American Populism in Action

“Wealth, in even the most improbable cases, manages to convey the aspect of intelligence.” ~ John Kenneth Galbraith

John Kenneth Galbraith understood America’s unique form of populism. Here, the little guy never wanted to take control of things and stick it to the rich. He himself was an incipient millionaire – that would happen one day – maybe he’d win the lottery. He was a rich man, temporarily sidetracked, somehow or other. He was not the scum of the earth, and he closely followed the rich. That was on televisions all the time, and in the movies. They know how to live. Their stuff is cool stuff, and they obviously know what’s what.

This is not some sort of Marxists populism where the workers arise and take things over from the capitalists. Here, the little guy wants to be that capitalist. Our populism is envy, or sadness, sadness that what should have happened, and what would happen, hadn’t happened yet – the bigs bucks rolling in. It wasn’t fair. They should be the one hanging around with Donald Trump, swapping manly stories. He was the populist hero this time around. He knew things. He’d fix things. He may have won the presidency not because he was like the little guy and understood the little guy but because the little guy understood him. He was so damned rich he could do or day anything he wanted, and he could sneer his way to the presidency. That was so damned cool.

Still, life was hard for the little guy, and the answer to that was to elect a surprisingly vulgar and vindictive billionaire who would appoint other billionaires to all key cabinet posts, which would somehow “drain the swamp” – whatever that meant – because they would know nothing about how the government runs, or even what it does. They’d bring “fresh eyes” to everything, and they were “winners” – they would make America “win” again. The little guy would win too. That might be why we’re about to begin a Trump presidency.

That’s an odd sort of populism, and maybe that’s not populism at all. Paul Waldman argues that’s the wrong term:

Donald Trump has named Steve Mnuchin – a Goldman Sachs alum and hedge fund manager – to be his secretary of the treasury, in keeping with his repeated promise to take on Wall Street and the powers-that-be on behalf of the little guy.

So can we stop pretending that Trump’s campaign “populism” was anything other than just one more con?

Envy aside, the little guy is about to get screwed:

It isn’t just the next Treasury secretary. This morning on CNBC, Mnuchin outlined his people-centered plan for the country’s economy.

“Our number one priority is tax reform,” he said. “We think by cutting corporate taxes we’ll create huge economic growth and we’ll have huge personal income so the revenues will be offset on the other side.”

At last, a Republican administration that believes in the wonder-working power of tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy! If only George W. Bush had known about that, we would have had spectacular growth through the 2000s and the Great Recession never would have happened. Oh wait – this is exactly the economic program Bush pursued, to such disastrous effect.

In fact, Mnuchin has a direct connection to the recession: While it was unfolding, he and other investors bought IndyMac, a purveyor of the kind of shaky mortgages that fed the crisis. After foreclosing on thousands of homeowners, Mnuchin and his partners sold the company and made billions.

And millions lost their homes, but there’s more:

Mnuchin is just one appointment, though, right? Well, Trump also just announced that his secretary of commerce will be Wilbur Ross, a billionaire private equity investor. And his secretary of education will be Betsy DeVos, a billionaire opponent of public schools. And his transportation secretary will be Elaine Chao, who served in the administrations of both George Bushes and is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Before entering politics she was a banker, and according to Politico, “She made at least $1,074,826 from serving on boards of directors in 2015, according to public records.” Trump is also reportedly considering Goldman Sachs President Gary Cohn to be his budget director. “It’s the most conservative [Cabinet] since Reagan,” says one supply-sider, and that may be an understatement.

This is not the people’s government:

You may remember Trump’s closing ad of the campaign, in which he said, “Our movement is about replacing a failed and corrupt political establishment with a new government controlled by you, the American people” over images of Wall Street, piles of money, financiers like George Soros and other symbols of established power and wealth. “It’s a global power structure,” he went on, “that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities.”

So in order to take on that global power structure, Trump is hiring a bunch of billionaires and Wall Street tycoons, cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthy, scaling back regulatory oversight of Wall Street and offering an infrastructure plan that consists mostly of tax breaks to corporations to encourage them to build projects that they’ll then charge the public tolls in order to use.

No, those cool billionaires are never going to save the little guy, even if “the myth of Trump the populist” persists:

Stephen Moore, an economic adviser to Trump and perhaps the party’s foremost advocate of trickle-down economics, recently proclaimed, “Just as Reagan converted the GOP into a conservative party, Trump has converted the GOP into a populist working-class party.” His trips to the Rust Belt with Trump, Moore testified, made him realize just how much help the working class needs. And he intends to help Trump deliver that help – in the form, of course, of tax breaks for the wealthy and corporations. What a heartwarming tale.

