Ever since it became evident that Donald Trump would win the presidency, progressives have been dreading what a Trump cabinet may look like, with each scenario seemingly scarier than the last. There are only so many synonyms for “frightening” and “racist,” but they have all been used a million times over in the last two weeks.
As the reports and speculation have continued to dominate the news cycle, the prospects have grown more ominous and include several unambiguous bigots. For attorney general, for instance, Trump has named Jeff Sessions, whose racism was so undeniable it cost him a judgeship under Ronald Reagan. The new CIA director, Mike Pompeo, is a Tea Party Republican who called a political opponent a “turban topper” in 2010. Rudolph Giuliani, among others, is being floated as a top choice to be the nation’s top diplomat. Newt Gingrich is literally proposing the revival of a McCarthy-era House Un-American Activities Committee. Sarah Palin may be the secretary of the Interior Department. And, in a global crisis of epic proportions, droves of climate deniers will be staffing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) at a time when the United State’s actions on climate change may determine the fate of our species.
Since before the election, the prospects for Trump’s nightmare cabinet have been met with fear and even some gallows humor. “Buckle up for this basket of deplorables,” remarked Cenk Uygur of the Young Turks.
“Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion,” Kurt Vonnegut once said. We laugh in self-defense. But it isn’t funny.
Trump’s true governing philosophy and core ideological beliefs are hard to know given his incoherence, lack of policy specifics and long record of deceit. But the names on his short list for top positions don’t share this ambiguity; some are brazen about their divisive, reckless beliefs.
Watching this increasingly tumultuous transition unfold can provide clues and insights into what Trump’s America may look like. Early signs are not promising.
Trump and the Washington Establishment
In selecting his cabinet members, it quickly became clear that the president-elect was relying, as Politico described it, on “veterans of the GOP establishment as well as [on] lobbyists for the fossil fuel, chemical, pharmaceutical and tobacco industries.” This route contrasts mightily with Trump’s fiery anti-establishment language. Liberals have rightly used this as an opportunity to call Trump out for using populist rhetoric as merely as a political tool that does not reflect any core beliefs.
“We’re watching Trump’s greatest con ever unfolding right before our eyes,” said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, who issued a report highlighting many of the typical DC insiders who were playing an integral part of Team Trump.
“You already broke your promise,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren in a tweet to Trump. “You stacked your transition team with Wall Street elites, insiders [and] lobbyists.” This was not long after Bloomberg reported Trump was considering former Goldman Sachs executive Steven Mnuchin as treasury secretary.
As of early Monday morning, the conservative Daily Caller is reporting Trump will indeed offer him the job. If the report is correct, this makes him the third president out of the last four to appoint a Goldman executive to head the department. It is hard to imagine a more “establishment” pick.
We’re watching Trump’s greatest con ever unfolding right before our eyes.
But choosing from the establishment certainly does not mean avoiding extremist, racist and misogynist picks.
Jeff Sessions and Mike Pompeo may be inside the beltway, but they are well-known for their xenophobic, anti-Black and Islamophic views. And of course, one of Trump’s few outside-the-beltway picks is Breitbart News’ notorious Stephen Bannon.
And, as is life in the Trump era, the story continued to take dramatic turns. Amid reports of “transition turmoil,” NBC News reported on Thursday that Vice-President Elect Mike Pence,
“This would bring the transition more in line with Trump’s campaign-trail pledge to ‘drain the swamp’ of veteran politicians and special interests in Washington,” the report said. Not that this news was likely to assuage his critics. The lobbyists are being replaced with loyalists. And the constant turnover was among several reasons why the transition was “in disarray,” according to The New York Times, “marked by infighting, firings,” and various breaches of protocols with foreign leaders.
Trumpism Meets Neoliberalism
Trump’s first weeks as the President-elect have bolstered many of the fears of his critics. Chief among them was his decision to hire the racist, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic Steve Bannon, former editor of Brietbart.com, as chief advisor. The move was loudly condemned by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Anti-Defamation League and even Glenn Beck, who called him a “terrifying man.” If Trump’s initial coziness to the DC establishment provided any illusion otherwise, Bannon’s hiring removed any doubt that Trump is indeed different from past Republican candidates.
This distinction is important to remember. The normalization of Trump, argues Steve Maher, a political economist from York University, would be a mistake. “We cannot allow things to simply ‘go back to normal,'” Maher told Truthout. “It is important to maintain a sense of the upheaval that is actually occurring, and the very real dangers this poses to the basic foundations of American political democracy.”
