Donald Trump selected nearly all his cabinet while I was away on a long vacation. It is both a blend of several elements of the Republican Party, and a team with a purpose, one that will clearly move quickly to make great changes in Washington. It represents a blend of different political cultures, while completely excluding the bi-coastal cultural elite. And while it is not entirely clear what it promises on the foreign front, its domestic direction is clear. It will try to undo virtually all that is left of the New Deal and the Great Society, fulfilling the fantasies of Newt Gingrich--Trump's most distinguished early supporter--and Grover Norquist, who has been relatively quiet of late, but who stands on the verge of the realization of his dream of shrinking the federal government until it can be drowned in a bathtub. While press attention focuses on Trump's personality, what we are really seeing is the culmination of more than three decades of disciplined Republican work, driving the Republican party and the country steadily to the right.
Trump's selections fall broadly into two camps. Quite a few of them, including those in the most critical positions, come from the Republican political establishment and the bipartisan economic establishment. Rex Tillerson, to begin with, is probably the most powerful business executive to assume a position in the cabinet since Eisenhower appointed "Engine Charlie" Wilson, the General Motors Chairman of the Board, as Secretary of Defense in 1953. (Wilson is not to be confused with the Texas Congressman who three decades later became the hero of "Charlie Wilson's war.) Ike's Wilson famously remarked during his confirmation hearings that he had always assumed that what was good for General Motors was good for the country, and vice versa, and Tillerson presumably would say the same about Exxon. Tillerson is not a conservative ideologue, but he has been converted to a a liver-and-let-live policy towards Putin's Russia, and his company has a huge stake in the lifting of the sanctions against that country. It is entirely possible that he will work with all major governments to make the world safer for themselves and their corporate oligarchies--although at least one report claims that Trump plans to reverse Richard Nixon's policy and forge an anti-Chinese alliance with the Russians. A second key choice from the Establishment, broadly defined, is Steven Mnuchin, the former Goldman Sachs executive and current hedge fund manager, as Secretary of the Treasury. He seems very unlikely to push for a tougher regulatory environment, and indeed, quite likely to create a looser one, inviting a replay of the 2007 crash. In a parallel appointment, current Goldman Sachs CEO Gary Cohn will become the head of the White House National Economic Council in this "populist" administration. Three other establishment selections are Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, a long-time Republican operative, U. N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, and Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao,Senator McConnell's wife, whose policy plans are not clear. Equally unclear is the future role of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke a freshman Congressman from Montana who has not, apparently, taken strong public positions on key environmental issues. And another, surely, is General Mattis, the presumptive Secretary of Defense, who had a very high reputation within the military when I was working at the Naval War College. Retired general John Kelly, the Homeland Security Secretary, falls into the same category..
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, it seems to me, occupies something of a middle position within the Trump team. After several decades in Washington, he certainly ranks as an Establishment figure, but he has long been an opponent of abortion rights and embraced the evisceration of the Voting Rights act. He can also be counted on to support extreme measures against immigration or against a presumed domestic terrorist threat. All these positions are, of course, completely in line with mainstream Republican thinking nowadays. Under Sessions the Justice Department will surely drop its aggressive advocacy of the rights of transgender Americans and will probably stand firmly behind law enforcement in any new controversies over police behavior--popular policies with the Administration's base.
We now come to the second group of appointees, the ones who in my opinion will attempt to transform--or eliminate--the role of the federal government in various sectors of American life. Several of them come from the Tea Party movement, which has never before had a direct role in national policy, and several have been chosen, clearly, because of their opposition to the essential functions that their departments were created to serve.
The Labor Department exists to protect the rights of American workers, but its new head, Andrew Puzder, is the CEO of a fast-food chain, an economic sector that pays low wages for very hard work and has successfully resisted attempts to organize. No Republican of a century ago ever dared appoint a titan of non-unionized industry like Henry Ford to this post, but that is what Trump has done. Puzder violently opposes any increase in the minimum wage. Similarly, Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma Attorney General who will become director of the EPA, has literally functioned as a mouthpiece for energy interests in controversies with the EPA, passing on their own draft protests as his own. The new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has led campaigns designed to reduce the role of public education in American life and promote private alternatives including--but certainly not limited to--charter schools. I suspect she will also scale back or eliminate the department's role as a campus watchdog on issues of sexual assault and inclusion. Presumptive Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson seems to have no sympathy for his department's role, either. The selection of Tom Price, a Republican Congressman from Georgia, as Secretary of Health and Human Services (and thus responsible for the administration of the ACA), is parallel. Price, an orthopedic surgeon, violently opposes any government interference in the provision of health care and health insurance. A parallel appointment in the foreign policy sphere is David Friedman as Ambassador to Israel--a vocal ally of the Netanyahu government who wants to promote, rather than restrict, Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and who will apparently move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.
And last, but hardly least, Mike Mulvaney, the South Carolina Congressman who has been seelcted to head the Office of Management nad budget, is a leader of the House Freedom Caucus, the most radical faction of the Tea Party, who was active in efforts to shut down the government to force more drastic reductions in federal spending. Rather than oppose a Democratic Administration's budget, he will now draw up the budget upon which the Congress must act. It will undoubtedly include huge cuts in discretionary spending.
On economic issues, Trump clearly will continue to promote the fortunes of our new economic oligarchy, led by the financial and energy sectors. On foreign policy his course is very unclear, but the appointment of Michael Flynn, who seems to be as emotional and intellectually unstable as Trump himself, as National Security Adviser, is frightening. Given that Trump's policies will do less than nothing for the bulk of the voters who elected him, I expect him to continue arousing hatred against presumed enemies foreign and domestic and to take harsh anti-immigration measures as a way to try to keep them behind him. Meanwhile, his team, and the excited Republican Congress, will reap the fruits of their victory by cutting back the role of the federal government, leaving teh citizenry with no defense against corporate America.
All this is, of course, catastrophic--but it is also, bizarrely, the way democracy is supposed to work. Beginning in the 1970s, conservative Republicans (led by Gingrich, who now looks like perhaps the most influential political figure of our era) embarked on a long-term campaign to undo the last 40 years of American history. They perfected their strategies in the 1990s--strategies I have described in earlier posts under the heading of dau tranh, a Vietnamese Communist term for struggle (A quick search will help new readers find those posts.) I have tracked the progress of that campaign here for a dozen years. Their response ot President Obama was to hunker down, block him at any turn, escalate their rhetoric, and mobilize their troops. Meanwhile, they have utterly destroyed the Democratic Party in much of the nation. In 2016 they came across a new candidate with unusual appeal who managed to win a solid electoral college victory despite losing the popular vote.. They will now proceed to do the work they had been planning for years. President Obama failed for many reasons to transform the US, but the biggest reasons was that he did not want to do so. The system had been very good to him, and he believed in it. Too many of the American people no longer did. The Democrats left a vacuum. They can't blame the Republicans for filling it.