It’s also an odd tale:

Republicans have always struggled with a quandary presented by their economic ideology, which is that it’s difficult to get majority support for a set of policies intended to shower benefits on a small portion of the population. When they argue about it explicitly they use a kind of rhetorical redirection, claiming that cutting rich people’s taxes isn’t really about rich people at all, but is actually intended to help the middle class and even the poor. The rich themselves are merely a vehicle to accomplish this noble end, unselfishly accepting the government’s largesse on behalf of their lessers.

Needless to say, there are only so many people you can persuade with that argument. So in order to compensate, Republicans have complemented their economic case with a menu of social issues with which they can demonize their opponents. Those Democrats hate America, Republicans would say, they’re weak, they don’t love God the way you do, they want to take your guns, they want to force your kids to get gay abortions. Often enough, it worked.

It worked for Trump, but Waldman still calls it a con:

Trump said most of those things in the 2016 campaign, but you could tell that he was just going through the motions, ticking off the boxes to reassure ideological conservatives that they didn’t have anything to worry about. The true beating heart of his appeal was a slightly different kind of culture war, one based on rage and resentment at cultural change and the declining status of working-class white men. With his attacks on immigrants, racial minorities, and an “establishment” of Washington politicians and economic powers-that-be, Trump convinced them that it was finally their turn: their turn to say whatever they want, their turn to have their interests put first, their turn to see their communities revived and their pride restored.

But now, Trump is filling up his administration with, guess what, Washington politicians and representatives of the economic powers-that-be, whose top priorities are tax cuts, deregulation and destroying the safety net, including the privatization of Medicare. The idea that they’ll be laboring to serve the interests of the working class is a joke. Yet it’s a joke people somehow keep telling with a straight face.

That’s because the joke works – “You’d be a billionaire, just like us, if it wasn’t for those ‘other’ awful people.” The working class folks are just billionaires in waiting, after all.

They’ll have to wait a long time, because Trump’s new “populist” cabinet looks like this:

When George W. Bush assembled his first Cabinet in 2001, news reports dubbed them a team of millionaires, and government watchdogs questioned whether they were out of touch with most Americans’ problems. Combined, that group had an inflation-adjusted net worth of about $250 million – which is roughly one-tenth the wealth of Donald Trump’s nominee for commerce secretary alone.

Trump is putting together what will be the wealthiest administration in modern American history. His announced nominees for top positions include several multimillionaires, an heir to a family mega-fortune and two Forbes-certified billionaires, one of whose family is worth as much as industrial tycoon Andrew Mellon was when he served as treasury secretary nearly a century ago. Rumored candidates for other positions suggest Trump could add more ultra-rich appointees soon.

Now add this:

Many of the Trump appointees were born wealthy, attended elite schools and went on to amass even larger fortunes as adults. As a group, they have much more experience funding political candidates than they do running government agencies.

They aren’t going to fix anything in the little guy’s life:

“It fits into Trump’s message that he’s trying to do business in an unusual way, by bringing in these outsiders,” said Nicole Hemmer, an assistant professor in presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. But Trump and his team, she added, won’t be able to draw on the same sort of life struggles that President Obama did, in crafting policy to lift poor and middle-class Americans.

“They’re just not going to have any access to that” life experience, she said. “I guess it will be a test – does empathy actually matter? If you’re able to echo back what people are telling you, is that enough?”

So far that’s enough, but maybe not for long:

“This isn’t a criticism or a conspiracy, but it’s important to recognize that everyone’s perspective and policy and government is shaped by the kind of life you’ve lived,” said Nicholas Carnes, a political scientist at Duke University. “The research really says that when you put a bunch of millionaires in charge, you can expect public policy that helps millionaires at the expense of everybody else.”

No kidding! Who would have guessed? And Kevin Drum flags the other issue of the day:

Donald Trump tweeted this morning that it is “visually important, as President, to in no way have a conflict of interest with my various businesses.” As a result “legal documents are being crafted which take me completely out of business operations.”

Despite this, the New York Times says that “skeptics” aren’t satisfied. There’s a good reason for this. Two good reasons, actually. First, we live in a new era. As a matter of fact, not of cynicism or partisan griping, Trump tweets should be treated as lies until proven otherwise. That’s just the way it is. Second, removing himself from business operations doesn’t accomplish a thing. Trump still has massive conflicts of interest. The only way to resolve this is to sell the Trump Organization, which he will never do. In the meantime, every two-bit autocrat in the world knows that the quickest way to Trump’s heart is to do something nice for Trump’s business: approve his permits, hook up his kids with connected financiers, move government offices into his buildings, whatever. It’s just a way of showing respect, you know?

Our new “populist” president is a fabulously rich man who will get even richer because he’s president, but that’s just the way it is:

I suppose there are worse things than having the United States run along the lines of a Mafia family. Nuclear war. An economic crash. Miami settling into the sea. Unfortunately, the odds are at least nontrivial that we’re going to get all of those things too.

