Wayne O'Leary

The Art of the Con

As we embark with trepidation on the era of Trump, something is surely becoming obvious, even to many who voted enthusiastically for the newly installed president: he’s engineered one of the greatest confidence games in the history of American politics.

Like another self-promoting New Yorker, flimflam impresario P.T. Barnum, Trump capitalized on human gullibility, a pervasive tendency to elevate hope over experience, and a desperate yearning for something beyond the ordinary to cajole multitudes in flyover land and countless others besides into suspending their better judgment and believing in what wasn’t there. It worked in the short run to win him the White House, but in the clear light of the post-election dawn, reality began nipping at the nation’s backside.

The Donald was supposed to be a different kind of Republican — perhaps not a Republican at all, a perception he encouraged with not-so-subtle appeals to anti-establishment voters. The evidence appeared broad-based and convincing, although it should have given pause that most of it derived from the pitchman candidate himself.

Millions bound for the polls persuaded themselves it was safe to support Trump because he projected a secular image, appeared to endorse socially moderate policies like gay rights and (initially) legalized abortion, and affirmed a determination to preserve the safety-net programs, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, as we know them. And on economic issues, such as trade, infrastructure renewal, and the protection of domestic jobs, he periodically sounded downright Democratic, a born-again New Dealer. All of this was presented in blunt, simplistic language that contrasted refreshingly with the Beltway-speak Americans had become accustomed to hearing from their political leaders. Unfortunately, it was all a sham.

What the voting public didn’t reckon on was that, with Trump, words are cheap; they amount to meaningless verbiage spewed out in response to fluctuating political circumstances and personal mood shifts, musings as impermanent as the changing opinions they express. Many are simply instantaneous reactions to the news of the day, or to comments by critics or members of the media that pierce an exceedingly thin presidential skin. Often, they are calculated and calibrated for their sound-bite value. As much as anything, a Trump opinion on any given issue is merely a reflection of its author’s insatiable need to be on camera saying something for public consumption.

In that sense, the new chief executive is totally nonideological and instinctual when it comes to where he stands politically. This is what drove Republican ideologues — movement conservatives — crazy during the primaries. Unlike, say, a Ted Cruz or a Paul Ryan, there is no thought-out logic to Trump’s positions; he is not into Ayn Rand or Friedrich von Hayek. But luckily for the Right (and ominously for the country), his emotionally driven instincts are extremely conservative, especially when it comes to economic policy.

And Donald’s most basic instinct, his lodestar as a semi-professional politician, is the conviction that corporate businessmen know best and should (along with the career military) be running things. He enthusiastically endorses Calvin Coolidge’s dictum that “the business of America is business” and, provided they adhere to his pronouncements on trade, really does believe what’s good for General Motors (and similar corporations) is good for America.

Nowhere is this attitude more starkly evident than in Trump’s incredibly one-sided (and just plain awful) selection of executive department heads. Robert Reich, Bill Clinton’s estimable first secretary of Labor, once authored a memoir entitled Locked in the Cabinet. A case can be made, in keeping with the incarceration theme, that Trump’s prospective cabinet nominees should all be locked away where they can do no damage.

Here’s a partial rundown of the pending administrative rogues’ gallery: As secretary of Commerce, Wilbur L. Ross, a billionaire investor known as the “king of bankruptcy” for buying up troubled industrial firms on the cheap, restructuring them (with the usual job eliminations), and selling them for big profits. Fans of Mitt Romney will remember this as Bain Capital’s chief modus operandi.

For Treasury secretary, Steven T. Mnuchin, a multimillionaire hedge-fund manager, former Goldman Sachs trader, and one-time bank executive who, as CEO of California’s OneWest Bank, foreclosed on thousands of elderly borrowers in a reverse-mortgage scam. He’s an avid financial free marketer dedicated to privatizing federal mortgagers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and eviscerating Dodd-Frank banking regulations.

For secretary of State, Rex W. Tillerson, former CEO of predatory global oil giant Exxon Mobil, pal and business partner of Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, and industrial freewheeler whose company-first philosophy has habitually run counter to US international diplomatic interests. During his tenure, he was accused of downplaying climate change and making petroleum deals with repressive Third World governments.

For secretary of Health and Human Services, Congressman Tom Price (R-Ga.), an orthopedic surgeon partial to “market-based solutions” for health care and a supporter of repealing the Affordable Care Act, voucherizing Medicare, and bloc-granting Medicaid to the states. He would also like to see abortion restricted and Planned Parenthood defunded.

For Education secretary, Betsy DeVos, prominent member of the religious right, wife of the heir to the controversial Amway fortune, and an opponent of public schools and teacher unions who wants an “entrepreneurial” educational system favorable to privately owned charter schools. As part of a longstanding anti-government crusade, she would use vouchers to undercut public education and advance a free-market approach. Her brother ran the infamous Iraq private-security contractor Blackwater.

For secretary of Labor, Andrew F. Puzder, multimillionaire fast-food executive (Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr.), who opposes a higher federal minimum wage, liberalized overtime-pay rules, and mandatory parental and sick leave for employees. He rages against the ACA, favors a virtual ban on abortion, and jokes (half-seriously) about the virtues of replacing workers with automation.

For Interior secretary, Congressman Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.), a climate-change skeptic who supports logging and mining on public lands, and would prioritize oil and gas development over protecting wildlife and the environment. He wants a greater role for the red states in developing energy resources on the federal domain.

There’s more, but you get the picture. Forget Trumpian populism, a temporary way station on the road to business Republicanism. Welcome instead to the real Trump World, a branch of Wall Street, where taxes are low, regulations are scarce, and profit reigns supreme.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He holds a doctorate in American history and is the author of two prizewinning books.

From The Progressive Populist, February 15, 2017


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