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Opinion The Trump Cabinet: Populists or plutocrats?

President-elect Donald Trump speaks to members of the news media in the main lobby at Trump Tower in Manhattan. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

Donald Trump was supposed to scramble the ideology on the right, bringing economic populism themes (anti-free trade, anti-immigration, anti-Wall Street) into the GOP and ushering out pro-free market economics and robust internationalism.

On the domestic side, however, the Trump administration is looking like a caricature of Republicanism 30 years ago — which makes sense, since Trump is stylistically (power ties from the 1980s, flamboyant materialism) and operationally very much stuck in the “greed is good” era. (Recall how many small-business people Trump didn’t pay, the taxes he avoided, the bankruptcies that left employees out of jobs.) He’s about as populist as the guy with the top hat on the Monopoly box.

His Cabinet picks include billionaires and a few struggling millionaires (plus Nikki Haley and his two best picks, generals John Kelly and James Mattis). His labor secretary pick is “a vocal critic of substantially increasing the minimum wage and an opponent of rules that would make more workers eligible for overtime pay,” The Post reports. His treasury secretary nominee, Steve Mnuchin (a Goldman Sachs veteran), wants to do away with Dodd-Frank.

Trump’s tax plan likely will be a boon to the rich, although Mnuchin suggests that the rich won’t get an “absolute” cut. Nevertheless, by one estimate, “the top 1 percent would get about half of the benefits of his tax cuts, and a millionaire, for example, would get an average tax cut of $317,000.” The Wall Street Journal surveys the agenda:

Business leaders are predicting a dramatic unraveling of regulations on everything from overtime pay to power-plant emission rules as Donald Trump seeks to fill his cabinet with determined adversaries of the agencies they will lead.
The president-elect’s pick Thursday to head the Labor Department, fast-food executive Andrew Puzder, is an outspoken critic of the worker-pay policies advanced by the Obama administration. Mr. Trump’s choice for the next administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, is a primary architect of legal challenges on President Barack Obama’s environmental regulations.
Other cabinet nominees critical of regulations advanced under Mr. Obama include Rep.Tom Price to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, financier Wilbur Ross Jr. at the Commerce Department and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. All will require Senate confirmation.
Those picks suggest the Trump administration, backed by a Republican Congress, is determined to advance labor, environmental and financial regulatory policies more favorable to many American corporations, though not all will back his proposals. Business leaders say all Americans stand to benefit from a lighter touch that would boost profits, growth and hiring, particularly for small and midsize businesses.

CEOs who have no national security experience are getting tryouts for secretary of state.

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You’re not feeling the populist vibe, huh? We can debate the qualifications and ideology of his Cabinet picks and the efficacy of his proposals, but this is not populist by any definition. Corporatist, maybe. Plutocracy, some would say, based on the number of big-money people in his Cabinet.

Trump’s flashiest foray into the economy consisted of directing $7 million into Carrier’s coffers — and then attacking a union leader who said Trump exaggerated the terms of the deal. He even got Republicans to applaud what they used to call crony capitalism. The candidate of the working man seems to have turned on many of them, as Politico points out: “First, Trump blasted an Indiana union boss personally on Twitter, prompting a blistering response from labor leaders. Then he announced his choice for secretary of the Department of Labor is fast-food executive Andrew Puzder, a union critic who’s even floated the idea of automating his restaurants to avoid worker costs.”

And worst of all, of course, is Trump’s ethical swamp, in which donors get big jobs, Trump’s children have a foot in the transition team and one in his businesses, and foreign monies continue to flow into his pockets. He seems to have more LLCs (96, at least) than many mid-size towns:

None of the 96 LLCs examined by the Journal appear to regularly release audited financial statements. That opacity—compounded by Mr. Trump’s decision to break with decades of precedent by declining to release his tax returns—makes it impossible to gauge the full extent of potential conflicts between his business interests and presidential role.
The scope and complexity of Mr. Trump’s private business holdings is unprecedented for incoming presidents, said Norman Eisen, President Barack Obama’s former White House ethics lawyer. “We’ve never seen anything like this,” he said.
It’s not clear how much Mr. Trump’s businesses would benefit from his proposal to cut business tax rates.

The swamp is deeper, the Cabinet is richer, the tilt toward the top 1 percent is more pronounced and the ethics shadier than ever. It is almost like Trump snookered millions of voters into thinking he was going to end the gravy train for the rich and powerful. Maybe none of what he said should have been taken seriously or literally.

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