We cannot allow things to simply ‘go back to normal. It is important to maintain a sense of the very real dangers this poses to the basic foundations of American political democracy.
“The foundations of neoliberalism have included, for instance, right to individual self-expression, multiculturalism, free press, etc. — all things Trump has expressed strong antagonism toward,” Maher said. But as the Republican leadership warms to Trump, “the capitalist class may be moving closer to accepting a far-right ‘solution’ to the social crisis of neoliberalism, accommodating an ideology previously regarded as unacceptable.”
Under such a scenario, the best case may be neoliberalism with “an alarmingly authoritarian and chauvinistichue.” Should Trumpism start to dominate the centers of power in the GOP, Maher fears, neoliberalism may shift in a seismic way, “moving closer to something we might identify as neo-fascism.”
Trump Meets the Rest of the World
The foreign policy of the Trump presidency has been the subject of much debate, and the names being reported as possibilities for key diplomatic and military posts may help clarify things. Americans aren’t the only ones keeping a close eye on this.
“World gasps in collective disbelief following Trump’s election,” declared a Washington Post headline from November 9, 2016 — day one of the post-Trump Era. Indeed, the US president has access to 4,500 stockpiled nuclear weapons, and a military budget larger than then the rest of the world’s military budgets combined. US imperial ambitions — for better or worse — affect the entire globe on issues such as war, intelligence, security, energy and the environment.
Given all of this, there is much interest the world over in who will be taking over numerous key positions at the Defense and State Departments, the CIA, the United Nations and almost 200 ambassadorships in embassies across the country that Trump will likely spend as political currency.
Trump has already chosen Michael Flynn as his national security advisor, a controversial figure who has called for the imprisonment of Hillary Clinton, has a closeness with Russia that worries even Republican legislators and has been described by Vox as a “retired military officer who sounds just like Donald Trump.”
Politico called him “America’s angriest general,” while former Secretary of State Colin Powell referred to him as “right-wing” and said he was “abusive with staff.” Flynn’s appointment, the Times reports, elevates a retired intelligence officer “who believes Islamic militancy poses an existential threat on a global scale.”
Some names that have surfaced as possibilities for secretary of state are former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, John Bolton (a neo-con recess appointment as US ambassador to the UN from the second Bush administration), and Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Bizarrely, after a bitter public feud with Trump lasting a year, Mitt Romney has also been added to the list of potential candidates, after the two met last week.
Giuliani would be a divisive choice for any key position involving foreign policy. Even the dominant media have used drastic language to describe his lack of qualifications. “Giuliani’s temperament, his hyper-partisan threats during the campaign (he led the “lock her up!” chants), his cesspool of shady foreign clients, his alleged misuse of funds as mayor, his rotten judgment of character and his lack of actual national-security experience would be more than enough grounds to oppose him,” opined Jennifer Rubin in the Washington Post. She also noted that his confirmation would be far from assured. With 48 “no” votes guaranteed from Democrats and the likelihood that Republicans such as Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul may join them, Finner argues, members of Congress may “take issue with Giuliani’s formulation that in war ‘anything’s legal,’ a frightful fallacy that would play into concerns about Trump.”
John Bolton’s possible appointment to a key diplomatic post would be no less worrisome. Bolton has contempt for the rest of the world, the United Nations and the idea that the US should answer to international law of any kind. He once described his role in helping the US pull out of the International Criminal Court (thereby guarding against potential prosecution for war crimes), as the “happiest moment” of his public life.
Bolton is also complicit in US aggression in Iraq. The Arms Control Association cites his key role in the inclusion of the false uranium claim in George W. Bush’s 2002 State of the Union. This helped push the US into its criminal invasion of Iraq, which has been calculated to have cost America $3 trillion and has led to incalculable human suffering. In 2006, Dahr Jamail reported on Bolton’s efforts to restructure the UN Human Rights Commission so that President Bush could “eliminate international whistle-blowers on his excessive executive policy violations of human rights with alleged terrorist detainees.” Bolton’s advocates may cite his experience as a virtue, but his experience is exactly what should disqualify him from the job. His appointment would also connect Trump’s foreign policy to the Bush administration, which would conflict with Trump’s campaign rhetoric. Bolton also took issue with Trump’s statements about ending US involvement in NATO.
Merging the deregulatory, pro-corporate agenda of the Republican Party as we know it with Trump’s normalization of xenophobia, bigotry and misogyny will be devastating.
