally arrived, in January of this year. In his job at U.S.D.A., Concannon had overseen for eight years the nation’s school-lunch program; the program that ensures that pregnant women, new mothers, and young children receive proper nutrition; and a dozen or so smaller programs designed to alleviate hunger. Together these accounted for approximately 70 percent of the U.S.D.A.’s budget—he’d spent the better part of a trillion dollars feeding people with taxpayer money while somehow remaining virtually anonymous. “We used to say if we stopped the tourists outside the building and told them what we were doing inside, most of them would have no idea that we were doing it,” he said.

Former U.S.D.A. undersecretary for food, nutrition, and consumer services.
Photograph by Tom Fowlks.

He’d helped to prepare for the Trump transition, but, of course, that transition never happened. He hadn’t had a single encounter with anyone associated with it. Nor had the Trump people bothered to speak with anyone who reported to him. And so it seemed fair to say, as Concannon had said to me on the phone, that “they don’t seem to be focused on nutrition.” The Trump people were a bit like those tourists outside the Whitten Building. Only now they were inside it.

Concannon’s house is hidden from the road by trees and so comes as a surprise. So does he: I had expected to meet an old guy with at least some need to convey his own importance. I expected him to retain at least a trace of the stuffy bureaucrat. Instead I find myself being led through his retirement house by a leprechaun who has disguised himself by shaving off his beard. “Media has not been a big part of my life,” he says, laughing, as he leads me to a table and chairs out back. “This is new!” Exposed to the early-autumn chill we play New England’s favorite outdoor social game: seeing who will be the first to break and beg to go back inside.

“The food-stamps program,” he says, instantly, when I ask him for his biggest concern. The Trump budget had proposed cutting food stamps by more than 25 percent over the next 10 years and more or less abandoning the notion that the country should provide some minimum level of nutrition to its citizens. The Trump budget was just an opening bid and unlikely to become policy, at least not right away, because Congress could always fight it. But it signaled an intention and, perhaps, a shift in public attitudes. “Why is it that people channel so many of their hang-ups about people who are poor or unsuccessful into the food-stamps program?” asks Concannon as we settle into our chairs, then answers his own question. “No one really knows when you go to the doctor and the government is paying. But people see you with this card or coupon and react. People would say to me, ‘I saw someone buying butter with food stamps.’ And I would say, ‘Well, yes.’”

Anyone who takes over his old job, he explains, needs to be especially vigilant about fraud, even though there is probably less of it in the program than ever. Actual fraud in the food-stamp program in 2015 was about 5 percent of the $70 billion paid out. People still succeed in understating their income and get benefits they would otherwise not. People occasionally “traffic,” the term of art for exchanging food stamps at less than face value, for cash or ineligible goods. (The storeowner then puts through a bunch of phony purchases, and pockets the difference between what the government pays him and what he has paid to the food-stamper.) And fraud is far more likely in some parts of the country than in others. “The Dakotas—they’re all Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts who live there,” Concannon says. “But just look at Miami. Or Columbus, Ohio.” But replacing food stamps with a card that has a PIN number has made fraud, and theft, much less common. The U.S.D.A. hires specialists to search food-purchase data for suspicious patterns. When they find what appears to be a problem, they send in one of the 100 U.S.D.A. food-stamp undercover investigators, to gather evidence.

I stop writing and look up. “The Department of Agriculture has private eyes?”

“They’re more like Columbos,” he says.

But that’s not his point, he says. His point is that, while actual fraud is relatively rare, “instances of fraud attract huge media attention and can have big effects—like Surfer Dude.” Surfer Dude was a guy in San Diego who claimed on Fox News that the food-stamp program gave him the cushion he needed to surf all day. The network ate it up. And that was the problem: the wildly distorting media coverage of any cheating creates political resistance to the entire enterprise. No one in the Trump administration was likely to ever come right out and say: We want to let kids and old people go hungry. But, obviously, they might run the program so ineptly that it lost political support. And then kids and old people would go hungry.

Former U.S.D.A. chief scientist and undersecretary for research, education, and economics.
Photograph by Tom Fowlks.

What I needed to keep in mind, said Concannon, was just how much was at stake for the people who needed the program. “I used to tell the people that worked for me: You may not ever meet a single person it benefits. You might never see the infants who are fed, or that family that lost a job. To the extent you can keep in mind that they are out there, it will motivate you to do your job better.”

It now occurs to me that this question of motivation sits somewhere near the middle of the problem I am investigating. Why does someone go to work inside this little box—or any little box—inside the federal government? There’s always an answer to this question. And it’s obviously important. Why a person does what he does has a big effect on how he does it. And yet Kevin Concannon, whose little box had spent nearly a trillion dollars, had never really been asked it.

