When Donald Trump ran for president claiming he would take on a corrupt system that stomped on ordinary people in the service of those with money and power, he was only half lying. Yes, as one of the most corrupt major business figures in America, he was destined to be more committed to self-dealing than any president in our lifetimes, and he has been.
But his basic diagnosis of the system — not just Washington, but the ways power is manifest throughout American life — wasn’t wrong. When he said the whole thing is “rigged,” it made a lot of sense to people who felt as though their opportunities have been constrained while those with money and influence got whatever they wanted.
While there are some ways that the president is not an ordinary Republican, in his commitment to enhancing the wealth of the wealthy and the power of the powerful — keeping the system rigged — he most certainly is. And the fact that they do such a good job at it with only limited political cost is one of the marvels of American politics.
Today, The Post documents (with some revealing charts here) just how the system-rigging has played out in one particular agency, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, since Trump installed his budget director Mick Mulvaney to lead it:
One year after Mulvaney’s arrival, he and his political aides have constrained the agency from within, achieving what conservatives on Capitol Hill had for years been unable to do, according to agency data and interviews with career officials.
Publicly announced enforcement actions by the bureau have dropped about 75 percent from average in recent years, while consumer complaints have risen to new highs, according to a Washington Post analysis of bureau data.
Over the past year, the agency’s workforce has dropped by at least 129 employees amid the largest exodus since its creation in 2010, agency data shows.
Created by Congress to protect Americans from financial abuses, the bureau under Mulvaney has adopted the role of promoting “free markets” and guarding the rights of banks and financial firms as well as those of consumers, according to statements by Mulvaney and bureau documents.
As Mulvaney told his constituents at a meeting of the American Bankers Association, “I won’t talk too much about regulation by enforcement, but the short version is we’re not doing it anymore.” They must have laughed so hard in glee that their monocles popped out.
Let’s back up a bit. The CFPB, as you may know, was originally Elizabeth Warren’s idea, back when she was still a professor at Harvard Law School, and was created as part of the financial reforms that emerged from the Great Recession. Its mandate was simple and, one would think, bound to be popular: Protect consumers from being abused, exploited and defrauded by financial-service companies — whether they are banks, credit card companies or payday lenders.
Yet from the outset, Republicans found this seemingly unassailable goal to be deeply offensive. They have wanted to shut down the agency from the moment it was created, but weren’t successful — until Trump became president. Now, the job is being done.
Which points to an extraordinary feature of American politics. There are, relatively speaking, very few super-rich people and a great many people of ordinary incomes and wealth. Yet the party devoted to the interests of the former still manages much of the time to convince regular people that it has their interests at heart. How do they do it? How do you justify an effort to literally make it easier for financial service companies to defraud consumers while still convincing people that you don’t actively despise them?
Republicans have spent a long time thinking about how to deal with the electoral math problem created by passionate advocacy for the wealthy and powerful, and the solution they came up with has two parts. First, try to fight to a draw on things such as tax cuts and deregulation by claiming that it will all create jobs. They don’t have to actually win the argument — and they often don’t, such as with their 2017 tax cuts, which are extremely unpopular because most Americans realized they mostly benefited corporations and the wealthy. But, most of the time, Republicans are happy to just limit the anger people feel.
And when the economy is doing reasonably well, as it is now, it isn’t too much of a problem. Democrats will say “Republicans are just helping the rich!” But if voters are feeling good, they won’t get too worked up about it even if they agree.
The second part of the strategy is to shift focus away from the economic elite and on to the cultural elite — Hollywood, academia — which is indeed dominated by liberals. Those are the people holding you back, Republicans say; not Wall Street, but a bunch of snooty professors. Tune in to Fox News for a day or two and you’ll see a litany of cultural outrages from the “elite” meant to keep Republican voters focused on hating the right people. It’s why even George H.W. Bush, multimillionaire son of a senator, child of Connecticut and Kennebunkport, the kind of fellow who used “summer” as a verb, could tar his 1988 presidential opponent, a son of immigrants who lived such an austere life that he probably cobbled his own shoes, as having been “born in Harvard Yard’s boutique.”
But much of the time, the answer Republicans have found to the question of how you do the elite’s work while not alienating regular people too much is just to go about that business — and hope no one notices. And sometimes it’s not a bad bet to make. How many Americans know what the CFPB is, or even that there’s an agency that exists to protect them from financial fraud? How many know the Trump administration is trying to destroy it? If it’s as much as five or 10 percent of Americans, I’d be surprised.
But if the next Democratic presidential candidate wants to make the case that the system is not only still rigged against ordinary people but is actually more rigged than it was when Trump took office, he or she will have plenty of material to work with.