January 5, 2017
The Assembling of the Trump Team
by Louis Barbash
If you’re a Democrat, a liberal or a progressive, there is no good news in the unfolding identities of the Administration that Donald Trump is selecting: just bad, ugly—and unsurprising. Not because his appointees are crazies and fanatics from outside the Republican mainstream, but because they’re part of it.
We can be thankful that Trump’s vaunted loyalty to those who backed him in the campaign turned out to be, like so much else about him, a shuck. So the loyalest of the loyal, Rudolph Giuliani, Chris Christie and Newt Gingrich were left twisting slowly, slowly in the wind, without even the face-saving dignity of claiming that they had removed themselves from consideration to spend more time with their families.. Meanwhile Nikki Haley, a staunch Trump opponent, got the United Nations, and Mitt Romney, who seemed to be on the verge of a third-party run, was in the running for Secretary of State till the end. Apparently Trump’s loyalty is a one-way street.
But it is important to look closely at just who Trump has selected to run the government. For while it is tempting and oddly reassuring for liberals to see the cabinet-designates as men and women in Trump’s own image—political renegades and pirates—he has in fact selected a cabinet that, for the most part, would have been unsurprising picks in any Republican administration.
That’s bad news. Remember, it was Republican administrations that savaged New Deal/Great Society economic and social protections, cut taxes on the wealthy, submerged us in debt, and blundered into ruinous and devastating wars that we cannot win and from which we cannot yet completely extricate ourselves.
Most of the Cabinet is straight from Republican Central Casting. Corporate executives like Exxon chief Rex Tillerson? Eisenhower—he who warned us about the military-executive complex—turned for his defense secretary to the head of General Motors, Charles Wilson, who declared that what was good for General Motors was good for the United States. Generals like Trump’s choice for Defense James Mattis? Remember Colin Powell and Alexander Haig? Cabinet secretaries who didn’t believe in the missions of the departments they headed? Reagan Interior Secretary James Watt; EPA administrator Anne Gorsuch. Token officials of color, like Ben Carson, with little qualification to run their, or any, agencies? Reagan HUD secretary Samuel Pierce—the one whom the president, encountering him at a reception, took for a mayor.
Nor do Trump’s nominees venture far from Republican policy orthodoxy. Unwavering enmity to Obamacare? Check. Pledged to roll back Obama-era regulations? Check. Commitment to cut taxes for the rich but keep the minimum wage right where it is? Check and check.
The only real wild cards in Trump’s deck are the people Trump has picked to work with him at the White House. There’s chief strategist Steve Bannon, whom conservative columnist Kathleen Parker has described as a “racist, xenophobic misogynist [and] anti-Semitic nationalist.” And Michael Flynn, the cashiered head of the Defense Intelligence Agency who rose from the ashes to become a conspiracy theorist and a paid personality for Russia Today, the Kremlin-supported network, and scourge of Islam.
What does it mean that Trump has hewed to orthodoxy with his cabinet appointments but left the reservation with his White House appointment? One obvious meaning: cabinet secretaries must be confirmed by the Senate; Bannon and Flynn might not have been able to clear that hurdle. Beyond that, who knows? Are Bannon and Flynn there to back Trump in intramural battles against more conventional-minded cabinet secretaries? Are they the tribute he must pay to the alt-right as the price for continuing extremist support and political energy? Or are they there to stoke the Twitter machine and fan the flames while the government is placed under adult supervision?
Whatever role Flynn, Bannon et. al. will play, the cabinet secretaries and agency heads are not crazies, not outliers, who have ridden Trump’s coattails to take over the government their party will now control. They’re just Republicans.