He has an answer to the question, as it turns out. He’d grown up in Portland, Maine, in a working-class family with seven children. His older brother had suffered from schizophrenia. His parents, immigrants from Ireland, had been crippled by the sense that they were responsible for their child’s illness. “There was a very strong belief in those days in nurture versus nature,” he says. Then one day—like a bolt from the blue—a pair of social workers from the Veterans Administration visited their home. They put his brother on a new medication, which eased his symptoms. “They helped my parents to understand that the fact that he had this illness had nothing whatever to do with how they raised him,” says Concannon. “It was luck of the draw.”

The effect of these government angels on his family’s life was astonishing. By the time Concannon left for college, in 1959, he wondered what it might be like to do that kind of work. In college he read The Other America, Michael Harrington’s account of the lives of the American poor, and listened to John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech, with its bracing call to public service. By the time he graduated he knew what he wanted to be. Fourteen years later he was running Maine’s mental-health services.

He proved effective enough at the job that, after an election pushed him out of it, other states recruited him. In 1987 he took a job running the mental-health and developmental-disabilities programs for Oregon. Four months into his new gig Oregon’s governor, Neil Goldschmidt, grabbed him in the hallway. “He said, ‘C’mon to the pressroom. They’re naming the new director of human services.’ I said, ‘Who is it?’ And he says, ‘It’s you!’”

As the head of Oregon’s nutrition programs he learned that the country’s willingness to feed people who are hungry does not mean that hungry people are always fed. The federal government makes the benefits available, but then leaves it to states to administer them. “Where you live in this country makes a huge difference if you are poor,” says Concannon. “And it’s not just the weather. You have states with these 60- or 70-page documents people have to fill out to get benefits. Poor people are easy to wear down.” Georgia was usually a problem. Texas too. “If they ran any of their football teams the way they ran their food program, they’d fire the coach,” said Concannon. A Wyoming legislator, proud of how badly he had gummed up the state’s nutrition programs, told him, “We pride ourselves on doing the minimum required by the federal government.” An Arizona congressman proposed that the card used by people receiving food-stamp benefits be made prison orange, conferring not just nutrition but shame. In 2016, after several counties in North Carolina suffered severe flooding, the state tried to distribute federal disaster-relief food-benefit cards on the day of the presidential election, to give poor people a choice between eating and voting. In Kansas, Concannon had explained to an executive who oversaw the state’s food-stamp program how he had made it easier for people in Oregon who were going hungry to access their program. “He said, ‘Jeez, if we did that we’d have more people coming in the door.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, but isn’t that the idea?’”

Concannon viewed his job in Oregon simply: to make benefits more easily available to people who qualified for them. Minimize the red tape. Promote the programs. Change the culture that dispensed them from one of suspicion to one of sympathy. From Oregon, at the behest of yet another governor, he returned home to Maine, to run all of the public-health and nutrition programs. There he displayed yet again his unusual gift for finding and slaking need. For instance, he noticed that a lot of people without health insurance in the state were failing to fill their prescriptions, because they couldn’t afford the drugs. In northern Maine, people were crossing the border into Canada, where they could buy the same drugs from the same companies at a fraction of the cost. He thought the situation both outrageous and economically inefficient: help people prevent a stroke and you could avoid the far greater expense of caring for them after they had one. He created a program, Maine Rx, that extended the cheaper Medicaid prices of drugs to people who were well above the poverty line. Within three months, 100,000 people had signed up. (The drug companies challenged the program, taking it all the way to the Supreme Court, which mandated some changes. It is now called Maine Rx Plus.)

In 2003, at the request of Iowa governor Tom Vilsack, he left Maine for Iowa. In his six years there, he raised the number of Iowans receiving food stamps by 68 percent.

There was more. But it was getting late.

“Are you cold?” I ask, hopefully.

“No,” he says, “but if you are . . . ”

We move back inside, to his kitchen table. He locates a plate of freshly baked banana bread and puts it in front of me. I try not to stare at it. Dry banana bread I find inedible. Moist, sticky banana bread I find hard to resist. His banana bread glistens.

There are people who would seek to dismiss his entire enterprise with a single line: Why should my hard-earned dollars go to feed anyone else? They’d see Kevin Concannon as the King of Handouts. A promoter of sloth and indolence.

Former U.S.D.A. deputy undersecretary for rural development.
Photograph by Tom Fowlks.

