In a speech at the Heritage Foundation last week, former House speaker Newt Gingrich portrayed President-elect Donald Trump’s incoming administration as a historic moment for conservatism. “This is the third great effort to break out of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt model” of government, he said, following the Reagan revolution” of the 1980s and Gingrich’s Contract with America in the 1990s.
Such a bold proclamation may sound peculiar after Trump’s fellow Republicans spent much of 2016 attacking him as a heretic who threatened the party’s commitment to right-wing policy orthodoxies. On the campaign trail, Trump explicitly disavowed cuts to safety-net programs that have long been a hallmark of the GOP agenda. “I’m not going to cut Social Security like every other Republican, and I’m not going to cut Medicare or Medicaid,” he pledged.
But as his administration takes shape, Trump is sending signals to the right that he is prepared to fulfill their wildest fantasies. With his sham populism giving way to shameless plutocracy, it appears increasingly likely that Trump will attempt to reverse more than the progress achieved over the past eight years under President Obama. The tremendous advances and reforms of the 20th century — from the New Deal to the Great Society — may be on the chopping block.
So far, Trump’s Cabinet picks offer perhaps the clearest evidence of how he intends to govern and how much is really at stake. In addition to surrounding himself with billionaires, bankers and crony capitalists, Trump has nominated several candidates to run federal agencies whose functions they fundamentally oppose on ideological grounds. As Jamelle Bouie writes of Trump’s Cabinet in Slate, “It’s less a team for governing the country than a mechanism for dismantling its key institutions.”
Take his choice to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt is not just skeptical of “excessive” regulations; he is a climate change denier who’s been waging a legal war against the EPA. Health and Human Services nominee Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) is not just a critic of the Affordable Care Act; he is openly opposed to what he calls “the federal government’s intrusion into medicine through Medicare.” Former Texas governor Rick Perry is not just underqualified to lead the Department of Energy; he famously wants to abolish it — when he can manage to remember the department’s name. (Notably, Perry has also called Social Security a “Ponzi scheme” and “a crumbling monument to the failure of the New Deal.” )
Trump has also telegraphed his intention to smash organized labor and attack workers’ rights. His pick for labor secretary, fast-food executive Andy Puzder, is an outspoken enemy of minimum-wage increases with an appalling record of mistreating employees. The Labor Department has uncovered violations of labor laws in 60 percent of its investigations of Puzder’s restaurant chain locations. Indeed, as AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka recently said, Puzder’s career has been “defined by fighting against working people.”
Almost every legitimate function of the federal government could be subverted by Trump’s wrecking crew. Under billionaire Republican megadonor advocate Betsy DeVos, the Department of Education could be reoriented to gutting the nation’s public education system and redistributing its resources to for-profit charter schools. Led by attorney general nominee Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) — who once condemned the Voting Rights Act as “a piece of intrusive legislation” — the Justice Department can be expected to systematically undermine civil and voting rights, denying justice to millions of Americans in the process. And if longtime ExxonMobil chief executive Rex Tillerson is confirmed, even the State Department could fall prey to private-sector fetishization.
This troubling pattern among Trump’s nominees points to a clear overarching goal: stripping the federal government of its power, in nearly every arena, to strengthen the hand of private enterprise. For all the discussion of how Trump isn’t a “normal” politician, this has long been the fundamental purpose of right-wing conservatism. “The movement’s grand ambition — one can no longer say grandiose — is to roll back the twentieth century, quite literally,” wrote the Nation correspondent William Greider in 2003. “That is, defenestrate the federal government and reduce its scale and powers to a level well below what it was before the New Deal’s centralization.”
Trump certainly has characteristics — his authoritarian tendencies, his metastasizing conflicts of interest — that are novel in modern American politics and shouldn’t be normalized. But there is nothing novel about his administration’s emerging agenda of refighting old battles against well-established and popular government programs and outsourcing essential public functions to the private sector. Indeed, while Trump the candidate promised to blow up the establishment and usher in a new approach to politics, it seems Trump the president may simply offer more of the same thin gruel Republicans have served up for decades.