The fact that his name is in the mix reminds us how often the president-elect’s campaign statements have been contradictory, and even involved flat-out lies.
Bolton and Giuliani make Bob Corker seem reasonable by contrast, although there are few indications that “reasonable” is a qualification for a spot-on Trump’s cabinet. But when a climate denialist seems reasonable, you have little reason for hope. Plus, Corker has recently told the press from his home state of Tennessee that he thinks Giuliani and Bolton are “more likely” to get jobs in the Trump administration than he is.
The World Is Flat, Seriously: Trump’s Climate Policy
Meanwhile, Trump has promised to shun reality and advance climate denialism as official US policy. Scientific consensus on the matter is so overwhelming that Trump — and the GOP in general — are advocating for a modern-day equivalent to the Flat Earth Society. Trump seeks to remove the US from the Paris Accords post-haste. The agreement, according to the Guardian, is the “first time that governments have agreed [to] legally binding limits to global temperature rises.” The day Trump was elected, it had been in effect for four days.
As part of Trump’s assault on rational thought and prospects for human survival on Earth, he is planning to staff the EPA with climate deniers. The transition team in charge of staffing the EPA is run by Myron Ebell, who, according to the Post, is “a cheerful warrior against what he sees as an alarmist, overzealous environmental movement that has used global warming as a pretext for expanding government.”
Trump’s destructive environmental agenda will now be helped along by a Republican Party that is so militant in its climate denialism that Noam Chomsky called it “the most dangerous organization in world history,” in his recent interview with Truthout.
Environmentalists and food security activists are aghast at the prospects.
“Merging the deregulatory, pro-corporate agenda of the Republican Party as we know it with Trump’s normalization of xenophobia, bigotry and misogyny will be devastating for our climate, the environment, our communities and our democracy,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food and Water Watch, in an interview with Truthout. “Trump’s nasty rhetoric places blame for the widespread economic pain in the absolute wrong places, and his solutions for improving the outlook for jobs are wrong minded and will threaten people and the planet.”
The Trump Administration’s Toolbox of Executive Power
To accurately summarize the frightful resumes of everyone on Trump’s short list would require volumes of material. Some warrant more scrutiny than others. Before Sessions was announced for the job, there were reports that Ted Cruz might be Attorney General, and it can’t be ruled out Cruz may wind up somewhere else in Trump’s White House. Sarah Palin was widely viewed as hopelessly underqualified for the vice presidency, and reports of her possibly joining Team Trump, possibly as secretary of the interior, would bring her to the federal government for the first time. Charter school activist Eva Moskowitz, once described by the Wall Street Journal as the number one enemy of teachers unions, has been named by Politico as a possible education secretary.
There are countless other such nerve-wracking possibilities. And each appointee will add hundreds of their allies as deputies or in other bureaucratic positions. But perhaps the scariest part of this formation of the Trump regime is that it is being formed at a time when the executive branch is at the height of its power. Ever since 9/11, the expansion of executive power has continued exponentially, initially prompted by Dick Cheney and the Bush administration. Sadly, Barack Obama expanded the White House’s power even further.
Some liberals tolerated the surveillance state when it was revealed to be happening under President Obama’s National Security Agency. Surely some regret this decision now. In 2007, The Nation magazine’s John Nichols made the following plea to conservatives about the need to curb executive power — no matter which party’s president is using it. This was not long after revelations of spying became public, and at the height of War on Terror and all the expansion of power that came with it (enabled by members of Congress from both parties):
On January 20, 2009, if George Bush and Dick Cheney aren’t appropriately held to account, this administration will hand off a toolbox with more powers than any president has ever had — more powers than the founders could have imagined. And that box may be handed to Hillary Clinton, or it may be handed to Mitt Romney or Barack Obama or someone else. But whoever gets it, one of the things we know about power is people who get it, won’t give them up.
Indeed, as Nichols predicted, Bush handed over a presidency with unprecedented powers. Obama took over this presidency and, as described by Sharon Adams in Truthout, asserted (among other things) “the right to kill any US citizen, without trial,” and “expanded the surveillance state” to unprecedented levels.
When Obama expanded these powers, it’s likely that he suspected that Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden or even Mitt Romney would follow him in office. But his successor is Donald Trump. And Trump will take the spoils of this imperial presidency and give an inevitably dangerous cast of right-wing loyalists the power to deploy these tools. It is a painful reminder of why power must be held to account — by Congress, by an engaged public and by the press.