But the facts of the program he ran for eight years are innocent: its average benefit is just a dollar and 40 cents a meal. Eighty-seven percent of that money goes to households with children, the disabled, and elderly. “The idea that we are going to put these people to work is nonsense.” Able-bodied adults on food stamps are required to work, or attend job training, for at least 20 hours a week. The nation’s private food banks dispense about $8 billion worth of food each year, while $70 billion worth is provided through food stamps: charity alone will not feed everyone who needs feeding. The problem with the program is not that people are cheating it. The problem with the program is that people who should be on it are not.

Kevin Concannon had done a lot to fix it: He’d raised the participation rate of the poor people who qualified for it from 72 percent to 85 percent. And he’d reduced fraud rates to all-time lows. But the myths about the food-stamp program—that food stamps can be used in casinos, or to buy alcohol and tobacco, for instance—persisted.

I reach for a slice of banana bread. “Anything else you worried about?” I ask.

“School nutrition,” he says, without missing a beat.

One week after being sworn in, Sonny Perdue staged a public event at a school in Leesburg, Virginia. The Obama administration had pushed successfully to raise the nutritional requirements of school meals fed to 30 million American schoolchildren, for the first time in 20 years. To receive federal subsidies for the meals they serve, schools are now required to behave more like responsible parents than indifferent ones: more whole grains, more fruits and vegetables, less sodium, no artificially sweetened whole milk, etc. Concannon expanded the breakfast programs for kids who did not get fed at home—and that meal, too, became more nutritious. “You can’t just serve them pancakes and hot dogs,” he says.

Big companies that provided the schools with meals fought back: it was more profitable for them to serve pancakes and hot dogs than fruits and vegetables. But by the end of 2016, America’s children were eating better than they had been in 2008. “Ninety-eight percent of the schools were meeting the new standards,” says Concannon, “and to those that weren’t, that had some problem, we’d say, ‘We’ll work with you!’”

At the school in Leesburg, Perdue announced that the U.S.D.A. would no longer require schools to meet the whole-grain standard, or the new sodium standard, or ban fat in artificially sweetened milk. Those changes sound trivial, but the stakes are huge. This is a matter not just of what kind of milk America’s schoolchildren drink but also of the process by which we as a society decide which milk they will drink: will it be driven by the dairy industry and the snack-food industry, or by nutritionists?

Concannon was deeply disappointed in Perdue’s speech. He saw it as pure politics, not motivated by any concern for children’s welfare. “Look, you can have confidence in the career people,” he said. “Because most of them have migrated to where they are out of desire. They believe in what they are doing.” About the new political people who might replace him he wasn’t so sure. The problem was motive: why would they come to work at the U.S.D.A.? A person who worked inside Concannon’s little box, as long as they catered to the food industry, could make a lot more money outside of it.

Munching on a second slice of banana bread, I look around Concannon’s house. His career was over. He’d spent the better part of 50 years using public money to alleviate suffering. He’d controlled nearly a trillion dollars in government spending. Yet his home is modest. He drives a 10-year-old Volvo. He had gone from state to state, and each time he had been honored for his public service. The plaques were stacked up in his garage. He didn’t own enough wall space for them all.

What’s striking about Kevin Concannon is what he decided, for whatever reason, he didn’t need. He could have named his price with the drug- and food-company lobbies, and yet he’d never taken a job in the private sector. He claims never to have felt the slightest interest in that kind of work. “I’ve done all right,” he says when I ask him, more or less, why he’s not rich. “I’ve always had enough. I’ve never felt the need to go over to the other side and make three times the amount of money. If you like what you do, you just keep doing it.”

On my way out the door he stops me. “You didn’t ask me what else I was worried about. But if you asked me,” he said, “I’d say Science.”

Political Science

The thing you eventually noticed about Cathie Woteki was her detachment. She was slow to talk about the more emotionally charged moments of her career, and even when she did, she didn’t talk for long. It wasn’t until our fourth conversation, for instance, that she bothered to mention she had become an agricultural scientist only after her professors told her that there was no place for women in basic science. She’d graduated in 1969 from Mary Washington College, the women’s affiliate of the University of Virginia, which at the time didn’t accept women as undergraduates. From there she followed her future husband to Virginia Tech, where she entered the graduate program in biochemistry. Her fellow graduate students in science were all men. It took her a while to sense how the professors treated her differently from the way they did everyone else. “I finally figured it out when all the guys were given assistantships and I wasn’t.” She went to the head of the department and asked what she needed to do to get an assistantship, too. “He said I would not be given one because women were a poor investment. I’d probably only have children and drop out.”

Looking back she found it odd that they had let her into the school only to stifle her ambition. But it was the late 1960s, and people were making new, if halfhearted, attempts to address sex discrimination. “If you talk to women scientists of my age, almost all of them have a story similar to mine,” she says.

