Corruption has consequences. We know this intuitively, but we only occasionally know this viscerally. We also know, in abstract terms, that the government is a deeply complex infrastructure that reaches into our lives in ways far beyond immediate comprehension. With these things in mind, part of the terror in watching the various bureaucratic indecencies of the Trump administration day in and day out — Betsy DeVos kneecapping the needy, Wilbur Ross fiddling with the census, Jeff Sessions doing Jeff Sessions things — is the unshakable sense that the sum of all the actions taken by this rogue’s gallery of a cabinet is ultimately shoving us toward a catastrophic future. The question isn’t if something bad is going to happen, but when, how, and what the hell is it going to look like? The Coming Storm, a new Audible Original from Michael Lewis out today, is primarily interested in sketching out one specific iteration of that future catastrophe: how the corruption of the Trump administration adversely affects the government’s scientific data-collecting responsibilities, and how that puts lives in danger.
A parable and omen of things to come, The Coming Storm is the latest entry in a body of work that Lewis has been building out in recent months through his dispatches in Vanity Fair, which focuses on the architecture of the American government — or, more specifically, how the Trump administration’s distinct lack of interest in actual governance and administration severely compromises our society’s ability to simply function, or even exist. (It should be noted that Lewis has since left Vanity Fair to continue his work through Audible.) The audiobook focuses on the Department of Commerce, which, as Lewis comes to learn, is a bit of a misnomer. Midway through the first chapter, a science-policy expert explains that it’s really “the Department of Science and Information” because the majority of its budget actually goes toward agencies tasked with collecting data crucial to the support of the everyday systems that help modern societies function. The most notable of these agencies is the National Weather Service, which goes on to become the prime concern of The Coming Storm. “Without that data and the Weather Service that makes sense of it, no plane would fly, no bridge would be built, and no war would be fought … at least, not well,” Lewis explains. In vivid terms, Lewis portrays the government apparatus as something that’s surprisingly fragile. Alter a variable and you’ll trigger a butterfly effect that reaches far beyond expectations. Imagine what happens when a vindictive administration carelessly smashes the entire equation.
At the heart of The Coming Storm is a crisis of kleptocracy. Lewis provides illustrative details about how the Trump administration is using various government instruments to reward its supporters, often morally questionable barons of private industries, to the detriment of the state’s operational integrity. One particularly alarming thread explored in Lewis’s reporting follows the ongoing efforts of Barry Myers, the chief executive of AccuWeather and Trump’s pick to run the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to privatize the agency’s practice of collecting and analyzing data that helps generate weather warnings meant to keep all of us, and not just those who can pay for it, safe.
Risk is a central concern to a lot of Lewis’s work: how its perceived, misunderstood, and exploited. Protagonists in his stories are defined based on their relationship to risk, from the Oakland A’s Billy Beane rebellion against baseball convention in Moneyball to the financial-apocalypse profiteering of the men at the center of The Big Short, and the dance between Lewis’s heroes and risk often fuels the propulsive thrills of his narratives. High stakes makes for high drama, and high risk can make for high reward, which in turn makes for nice narrative payoffs. Even if, looming in the fringes of the narrative, a bigger tragedy is unfolding, as in The Big Short’s case of the ordinary people whose financial lives were decimated by the Great Recession off the page.
Lewis largely inverts this equation in The Coming Storm, which carries itself with solemn distance as it dedicates much of its attention to an exploration of stakes. The audiobook opens with a scene of carnage, the aftermath of the 2011 tornado that hit Joplin, Missouri, and killed over 100 people. We’re told many of the fatalities could have been avoided, as the town was actually given ample notice that the tornado was coming. The reason it happened? Having previously experienced false alarms, many town residents did not immediately heed the weather warning, instead choosing to seek more information and further assess the risk, as a NOAA report later concluded. In the end, buildings were decimated, towns were rendered unrecognizable, and a shocking number of people died.
Reflecting on the tragedy, Lewis raises the question that proves key to his contemporary journalistic enterprise: How does the relationship between citizens and the entities tasked with protecting their lives break down? The query could equally apply to so many other things, from the news media to scientific inquiry to the pleas of loved ones about the state of American democracy. In the pursuit of an answer, Lewis argues that America’s current crisis of kleptocracy is deeply intertwined with another crisis that began long before we arrived at this point in history: that of American society’s increasingly frayed relationship to data, the scientific process, and truth. Or, to put it another way, the country’s diminishing ability to assess and communicate risk to itself and for itself. Tornadoes bookend The Coming Storm. The closing moments of the audiobook bring us back to tornado country, where we’re left with a melancholic image of human desolation. Things you can’t get back; people you’ll never see again. The scene imparts a haunting truth, which is the sum of all crises and catastrophes: At the end of the day, we will all be judged by nature.
Despite its overall somberness, The Coming Storm is pure Michael Lewis, so you can expect many of the hallmarks that make reading Lewis (or, in this case, listening to him) a pleasure. A ragtag cast of remarkable people fighting against a system, including the first American woman to walk in space and a playful mathematician who becomes the United States’ first and only chief data scientist? Check. Utterly entertaining prose and cinematic scene-building to set the feel of a place? Check. A vague sense that he may be oversimplifying complex histories and big ideas to streamline a deeply sticky narrative experience? Oh hell yeah.
The Coming Storm is the first work coming out of a unique deal that Michael Lewis has signed with Audible, which sees the author producing four pieces exclusive to the Audible platform. “You’re not going to be able to read it, you’re only going to be able to listen to it,” Lewis told the New York Times in June. As it turns out, that might not be entirely true: Lewis has a new anthology scheduled to publish in the fall, called The Fifth Risk, which will compile his various dispatches on the American government’s bureaucracy in print form — including The Coming Storm.
That being said, The Coming Storm makes for an engaging, if not utterly straightforward, listen. The audiobook is split across two chapters and runs for about two-and-half hours, which means it’s good for about a week’s worth of commuting, or maybe a plane flight. Lewis provides the narration himself, and his slight Louisiana accent makes for a great reading voice that backs up his obvious capacity for raconteuring. But really, there’s nothing about the production that makes its nature as an audiobook-exclusive necessary. There’s no interview tape, no archival recordings, no mid-read deployment of music to shift or accentuate mood. It’s a short audiobook without the book, which sounds like an arrangement that has potential for … something, I suppose. As it stands, it feels like an unnecessary act of forced scarcity, or a creative limitation that wasn’t properly realized.