Empire of Sleaze

Trump’s populist image was always a mirage. His administration will be a Trojan horse for lobbyists, Washington insiders, and Wall Street.

A gold escalator at Trump Tower. brainware3000 / Flickr

Our movement is about replacing a failed and corrupt political establishment with a new government controlled by you the American people.”

So began Donald Trump’s final campaign commercial: a populist paean replete with familiar denunciations of political insiders, globalism, and illegal immigration.

This was the rhetorical essence of one half of Trumpism as we’ve come to know it over the past year: a narrative of grievance, loss, and decay coupled with the promise of national renewal and outraged censure of the political and economic establishments.

Paired with a politics of racial animus that was often less dogwhistle than foghorn, Trump’s campaign showed a willingness to break from the conventional soft populism of the GOP in two important respects: First, through its overt finger-pointing at big business and the donor class; second, through its appeals to the economic plight of the working poor and occasional embrace of the language of social security.

“I will not allow people to die on the sidewalks and streets of our country,” Trump angrily shot back at Ted Cruz in a debate this past February. A month later he broke with traditional Republican messaging again by promising to “do everything within my power not to touch Social Security, to leave it the way it is.”

However we ultimately square Trump’s victory, he clearly galvanized a segment of the electorate in Midwestern states like Wisconsin and Michigan — securing decisive support in counties that had once voted heavily for a black Democrat promising “Change we can believe in.”

In spite of the visceral, putrid ugliness of Trump’s campaign — from his violent misogyny to his racist incitements — there can be little doubt his right-wing FDR schtick was key to his shocking success. As voters went to the polls, the overwhelming majority agreed with the following statements: “America needs a strong leader to take the country back from the rich and powerful”; “the American economy is rigged to advantage the rich and powerful”; and “traditional parties and politicians don’t care about people like me.”

But whatever his gestures or apparent breaks with a Republican Party establishment that resisted him until it didn’t, the early days of Trump’s transition have been a harbinger of what’s to come: an administration dominated by special interests that will pursue and radicalize the most destructive aspects of the GOP’s traditional pro-corporate agenda, bringing even closer to the levers of power the very insiders it promised to topple.

Insiders for Trump

Within days of the election, some of corporate America’s leading barons were already celebrating an early Christmas as the broad contours of Trump’s administration became clear.

As Politico’s Ben White recorded:

Former Goldman Sachs banker Steven Mnuchin [had] been seen at Trump Tower amid rumors that he’s the leading candidate for Treasury secretary. Billionaire investor Wilbur Ross appears headed to the Commerce Department. Steve Bannon, another Goldman alum, will work steps from the Oval Office. JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon remains a possibility as Treasury secretary and will serve as an outside adviser if he doesn’t get the job.

Trump immediately appointed a transition team stuffed with corporate insiders, including Michael Catanzaro, a lobbyist for Koch Industries and the Walt Disney Company who has worked to block rules designed to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas production; Michael McKenna, a coal industry lobbyist; Myron Ebell, a professional climate change denier whose group, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, has made a killing doing PR for big polluters like ExxonMobil; and a series of insiders from the Bush and Reagan administrations who want to privatize Social Security.

Despite the disorderly nature of Trump’s transition, the S&P 500’s financial companies saw the value of their stocks jump 11 percent within a week of the election. According to Charles Geisst, a Wall Street historian at Manhattan College, the level of Wall Street influence in the incoming administration is unprecedented since the 1920s.

And the corporatist bonanza won’t be limited to jobs in Trump’s cabinet.

Eric Levitz writes:

Trump’s advisers have already signaled that they will eliminate the Obama administration’s “fiduciary rule,” which requires financial advisers to put their clients’ interests ahead of their own (specifically, it bars advisers from dumping lousy products onto their clients, for the sake removing them from their own firms’ balance sheets). Trump’s team has also promised to repeal the vast majority of the post-crisis financial reforms passed through Dodd-Frank.

Despite promising to “massively cut taxes for the middle class, the forgotten people, the forgotten men and women of this country, who built our country,” one analysis of Trump’s tax plan finds that the top 1 percent of earners would reap the biggest gains — with millionaires receiving an average tax cut of $317,000 and families earning between $40,000 and $50,000 a year a mere $560. Meanwhile, the funds available for public investment in redistributive programs that would actually put more money in the pockets of working- and middle-class families would be slashed by trillions of dollars over the next decade.

Under the guise of “freeing up capital for businesses of all sizes” (in the ecstatic words of IBM CEO Ginni Rometty), Trump’s tax agenda will massively redistribute wealth upwards to the country’s most profitable corporations and their already lavishly endowed shareholders.

Given his team of advisors, it’s no wonder Trump’s still-evolving list of prospective cabinet picks reads like a who’s who of Washington apparatchiks and Republican Party hacks. In keeping with the general tone of his campaign, several high-ranking appointees — such as Jeff Sessions (attorney general) and Michael Flynn (national security adviser) — also have established histories of bigotry.

Even among such patently loathsome figures, the appointment of former Breitbart News chairman Steve Bannon — openly celebrated by both the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party — stands out. Already emerging as one of the principal ideologues of the Trump administration, Bannon, appropriately, represents the fusion of Trumpism’s core elements: a Wall Street background papered over with outsider posturing, white nationalist politics, and a base chauvinism (as repellent as the president-elect’s).

While Bannon’s stated belief in large-scale infrastructure spending financed through deficits appears to grate against the Republican Party’s traditional instincts, Trump’s plan consists of $137 billion in tax breaks to private investors who want to finance toll roads, toll bridges, or other projects that will ensure a return on investment.

“We are going to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals,” Trump declared on election night. “We’re going to rebuild our infrastructure, which will become, by the way, second to none. And we will put millions of our people to work as we rebuild it.”

The kinds of projects that might begin to put Trump’s administration in sync with its own campaign rhetoric are unlikely to see the light of day under the proposals currently under consideration, which will privatize the gains made from investment and likely force the public to pick up the cost of any overruns (at a further profit to private investors).

It’s a distinct possibility that this kind of crony capitalism will be mirrored in the behavior of the incoming president himself, who is already blending the personal and the political in ways that rival anything the Clintons ever managed. As The Intercept’s David Dayen notes, Trump’s Justice Department will be in a position to forgive a $14 billion fine to the Deutsche Bank —  one of the principal lenders to his empire of golf clubs and hotels.

In his closing remarks at the GOP’s July convention, Trump declared himself the candidate of “the forgotten men and women of our country,” belting out the memorable proclamation: “I. Am. Your. Voice!”

Now, less than two weeks after his election, there can be no doubt who he was really addressing.