Virginia Tech, like most every college in the United States with “Tech” or “A&M” after its name, was established in 1872 by the same Congress that created the Department of Agriculture. In the middle of the Civil War, Lincoln had decided it was time to make U.S. agriculture more efficient: each person not needed on the farm was another person freed up to do something else. That’s why the Department of Agriculture was created in the first place, as a vast science lab. Endless statistics illustrate the astonishing effects that lab has had—it has changed the way we live. In 1872 the average American farmer fed roughly four other people; now the average farmer feeds about 155 other people. It’s not just people and plants that have become more productive. In 1950 the average cow yielded 5,300 pounds of milk. Last year the average cow yielded 23,000 pounds of milk. A Wisconsin Holstein recently yielded nearly 75,000 pounds of milk in a year, which amounts to roughly 24 gallons a day. Her name is Gigi. You can thank her later.

Changes in agricultural science trigger changes in the structure of the society: where people live, what they do, what they value, the metaphors that naturally pop into their minds. Those changes have been driven by research funded by the Department of Agriculture, done inside the land-grant colleges created alongside it. Virginia Tech, like the University of Wisconsin, was one of the original ones. “Because Virginia Tech was a land-grant university, there was a department called ‘Human Nutrition,’ which I had never heard of as a field of study,” says Woteki. She ended up studying the subject because that was what she was encouraged to study. She had no particular connection to farming or agriculture: her father had been an air-force fighter pilot; she’d grown up on military bases. “The first time I ever touched a cow,” she said, “was when I artificially inseminated one at Virginia Tech.”

But she grew interested in the intersection between food and health. Her dissertation investigated a mysterious outbreak of illness in Texas, where, in the late 1960s, Mexican-American kids were turning up sick and no one could figure out why. She figured out why: milk. “It wasn’t a pathogen,” she said. “It was the lactose in the milk.” Mexican-Americans, as a group, turned out to be especially intolerant of it, though no one knew that until that moment. The symptoms usually started by age 11 or 12.

She became a professor of human nutrition at an interesting moment: in the early 1970s, Congress was taking a new interest in malnutrition in children. “There was a lot of stunting and wasting in children,” she recalls. After a talk given by a congressional staffer studying the effects of legislation on human nutrition, she walked up and introduced herself—and he hired her on the spot. One thing led to another and soon she was leading a group inside the Department of Agriculture that took survey data and analyzed patterns in food consumption, to explore the relationships between the American diet and American disease. From there she moved naturally enough to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where she led a team seeking answers to basic questions about the overall health of the population. For instance, blood lead levels in children fell by a lot in the 1970s and early 1980s. This welcome development, they figured out, was due to the phasing out of leaded gasoline.

In early 1993 a pediatrician in Seattle alerted the Washington State Department of Health that he was seeing in children symptoms of E. coli such as cramps and bloody diarrhea. In four western states hundreds of people became seriously ill. Four children died. The disease was tracked to Jack in the Box. The chain had been cooking its hamburgers at temperatures too low to kill the bacteria. The Department of Agriculture is responsible for the safety of all meat. The F.D.A. handles all other food. An American killed by his spinach can justifiably blame the F.D.A., but an American killed by his steak is the responsibility of the Department of Agriculture. Cheese pizzas are the F.D.A.’s problem; pepperoni pizzas are supervised by the U.S.D.A. After the Jack in the Box outbreak, the U.S.D.A. created a new little box on the organizational chart called “Food Safety.” Woteki became its first undersecretary and served in the post for four years.

After that she thought she was done with government. “Then 9/11 happened,” she said. “I had an emotional response: What can I do? It made me realize there were very few people who had ever had the experiences I had had.” She was able to explain the various threats to the food supply as few could, for example. She understood how genetic engineering might be used as a weapon of mass destruction. She knew that a microbe could bring down a civilization. She returned to government. For the last six years of the Obama administration she’d been the Department of Agriculture’s chief scientist.

The same qualities that had led her to minimize the importance of her feelings had made her an excellent supervisor of science. Though she didn’t seem to care one way or another how she was addressed, no one thought of her as “Cathie.” She was always “Dr. Woteki.” “She was great at her job,” said Tom Vilsack. “She was very adamant about keeping politics out of science. If I called and said, ‘How about we delay the announcement of that grant for a week or so,’ it was ‘Hands off my science!’”

