When Donald Trump takes office in January, real estate and entertainment will occupy the White House, Big Oil will occupy the State Department, Wall Street will occupy the Department of Treasury, fast food will run the Labor Department, and privatizers will be entrusted with public education and criminal justice. In addition, Congress and a substantial majority of statehouses will be controlled by a party whose defining philosophy is the elimination of public institutions. For all intents and purposes, America is about to not have a government – certainly not one recognizable as democratic.
In many respects this is already the case. A much-cited 2014 study comparing public opinion to policy outcomes found that, “When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites or with organized interests, they generally lose… economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.” Later research has challenged the claim, but the GOP agenda certainly supports the original findings.
One of the new Congress’s first objectives, with Trump in the White House to approve it, is repealing the Affordable Care Act. A mere 20 percent of Americans support doing so without replacing it, but the GOP doesn’t want to wait. Furthermore, according to Gallup, 58 percent of Americans support “Replacing the ACA with a federally funded healthcare program providing insurance for all Americans” – certainly not the Republican position.
So it goes, down the list of conservative priorities. In a video taken at his Mar-a-Lago estate on New Year’s Eve, Trump tells his wealthy donors, “Your taxes are coming down. Regulations are coming off. We’re going to get rid of Obamacare… We will build the wall.” Sixty-one percent of Americans say the rich pay too little in taxes. Substantial majorities want regulations maintained or strengthened in areas such as food production, environmental protection, and workplace safety. Even Trump’s signature issue, the border wall, is opposed by 61 percent of Americans.
Trump’s dubious election victory, in which Hillary Clinton won nearly 3 million votes more than him, is testament to just how unpopular many of his key policies are. Americans’ confidence in Trump is low. Fewer than half believe he can avoid major scandals, handle an international crisis, or use military force wisely. On every measure in a Gallup survey, Trump scores worse than Barack Obama, George W. Bush or Bill Clinton did when they were president-elect.
But with Trump it’s not just that he may do a bad job – it’s that he may not do the job at all. Trump skips most of his security briefings, explaining that he finds them repetitive and that he doesn’t need them because he is, “like, a smart person.” Instead of studying for the presidency, Trump went on a victory tour and continued his petty Twitter feuds. He has continued to conduct private business, including in other countries; his controversial phone call with the President of Taiwan was reportedly business-related.
In response to mounting evidence that Trump will use his position primarily to enrich himself, his family and his organization, supporters offer no defense. Fellow billionaire Tilman Fertitta said, “We’re all smoking something” if we believe Trump won’t have conflicts of interest, and encouraged Americans to “get used to” them. Newt Gingrich suggested that ethics rules be changed for Trump, arguing, “We’ve never seen this kind of wealth in the White House, and so traditional rules don’t work.” Trump himself declared, “The president can’t have a conflict of interest.”
For Trump, the only conflict of interest that exists is whatever conflicts with his interests. But his cabinet is stacked with people who couldn’t more perfectly define the concept. In some cases the appointments are so absurd one has to wonder whether Trump is deliberately trolling America.
As a presidential candidate in 2012, Texas Governor Rick Perry said he would abolish three federal departments: Education, Commerce, and one other, whose name he plumb forgot. It turned out to be the Department of Energy, which is tasked with, among other things, maintaining the nuclear weapons stockpile, disposal of nuclear waste, and conducting scientific research. President Obama’s Energy Secretaries were both physicists. Perry, a Dancing with the Stars contestant who gave away $19 billion to energy concerns as governor, will be Trump’s.
Fast food tycoon Andrew Puzder, a vocal opponent of minimum wage increases and overtime pay, has been appointed Secretary of Labor. Scott Pruitt, who sued the EPA as Oklahoma’s Attorney General, will soon be the agency’s director. Betsy DeVos is a billionaire advocate of for-profit schools who will guide the nation’s public education. And Senator Jeff Sessions, a private prison advocate deemed too racist for a federal judgeship in 1986, will lead the Department of Justice.
Big finance also enjoys generous representation in the incoming administration. Wall Street defense lawyer Jay Clayton will head the Securities and Exchange Commission, which is ostensibly tasked with regulating Wall Street. Goldman Sachs COO Gary Cohn is Trump’s chief economic adviser. And Steve Mnuchin, a particularly unscrupulous banker who has actually foreclosed on the homes of Trump supporters, will be Secretary of Treasury.
Trump’s elite cadre of bankers and big businessmen will make up the wealthiest cabinet in modern American history. The common goal of all these actors is to remove any barriers standing between their enrichment and the public good, and the process has already begun. In the first official act of the new Congress, House Republicans passed a bill that would allow them to roll back recently enacted regulations designed to prevent pollution and protect overtime pay. Afterward, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan celebrated with lobbyists representing Raytheon, Chevron, Johnson & Johnson, and others.
While the government abdicates its duties to regulate industry, issue benefits, and protect civil rights, it may lead to dangerous overreach in other arenas. Trump’s authoritarian streak and propaganda machine will be the perfect weapon against a population grown restless by denial of services and widening inequality. Despite conservatives’ claim to want government out of private life, we may soon witness a stronger police state, censorship of the press, registration of minority groups, and other dangers for which our democratic republic has no modern precedent.
Republican hatred of government is primarily reserved for services, like Medicare and food stamps, that are provided to ordinary Americans. Under Trump, big government will continue to exist for the benefit of the wealthy, who have long lived under a welfare state of their own. But the American people should not side with the corporate puppet masters of the GOP as they commandeer what works for them and demolish the rest. They should view government not as an enemy to be vanquished, but as an institution to be reclaimed.