Still, as the New York Time’s transition commentary notes, Trump’s new crew will have some relatively poor folks running things:

The Department of Veterans Affairs’ massive network of hospitals and clinics has been under a microscope since scandalously long waiting lists and allegations of cover-ups burst into public. The management morass seemed so intractable that in 2014, President Obama pushed out a decorated former general, Eric Shinseki, and hired a former chief executive of Procter & Gamble, Robert A. McDonald, to sort it out.

Now, according to people close to the transition, Mr. Trump is thinking of taking Veterans Affairs in a new direction, handing its reins to former Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska.

Given Mr. Trump’s passionate campaign pledges to the nation’s veterans, the response – if she is chosen – would be … interesting.

Ed Kilgore’s response is interesting:

Palin has no obvious qualifications for the Veterans Affairs job. If appointed and confirmed, she would be the first non-veteran to head VA. Yes, she is the mother of a veteran: Her son Track did a tour of duty in Iraq. But it’s unlikely that would be cited very often as a credential, since Track has had a troubled life since returning to Alaska; indeed, he was arrested on assault and possession of firearms while intoxicated charges subsequent to an alleged domestic-violence incident the very day his mom went to Iowa to endorse Trump.

Perhaps this would not matter to Team Trump, but since she would at VA supervise a large and complicated health-care system, it is probably worth noting that her principal career contribution to health-care policy was the heinous “death panels” lie about the Affordable Care Act. As for her administrative capacities and stamina for hard work (an important criterion to Trump, we know, given his constant expressions of concern for Hillary Clinton’s fitness for the presidency), it is hard to forget her abrupt resignation as governor of Alaska just over halfway through her one term in office.

Such concerns might be no more than problematic for many jobs in the Trump administration. But you’d think they’d be deal-killers at VA, given the very high priority Trump himself has so often placed on giving vets the best possible treatment (in both the medical and general sense). I’d say consigning the nation’s former service members and their families to the perpetual sideshow sure to be generated by La Pasionaria of the Permafrost would be a broken promise of the highest order.

Perhaps Trump should have found another billionaire for the job, but the New York Times notes this too:

Spotted at Trump Tower on Wednesday afternoon: Linda McMahon, the former chief executive of World Wrestling Entertainment, an outfit the president-elect has some experience with…

“The meeting went great,” she told reporters. “It was really nice to be up, and I was honored to be asked to come in. Anytime I think the president-elect of the United States asks you to come in for a conversation, you’re happy to do that. We talked about business and entrepreneurs and creating jobs, and we talked about the Small Business Administration.”

She’d head that. That’s the position, but she might fit right in:

Her connections to Mr. Trump go beyond their mutual love of bloated men in spandex suits. Her net worth, estimated at around $855 million, would put her in the same income brackets as the candidates tapped to be the secretaries of Commerce, Treasury and Education, as well as the deputy Commerce secretary.

Does that make her a populist too, like the rest of them? That word has an odd meaning these days, and as CNN reports, it also has a dark side:

In the days following Donald Trump’s presidential victory, students in Kansas chanted, “Trump won, you’re going back to Mexico,” to students from other countries, according to a high school teacher in a suburban community within the state.

In Oregon, a high school teacher photographed vandalism in the boys’ bathroom, which mentioned the KKK and used the n-word.

In Tennessee, a black student was blocked from entering his classroom by two white students chanting, “Trump, Trump,” according to a high school teacher at the school where this happened…

Those are just a few of the examples given by more than 10,000 educators, 90% of whom are teachers, who responded to an online survey sponsored by Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is dedicated to reducing prejudice and improving relations among school children across the country. The organization has been critical of Donald Trump following comments from the candidate it characterized as fueling racism and bigotry. The educators were asked to answer a series of questions about the climate at their schools following the presidential election.

In the first national snapshot of what teachers are observing, nine out of 10 educators who responded to the survey said the election has negatively impacted students’ behavior and mood. Forty percent said they have heard derogatory language used against students of color, Muslims, immigrants and other students based on gender or sexual orientation.

“We are still daily experiencing the effects of the outcome,” said Lindsey Polkl, a fifth-grade teacher in Minnesota. “My students have begun playing a game called ‘Trump’s Coming,’ in which one non-Hispanic student yells ‘Trump’s Coming’ and all of the Hispanic students need to hide.”

Someone has to be to blame for not everyone being a billionaire yet, and the source is that notion is obvious:

Nationwide, there have been more than 867 incidents of “hateful harassment” in the first days following the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center says. In a press conference Tuesday, Richard Cohen, the center’s president, said he fears those incidents are underreported.

“These incidents of hate occurred in schools, on public streets and parks and in retail establishments. People were even targeted in their homes,” said Cohen. “These incidents have been ugly. And time after time the perpetrator has invoked Mr. Trump’s name. The level of hate that has been unleashed is unprecedented.”