We don’t really celebrate the accomplishments of government employees. They exist in our society to take the blame. But if anyone ever paid attention they would note that Woteki’s department, among other achievements, had suppressed the potentially catastrophic 2015 outbreak of bird flu. They’d created, very quickly, a fast new test for the disease that enabled them to cull the sick chickens from the healthy ones. Because of their work the poultry industry was forced to kill only tens of millions of birds, instead of hundreds of millions. In the early 1990s, the U.S.D.A. had also dealt with the outbreak of ring-spot virus in papaya trees, when the papaya industry in Hawaii faced ruin and extinction. Inside the little box marked “Science,” the U.S.D.A. helped genetically engineer a papaya tree that was resistant to ring-spot virus.

Sonny Perdue from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
By Lance Cheung/Planet Pix/Zuma Wire.

The worst I could get anyone to say about Cathie Woteki was that she had an unusual sense of humor, at least by the careful standards of the Department of Agriculture. The jokes of scientists sometimes feel like experiments gone wrong, and she was very much a scientist. Her car license plate read, DR WO. No one at the U.S.D.A. called her that, or could imagine doing so. At Secretary Vilsack’s small office Christmas dinner for top U.S.D.A. officials, her scientist husband came wearing an elf hat. “No one knew why,” says a U.S.D.A. staffer. “That she had looked at her husband dressed as an elf and said, ‘Yep, that’ll work.’ She never explained it. It was actually kind of endearing.”

The first time we spoke wasn’t long after Trump had nominated her replacement. His name was Sam Clovis. He had a doctorate in public administration from the University of Alabama but no experience in science. He’d come to prominence in 2010 as a Rush Limbaugh-style right-wing talk-radio host in Sioux City, Iowa. As Iowa chairman of Rick Perry’s 2016 presidential campaign, he’d ripped Trump loudly and righteously for having “no foundation in Christ.” Then he’d quit Perry’s campaign to become co-chairman of the Trump campaign, declining to address rumors he’d done it for the money. (“I’m not going to talk about how much money I’m getting paid,” he told the Des Moines Register. “It’s just not going to happen.”) His appointment as the U.S.D.A.’s chief scientist felt like a practical joke to those who had worked there: this was the place that, back in the early 1940s, had taken Alexander Fleming’s findings and effectively invented penicillin. It had triggered the antibiotics revolution. It had coped with endless blights and outbreaks. The consequences of the science it funded—or did not fund—was mind-boggling. The person Clovis was replacing had taught at universities, worked in the White House, and, along the way, been inducted into the National Academy of Sciences. (On Wednesday, Clovis withdrew himself from consideration after his name was publicly tied to a former Trump campaign adviser who pleaded guilty to lying to the F.B.I. about his connections with Russian associates.)

“They are going to politicize the science,” said Woteki. “My biggest concern is the misuse of science to support policies.”

In recent years, much of the department’s research has dealt with the effects of climate change. The head of science directs nearly $3 billion in grants each year. Woteki directed the science that leads to nutritional standards for schoolchildren. She set research priorities. Hers had been food security; domestic and global nutrition; safety of the food supply; and figuring out how best to convert plants into fuel. “All of that has to be done in the face of a changing climate,” said Woteki. “It’s all climate change.” It might sound silly that the U.S.D.A. funds a project that seeks to improve the ability of sheep to graze at high altitudes—until you realize that this may one day be the only place sheep will be able to graze. “We’re going to become even more reliant on the efficiencies that come from the investment in science,” she said. One-quarter of the arable land in the world is already degraded, either by overfarming or overgrazing. “Changing temperatures and changing rainfall patterns will force changes in the way crops are grown and livestock are raised,” she said. “The changing climate brings new risks of food-borne disease. Even the pathogens are influenced by temperature and humidity.”

If the Trump administration were to pollute the scientific inquiry at the U.S.D.A. with politics, scientific inquiry would effectively cease. “These high-level discussions really worry me,” she says. Research grants will go not to the most promising ideas but to the closest allies. “There is already good science that isn’t being funded,” she said. “That will get worse.” Junk science will be used to muddy issues like childhood nutrition. Maybe sodium isn’t as bad for kids as people say! There’s no such thing as too much sugar! The science will suddenly be “unclear.” There will no longer be truth and falsehood. There will just be stories, with two sides to them.

Since she had run two of the little boxes on the org chart, I decided to kill two birds with one stone and ask Woteki what most worried her about Food Safety.

“Regulatory reform in food safety without science,” she said.

That was too general. I pressed her for some real, specific concern. “They could increase the line speeds,” she said without missing a beat.

The U.S.D.A. has big, fat, quite readable rule books to prevent meat from killing people. One rule concerns the speed of the poultry-slaughter lines: 140 birds a minute. In theory, some poor U.S.D.A. inspector is meant to physically examine each and every bird for defects. But obviously no human being can inspect 140 birds a minute. No industry can kill nine billion birds each year without wanting to find faster ways to do it. Just this fall, the National Chicken Council petitioned the U.S.D.A. to allow for line speeds of 175 or faster. “It’ll make it even harder for inspectors to do their jobs,” says Woteki.

