The greatest trick Donald Trump pulled was convincing voters he’d be “anti-establishment.”
Well, maybe not the greatest trick. But in a campaign full of cons, it has to rank close to the top. This was near the heart of Trump’s appeal to the disaffected and disempowered: Send me to Washington, and that “establishment” you’ve been hearing so much about? We’ll blow it up, send it packing, punch it right in the face, and when it’s over the government will finally be working for you again. And the people who voted for Trump bought it. After all, he’s no politician, right? He’s an outsider, a glass-breaker, a guy who can cut out the bull and get things done. Right?
But the idea that he would do this was based on a profound misunderstanding of what the establishment actually is, and who Donald Trump is.
Here’s a report on Trump’s transition from Eric Lipton of the New York Times:
President-elect Donald J. Trump, who campaigned against the corrupt power of special interests, is filling his transition team with some of the very sort of people who he has complained have too much clout in Washington: corporate consultants and lobbyists…
Mr. Trump was swept to power in large part by white working-class voters who responded to his vow to restore the voices of forgotten people, ones drowned out by big business and Wall Street. But in his transition to power, some of the most prominent voices will be those of advisers who come from the same industries for which they are being asked to help set the regulatory groundwork.
An organizational chart of Trump’s transition team shows it to be crawling with corporate lobbyists, representing such clients as Altria, Visa, Coca-Cola, General Electric, Verizon, HSBC, Pfizer, Dow Chemical, and Duke Energy. And K Street is positively salivating over all the new opportunities they’ll have to deliver goodies to their clients in the Trump era. Who could possibly have predicted such a thing?
The answer is, anyone who was paying attention. Look at the people Trump is considering for his Cabinet, and you won’t find any outside-the-box thinkers burning to work for the little guy. It’s a collection of Republican politicians and corporate plutocrats — not much different from who you’d find in any Republican administration.
And it isn’t just personnel. What are the priorities Trump and the Republican Congress will be pursuing right out of the gate? There’s the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, of course. “Take that, establishment!”, 20 million people can say when they lose their health coverage. Next on the list is that eternal Republican priority, cutting taxes. If you’re waiting for your fat rebate from the government once the establishment has been sent packing, you’re in for a shock. It won’t actually be Trump’s plan precisely that will pass Congress and he’ll sign, it will be some combination of what he wanted and what congressional Republicans want. But the two share a driving principle in common, and you may want to sit down while I tell you that helping regular folks is most definitely not it.
No, their commitment is to be of service to that most oppressed and forgotten group of Americans, the wealthy. Trump’s tax plan would give 47 percent of its benefits to the richest one percent of taxpayers. Paul Ryan’s tax plan is even purer — it gives 76 percent of its cuts to the richest one percent in its first year, and by 2025 would feed 99.6 percent of its benefits to the top 1 percent.
Once that’s accomplished, Trump and the Republicans plan to either gut or completely repeal the Dodd-Frank financial regulations, the greatest wish of Wall Street bankers. Can you feel the anti-establishment wind blowing?
So what’s going on here? Most plainly, the voters thinking that Trump would vanquish the establishment were just marks for a con, like those who lost their life savings at Trump University. But it was made possible by the vagueness of the idea of the “establishment” — and some related ideas — and the way people could pour all their dissatisfaction into it and elect they guy promising to destroy it when he had no intention of doing anything of the sort.
You see, in Washington we think of the establishment as something specific to this city: the people who hold certain kinds of institutional positions and certain kinds of ideas about what should be done. We tend to think that, say, internal arguments between factions of the Republican Party represent a genuine threat to the establishment.
But for most voters it’s much bigger than that, and this is what Donald Trump recognized. By now we should understand that while Trump is an ignorant buffoon in some ways and an outright moron in others, he’s also a savant of hatred and resentment. He not only identifies the ugliest feelings that portions of the electorate have — that’s the easy part, and all of his primary opponents knew equally well what those feelings were — he finds just the right way to reach in and goose them. And he grasped that people were ready to sign on with an attack on all sectors of established power, in Washington or anywhere else.
That attack was politically potent because to those who heard it, it was about much more than politics. They didn’t really care whether the House Majority Whip is one guy or a different guy. What Trump tapped into was their sense of powerlessness, that unseen forces are pulling the strings and manipulating “the system” for their own benefit. That “system” encompasses everything from politics to the economy to their local schools to culture. The system made that factory leave town. The system lets immigrants come in and speak a language other than English. Everywhere you look you’re being held down by the system.
So when Trump complained that anything that didn’t go his way meant the system was “rigged” against him, they nodded in agreement and said, “Yep, it’s rigged against me, too.” And of course, the horror of the establishment (both Democratic and Republican) at Trump only reinforced the belief that once he was elected he’d change everything.
Now to be clear, the fact that in some ways — hiring lobbyists, cutting taxes for the wealthy, gutting regulations — Trump is going to be little different from any other Republican president doesn’t mean that he isn’t uniquely dangerous. He’s reckless, impulsive, vindictive, hateful, and authoritarian, and his presidency is going to be somewhere between disastrous and cataclysmic, likely in ways we can’t even imagine yet.
But one thing it will not be is a threat to the establishment, or the system, or whatever you want to call it. The wealthy and powerful will have more wealth and power when he’s done, not less. There’s a lot that Trump will upend, but if you’re a little guy who thinks Trump was going to upend things on your behalf or in order to serve your interests, guess what: you got suckered.