“My whole life I’ve been greedy, greedy, greedy. I’ve grabbed all the money I could get. I’m so greedy,” President-elect Donald Trump boasted last January. “But now I’d like to be greedy for the United States.”
It was a compelling story: the rapacious mogul turned Robin Hood, setting out to reform the rigged system that made him rich in the name of the common good. But that tale was always fiction, as Trump’s economic platform of corporate tax breaks and deregulation should have made obvious. Now, Trump’s transition has ended any remaining doubts that his promise to “drain the swamp” of corrupt government was a lie. Based on his post-election moves, it seems the Trump White House will be an experiment in crony capitalism on steroids.
After playing to the country’s populist mood as a candidate, Trump has surrounded himself almost exclusively with corporate elites. While the appointments of chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon and attorney general nominee Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) fired up his base, Trump has loaded up his transition and Cabinet-in-waiting with members of the establishment he claimed he would crush. Trump’s team, with few exceptions, is filled by the “swamp creatures” we’d expect in virtually any Republican administration.
Last week, Trump named Wall Street veteran and Hollywood producer Steven Mnuchin as his choice for treasury secretary. Mnuchin spent nearly two decades at Goldman Sachs, but as David Dayen writes at the Nation, “that may be the least distressing part of his résumé.” During the housing crisis, Mnuchin also chaired a bank, OneWest, with a reputation for being a “foreclosure machine.” In one case, the bank foreclosed on a 90-year-old woman’s home over a 27-cent payment error. Trump’s pick to lead the Commerce Department, Wilbur Ross, has a similar track record of profiteering on the backs of working people. A private equity tycoon known for laying off workers and outsourcing jobs, Ross was also a significant player in the housing crisis.
As his transportation secretary, Trump has selected Elaine Chao, who served in George W. Bush’s Cabinet as labor secretary and is currently a board member at Wells Fargo. Under her leadership, the Labor Department was accused of “taking an excessively deferential approach to business” and “left thousands of actual victims of wage theft who sought federal government assistance with nowhere to turn,” according to the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office. (Chao is also married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), a longtime swamp-dweller not exactly known for his anti-establishment politics.) Meanwhile, Trump’s nominee for education secretary is Betsy DeVos, a billionaire Republican donor and influential advocate of for-profit charter schools whose family has also contributed heavily to anti-labor “right-to-work” initiatives.
Retired Marine Gen. James N. Mattis, Trump’s choice to lead the Defense Department, also has questionable corporate ties. Since leaving the military in 2013, Mattis has been a board member at the defense contractor General Dynamics and the Silicon Valley blood-testing technology company Theranos, which is being sued for alleged fraud. And potential energy secretary Myron Ebell, who is heading up the Environmental Protection Agency transition, is a prominent denier of climate change whose work has been bankrolled by ExxonMobil and foundations connected to the Koch brothers.
Trump’s “extreme vetting” of his Cabinet is leading to a team of plutocrats, not rivals, a fact Democrats plan to highlight during confirmation hearings. But the problem goes far beyond personnel. Trump’s public relations stunt last week with Carrier Corp. is a stellar example of his faux populism and real cronyism. According to his version of events, which too much of the media ran with, Trump heroically stopped the company from shipping factory jobs from Indiana to Mexico. In reality, Vice President-elect Mike Pence — who is Indiana’s governor — handed Carrier a tax giveaway to keep some jobs in the United States — it will still send more than 1,000 jobs to Mexico — signaling that, with Trump in power, big businesses can use their workers as bargaining chips.
Finally, there is the burning issue of Trump’s business empire. Since the election, there have been numerous reports of Trump using calls with world leaders to shamelessly promote his business interests around the world. And while he claims to be giving up control of his company’s operations, dangerous conflicts of interest will remain as long as Trump or his children, who also serve as his political advisers, retain ownership. As former chief ethics lawyers for the Obama and Bush administrations have explained, unless Trump sells off his business entirely, the potential for conflict will be — as he might say — huge.
Like the contractors he stiffed throughout his career, millions of working-class voters may soon learn that Trump has no intention of fulfilling his campaign’s red-meat promises. One way to hold him accountable is for the media to spend less time gawking at Trump’s tweets and more time exposing the greed and cronyism that are already poisoning his administration. And for progressive Democrats, the challenge now is to not just fight Trump’s policies, but also to listen to the people he is betraying — and to offer them the concrete solutions they deserve.