What she fears isn’t so much the bad intentions of the people who fill the jobs she once did. She fears their seeming commitment to scientific ignorance. No big chicken company wants to poison a bunch of children with salmonella. But if you speed up the slaughter lines, you need to make the new speed safe. Ignorance allows people to disregard the consequences of their actions. And sometimes it leads to consequences even they did not intend.

Ali Zaidi drew a distinction between the little boxes inside the Department of Agriculture that enforced regulation (such as Food Safety) and those that spent money (such as Science). “One is the stick and the other is the carrot,” he said. “You pay for things often that you can’t or won’t regulate.” Where the government had the power to regulate, it had less need to pay for things. It couldn’t compel university professors to do agricultural research, and so it paid them to do it. It had the power to compel, say, egg producers to adhere to rules that kept eggs from making people sick, and so didn’t need to pay them to do it. “In the extreme case the federal government could just buy eggs for everyone and test all of these eggs,” said Zaidi. “That’s obviously a dumb thing to do from an economic point of view, but it shows you how regulation takes the place of expenditure.”

The regulation side of things is, as a rule, less vulnerable to the short-term idiocy of a new administration than the money side of things. The big show Trump has made of removing regulations by executive order has done far less than he suggests, as there is a formal rule-changing process: you must solicit outside opinion, wait a certain amount of time for those opinions to arrive, and then deal with the inevitable legal challenges to your rule change. To increase the number of chickens a poultry company murders each minute might take years, even if it is the smart thing to do.

But to change who gets money to do agricultural research, or whether they get it at all, is a cinch. For that reason, Ali thought the little box marked “Science” was of far greater concern than the box marked “Food Safety.”

There were two other important little boxes inside the U.S.D.A. One was marked “Farm,” and the other was “Rural Development.” Ali Zaidi had watched many billions flow through the first and a few billion flow through the second. He thought it highly unlikely the Trump administration’s budget cuts would have much effect on the farm dollars. A lot of that money went to big grain producers. The same Republican senators from farm states who said they abhorred government spending of almost any sort became radical socialists when the conversation turned to handouts to big grain producers. “The money follows the political power of the constituencies,” said Ali, “instead of the evidence of need in America. If you really boil down the difference between the farm side of the budget and the rural-development side of the budget, the farm subsidies can wind up in the pockets of large corporations. It’s the rural-development money that tends to stay in these communities.”

Without that money, he thought, rural America would be a very different place from what it is. “Without the U.S.D.A. money it’s possible we’d look like sub-Saharan Africa, or rural China,” said Ali. Small-town America is dispersed and disorganized and poor. The people in those communities don’t have the money to hire Washington lobbyists.

A way of life depends on federal subsidies. “It’s preserving an emotional infrastructure,” said Ali. “We have decided this is the type of community we want to preserve. But the entire time I was in the White House, we grappled with the question: Where do we find the political capital for rural development? Because it can’t just come from the people rural development helps.”

Rural Delivery

By the time she left the little box marked “Rural Development,” Lillian Salerno had spent the better part of five years inside it. The box’s function was simple: to channel low-interest-rate loans, along with a few grants, mainly to towns with fewer than 50,000 people in them. Her department ran the $220 billion bank that serviced the poorest of the poor in rural America: in the Deep South, and in the tribal lands, and in the communities, called colonias, along the U.S.-Mexico border. “Some of the communities in the South, the only checks going in are government checks,” she said. And yet, amazingly, they nearly always repaid their loans.

Half her job had been vetting the demands from rural America for help. The other half had been one long unglamorous road trip. “It wasn’t like I could just fly to New York City. I’d be going to, like, Minco, Oklahoma. Everywhere I went was two flights minimum plus a two- or three-hour drive.” On the other end of the trip lay some small town in dire need of a health center, or housing, or a small business. “You go through these small towns and you see these ridiculously nice fire stations. That’s us,” she said. It was always more expensive for these towns to get electricity and Internet access and health care. “But for the federal government rural Alaska wouldn’t have any drinking water.” The need was incredible; her work felt urgent. “We’d give $40,000 for a health clinic and the whole time you’re like, Shit, this makes a difference.”