That’s not surprising, but this is:

One of the teachers who responded to the survey, who didn’t want to share her name publicly or the name of her school for fear of retaliation, told CNN that incidents of harassment and vandalism were left unpunished at her school.

“There was no investigation as it was determined it would be impossible to know who committed these acts,” she said via email. “Many incidences are unreported or under reported, as there is a fear of retaliation. This is an area of the country where most adults voted for, and avidly support, Trump.”

Another teacher who responded to the survey, a high school teacher in Kansas who reported that students were chanting to the English language learners that they would be sent back to Mexico, believes the total number of negative incidents across the country is probably much larger than has been publicly reported so far. She says teachers are not able to report incidents directly to the press meaning many of them are never revealed to the public.

“We’re supposed to keep everything in house,” said the teacher who also didn’t want to use to use her name, saying school policy forbids her from independently talking to the press. “That’s pretty standard for most districts and most schools. If there’s a problem, you take care of it internally but you don’t go out to the press with it.”

Okay, this is more widespread than the initial reporting, which was depressing enough, but Trump is the populist hero of our times. There are millions who want to be like him. If you’re not rich, and you know, really, that you never will be, and least you can be as mean as a rich man who can do or say anything he wants. That’s populism too.

Alexander Burns then adds another factor:

In a period of just over 24 hours, stretching from the early hours of Tuesday into Wednesday morning, President-elect Donald J. Trump raced through perhaps the most frenetic day of activity since the election. With a series of surprise announcements and impulsive public gestures, he brought into sharp focus the freewheeling and compulsively theatrical style he will bring to the Oval Office.

There was the incendiary pronouncement about the flag: After Fox News aired a segment about protests that included flag-burning, Mr. Trump suggested stripping people who burned the flag of their citizenship, even though the act is constitutionally protected free speech.

There were hazy but headline-grabbing statements of policy: Mr. Trump announced a tentative pact with the air-conditioning company Carrier to protect some jobs at an Indiana factory, and pledged again to sever ties with his real estate empire, without offering specifics.

There was a new and indiscreet round of tryouts for secretary of state, featuring reviews from the president-elect in something like real time. Having paraded David H. Petraeus, the former military commander and CIA director, past a throng of reporters for a meeting on Monday, Mr. Trump dined on Tuesday with Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee in 2012 and another candidate for the job.

That’s what was telling:

While Mr. Trump’s focus appeared to careen unpredictably from hour to hour, the larger pattern he followed was a familiar one. As a candidate, Mr. Trump operated largely on gut instinct, with publicity-seeking provocation as his chief tactic. Trusting few people outside a circle of intimates, Mr. Trump thrived in a daily cycle of controversy and cultivated an atmosphere of often-public drama and division within his campaign.

That’s just who he is:

Mr. Trump’s method, friends and allies say, matches the reputation he built first in New York and then on reality television – less as a traditional corporate executive, like Mr. Romney, than as an eager impresario who experimented freely, welcomed conflict and flopped repeatedly.

Newt Gingrich, a former speaker of the House who has advised Mr. Trump, said Mr. Trump’s transition process “very much resembles the way he operated in ‘The Apprentice,'” the NBC show in which Mr. Trump functioned as an imposing protagonist subjecting aspiring entrepreneurs to contests of business acumen.

Mr. Gingrich said Mr. Trump plainly relished personal contact with possible appointees and favored a free-form leadership style. Mr. Trump did not emerge, Mr. Gingrich said, from a “corporate, staffed background,” but from a more personality-driven, improvisational environment.

Of course, that might be a populist thing:

It would be difficult to overstate the extremity of Mr. Trump’s departure from recent presidential practice. His immediate predecessors prided themselves on orderly, fastidious deliberations: George W. Bush as the first president with a business degree, Mr. Obama as a candidate branded by aides as “no drama Obama.”

Even Republicans concede that it is not clear how Mr. Trump’s roller-coaster approach to the transition will carry over to governing. Mr. Gingrich predicted during the Republican primary contests that a Trump administration would function as a kind of daily adventure. “If Trump does end up winning, you will have no idea each morning what’s going to happen,” he said in a January interview, “because HE will have no idea.”

Ah! That makes him just like the rest of us – scattered and boldly faking it. Of course, unlike us, he can get away with that. He’s a billionaire. Wealth, in even the most improbable cases, does manage to convey the aspect of intelligence, and may even make you a populist hero, at least in an America filled with envy and sadness, and anger. He’s one of us, but that’s actually the problem. It will be a rough four years.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to American Populism in Action

  1. Nancy Larson Coppa says:

    I predict the donald’s four years will not go well. I believe he will lose much of his wealth as a result of his antics.

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