As the U.S.D.A.’s loans were usually made through local banks, the people on the receiving end of them were often unaware of where the money was coming from. There were many stories very like the one Tom Vilsack told, about a loan they had made, in Minnesota, to a government-shade-throwing, Fox News-watching, small-town businessman. The bank held a ceremony and the guy wound up being interviewed by the local paper. “He’s telling the reporter how proud he is to have done it on his own,” said Vilsack. “The U.S.D.A. person goes to introduce herself, and he says, ‘So who are you?’ She says, ‘I’m the U.S.D.A. person.’ He asks, ‘What are you doing here?’ She says, ‘Well, sir, we supplied the money you are announcing.’ He was white as a sheet.”

Salerno saw this sort of thing all the time. “We’d have this check,” said Salerno. “We’d blow it up and try to have a picture taken with it. It said, UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT, in great big letters. That was something that Vilsack wanted—to be right out in front so people knew the federal government had helped them. In the red southern states the mayor sometimes would say, ‘Can you not mention that the government gave this?’” Even when it was saving lives, or preserving communities, it remained oddly invisible. “It’s just a misunderstanding of the system,” said Salerno. “We don’t teach people what government actually does.”

She herself hadn’t learned until very late. She’d grown up in a family with no money, and nine children, and Republican sympathies, in a small farming town in Texas called Little Elm. Her graduating high-school class had 18 people in it. She was both student-council president and head cheerleader. (“The reason I’m not very good at math is you had to choose: cheerleading or math. And I chose cheerleading.”) Few of her school’s graduates ever went to college, but she was admitted to the University of Texas, on a Pell Grant. She paid for what the grant didn’t by waiting tables.

She was waiting tables in Little Elm in the late 1980s when friends started getting sick, and dying, from AIDS. She went to Dallas to visit them. There, at a Dallas hospital, she saw that men condemned to death were going without care: the nurses were frightened to interact with them. They had a particular fear of being infected by the needles that delivered medication to the patients. “At that time everyone died,” said Salerno. “And they are told, ‘The nurses aren’t coming.’ I said, That’s about as fucked as anything I ever saw.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s sprawling headquarters, photographed from the Washington Monument.
By Bob Nichols/U.S. Department Of Agriculture.

She had a raw sense of injustice, and a desire to see life be made fair. “Small town, big family, no resources: you look at the world in a certain way.” She also had a roll-up-your-sleeves-and-fix-it attitude. After seeing the needless suffering she came up with an idea: the retractable needle. It worked like a ballpoint pen. A friend of hers, an engineer, designed it. She applied to the local community bank for a loan and got it. It wasn’t until much later that she discovered that the loan had ultimately come from the Small Business Administration, and that the federal government had simply used the local bank as a delivery system. She didn’t know enough to know that no bank was going to lend money to a first-time entrepreneur on the strength of a new invention—in part because banks didn’t value willpower. “All good inventions come from something personal,” she said. “People create things because it’s personal.”

Salerno and her partner built and ran the new company in Little Elm and called it Retractable Technologies. They received their first patent in the early 1990s and F.D.A. approval in 1997. The first year in business they sold one million syringes, the next year three million. By the third year her company employed 140 people in Little Elm. She repaid the bank her government loan—and she still didn’t realize it was a government loan. For the first time in her life she had money.

She also now had a view of the inner workings of the health-care industry. The company that had made the old syringes, Becton, Dickinson & Co., controlled more than 80 percent of the market and felt threatened. It wasn’t long before it started to require hospital systems to buy its clumsy new version of a safe syringe, by bundling it with other products. Salerno assumed Becton, Dickinson was counting on her inability to pay for the lawsuits required to fight them. But she did and wound up with a settlement of $100 million in 2004.

Even then, Becton found ways to keep her new product from gaining full access to the market. Her company survived but didn’t become what it might have. It now employs 130 people, instead of the 200 at its peak. Salerno concluded that increased corporate power was one of the forces that had reduced the opportunity available in rural America. The rapacity of companies with monopolistic power, and their ability to have their way with the government, got her thinking about the big American systems. “The entire health industry lies about what things cost to make,” she said. “I know what things cost because I made them.”

Her outrage led her to support Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2007, but she soon switched to Obama. (“I switched because I got so angry at how they were beating him up.”) After Obama won, Salerno was a natural candidate for a job she had no idea existed: helping people in rural America to help themselves. “Someone said, ‘Why don’t you become an administrator in rural America, at the Department of Agriculture?’ I said, ‘There’s an administrator in rural America?’”

She’d come to her job inside the little box marked “Rural Development” without any particular ambition to be there. The sums of money at her disposal were incredible: the little box gave out or guaranteed $30 billion in loans and grants a year. But people who should have known about it hadn’t the first clue what it was up to. “I had this conversation with elected and state officials almost everywhere in the South,” said Salerno. “Them: We hate the government and you suck. Me: My mission alone put $1 billion into your economy this year, so are you sure about that? Me thinking: We are the only reason your shitty state is standing.”

She was a small-business person first and had no affection for the inefficiencies she found inside the federal government. “You have this big federal workforce that hasn’t been invested in forever,” she said. “They can’t be outward-facing. They don’t have any of the tools you need in a modern workplace.” She couldn’t attract young people to work there. Once, she tried to estimate how many of the U.S.D.A.’s roughly 100,000 employees had been taught how to create a spreadsheet. Fewer than 50 people, she decided. “I was always very aware how we spent money. When I would use words like ‘fiduciary duties’ or say, ‘Those are not our dollars,’ they would say, ‘Are you sure you aren’t a Republican?’ But I was really sensitive to the fact that this wasn’t our money. This was taxpayer money. This was money that had come from some guy working for 15 bucks an hour.”

The big messy federal government was still the only tool for dealing with what she saw as a growing crisis: the deconstruction of rural America. “It’s hard to quantify what it means not to have your entire town’s businesses shuttered up because Walmart moved there,” she said. There was a hole in the American capital markets: they simply didn’t reach small towns. And there were lots of stats that suggested that our society benefited from having small towns—and that small-town life made some important, perhaps undervalued, contributions to the whole. Fifteen percent of the country lives in towns of fewer than 10,000 people, for instance, but a far greater proportion of the armed services come from rural areas than from urban ones.

But the more rural the American, the more dependent he is for his way of life on the U.S. government. And the more rural the American, the more likely he was to have voted for Donald Trump. So you might think that Trump, when he took office, would do everything he could to strengthen and grow the little box marked “Rural Development.” That’s not what has happened.

The Trump administration wanted to show early that it was serious about foreign trade. This desire expressed itself in the Department of Agriculture by a splitting of the little box marked “Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services” into two little boxes—one for Farm programs and another for Foreign Agricultural Affairs, or trade. Oddly, at that very moment, Trump was removing the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and costing American farmers an estimated $4.4 billion a year in foreign sales, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation. As there’s a rule against having more than seven little boxes on the U.S.D.A.’s org chart, they had to eliminate one of the little boxes. The little box they got rid of was Rural Development. “I worked in the little box in the government most responsible for helping the people who elected Trump,” said Salerno. “And they literally took my little box off the organization chart.”

This troubled Lillian Salerno, and not just because she’d spent five years of her life inside that little box. It troubled her because it made her wonder about the motives of the people who had taken over the Department of Agriculture. She’d worked inside the little box for a reason. And if you wanted to understand what was at stake inside these little boxes, you could not neglect the motives of the people who ran them. “You want to know what worries me most?” she says after I ask her the question I’d come to ask her. “I am absolutely convinced about one thing: there are conversations going on right now in New York and Washington between people in the Trump administration and Wall Street bankers about how to get their hands on the bank portfolio. Folks in banking: I’m sure they are nice people—they just can’t help themselves.”

She’s worried that an only partially adequate tool for helping people who were raised in the country’s unlucky places will be turned into a source of profits for the biggest financial firms. She thinks that was why they eliminated her little box and moved the $220 billion bank into the office of the secretary: so they could do new things with the money without people noticing. “At the end of the day, what do I think they are going to do?” she said. “Take all the money and give it to their banker friends. Do things like privatize water—so people in rural Florida will be paying $75 a month for it instead of $20.”

Lillian Salerno had observed the Trump administration for a long moment. Virtually all the people Trump had sent into the Department of Agriculture were white men in their 20s. They exhibited no knowledge of, or interest in, the problems of rural Americans. She decided there was only one thing to do: move back to Texas and run for office. She had no illusions about herself as a political candidate. She was still a small-town girl from Little Elm, Texas. “I’m still basically a waitress,” she said. “I still feel like this. If I get to be a congressman, I’ll still feel like that.” Ali Zaidi had asked a question: Where would the political capital come from to help people in rural America? Well, it would come from her.

Zaidi marveled at how hard it was for Americans to see the source of their society’s strength. People who came to the United States from other countries had this one advantage: they didn’t take it for granted. “The immigrant journey has a time compression to it,” he said. “Within a generation you’re able to see how the rungs of the ladder of opportunity are laid out in front of you, and you can see the hands that pull you up. You see people pull you up and you say, O.K., I’ve got to do the same thing for other people.

“I came up that ladder of opportunity, but even I didn’t know the names of the government programs that made up the ladder itself. Growing up, what was obvious to me was the kindness of community members. But government was less visible. You need to work really hard to appreciate it.”

And who wants to do that?