By Vijay Prashad
Money and the military define the Cabinet of Donald Trump’s presidency. For a man who ran to help the “forgotten Americans”, there are few “forgotten” people in his team. Most of the Cabinet appointees have experiences far from the crises that wrack rural and industrial America. Amongst the billionaires are mostly people who inherited their money.
They do not have the spark of entrepreneurism that is one of the core values of American society. The ex-military men are all generals, people who have long looked at war from the control room and not from the battlefield.
Their sensibility is not that of the retired warrior who worries about war. These are men of great braggadocio; for them the battlefield is not a place of great pain but one of honour. For them, battle is worthy. For the billionaires, free-market capitalism is good. Neither the world of money nor the world of the military is prepared to address the actual grievances of the population or the transformation of America’s place in the world.
This is a government of fables. It is appropriate that it is led by Trump, a man made more by the world of entertainment than by the world of governance. Glitz is the order of the day. Rhetoric will stand in for policy. Drama is guaranteed.
Civilian control over the military is a fundamental aspect of the United States government’s culture. When President Dwight Eisenhower—a former general—chose General George C. Marshall to be his Secretary of Defence in 1950, the U.S. Congress worried about undue military influence on policy.
The National Security Act of 1947 had prohibited military officers from being in charge of the Defence Department. Eisenhower, a war hero, asked Congress for a waiver, which it provided. But in the waiver, Congress said that this was an exception and that it hoped never to have to provide such leeway again.
A decade later, in his farewell speech, Eisenhower bemoaned the increased power of the military and of military industry over the U.S. government. He called this the “military-industrial complex”, which was the “conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry”.
“The total influence—economic, political, even spiritual—is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the federal government,” the old military hero said plaintively. “The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” Matters are graver now.
The military-industrial complex is larger and more firmly rooted in the economy, politics and the culture of the country. Patriotism is now defined largely as fealty to the military and is reflected in virtual worship of the national flag.
In this context, Trump has chosen three generals to be in his Cabinet, giving all the major departments in charge of security to men of the armed forces.
General James “Mad Dog” Mattis of the Marines will take charge of the Defence Department, Army Lt General Michael Flynn will be Trump’s National Security Adviser and General John Kelly of the Marines will be at the helm of Homeland Security.
It is likely that others will join them in the Cabinet, such as Admiral Michael Rogers for Director of National Intelligence and General David Petraeus at the State Department. It appears as if Trump is not assembling a Cabinet so much as a junta.
Senator Chris Murphy of the Foreign Relations Committee admits to being concerned about this number of military men in the Cabinet. They are men of merit, he concedes, but one of the lessons learned over the past 15 years is that “when we view problems in the world through a military lens, we make big mistakes”.
If a hammer is the instrument held by the government, it will go in search of a nail. Other tools are needed to solve problems. These are not in hand. Hammers are everywhere. But even Murphy’s statement about their merit is questionable. Flynn and Mattis hold strong views against Islam, while Flynn is prone to the wildest conspiracy theories.
This does not bode well for the man who is tasked with separating the wheat from the chaff that comes to the President’s desk. If Trump is unpredictable, so too is Flynn. Military men will surround Trump but not those of the most rational disposition.
Trump’s campaign rhetoric was plainly oppositional. It sparked a sense that this billionaire had heard the pain of the “forgotten American”.
Trump suggested that he would use his business savvy to bring back work for Americans and to turn around a sagging U.S. economy.
To help him, Trump has turned to the business class. Amongst his major picks are some of the richest people in the U.S. The total net worth of the first half of Trump’s Cabinet is over $14.5 billion—30 times more than the net worth of the men and women in George W. Bush’s Cabinet.
In other words, half of Trump’s Cabinet is worth 30 times the entirety of Bush’s Cabinet. Plutocracy, not democracy, is the order of the day.
The men who will manage the U.S. economy are all from amongst the wealthiest families. The Commerce Department will be led by Wilbur Ross, the “king of bankruptcy” (worth $2.9 billion), and assisted by Todd Ricketts, heir to the discount brokerage fortune of his father (worth $5.3 billion).
The Secretary of the Treasury, Steven Mnuchin (worth $46 million), worked at Goldman Sachs and then invested in two of Trump’s projects at his own boutique investment firm. Neera Tanden, president of the liberal think tank Centre for American Progress, said that these appointments were “a betrayal of his [Trump’s] message to working-class voters. Trump claimed he would fight the global elite billionaire class”, but instead he has filled his Cabinet with the wealthy.
Behind the scenes, in Trump’s transition team, are even more wealthy men and women. Leading the pack is Stephen Schwarzman of the private equity firm Blackstone. His net worth is $9.9 billion.
Schwarzman leads a group that includes the CEOs of JP Morgan Chase, BlackRock, Disney, Walmart, IBM and General Motors. It is this group that has pushed for deregulation and for a tax regime that advantages corporations and the very rich. The stock market has had several record days in anticipation of greater corporate earnings during the upcoming Trump years.
Even in the human services section, Trump has chosen very wealthy people who have little understanding of or sympathy for the “forgotten Americans”. Betsy DeVos, heir to the Amway fortune (worth $5.1 billion), is to head the Education Department. She is against public education and wants more private initiative.
This is not going to be favourable for the working class and the working poor. Ben Carson (worth $26 million), who ran for President, will head the Housing and Urban Development Department.
He believes that social welfare programmes, including housing programmes for the poor, create dependency and should be curtailed. Neither Betsy DeVos nor Carson is in line with the mission of the departments that each will run. The “forgotten Americans” will not be at the top of their agenda. Their task will be cost-cutting.
Trump’s form of nationalism is incoherent. Hope for the “forgotten Americans” comes more in the unsustainable claims made by Trump. Promises of jobs, good infrastructure and decent public services are easy to make and hard to deliver upon.
His team is averse to major public expenditure to produce the kind of society he said he would produce. They are keener on tax cuts and less regulation, the very policies that will sharpen the social divide in the U.S.
Trump’s nationalism is not rooted in social and economic policy. If it were, Trump would be forced to reconsider the tax cuts to the wealthy and the deregulation of the economy. Greater stress on working people is hardly the medicine for social inequality.
Trump’s nationalism emerges out of cultural claims about who is an American. It is the reason why there is so much hateful rhetoric against immigrants and Muslims, people who are said not to be Americans.
Stephen Bannon, Trump’s adviser, gave a speech to the Vatican in 2014 where he bemoaned the excesses of free-market capitalism and of crony capitalism. Profit and corruption, he said, should not define the economy.
Other values need to be promoted, values of nation and religion. Bannon argued that the antidote to free-market and crony capitalism is “Judeo-Christian capitalism”. “People are looked at as commodities,” Bannon complained of the current order. He wants “Judeo-Christian” values to constrain the profit motive.
The road to this kind of “Judeo-Christian” capitalism, Bannon said, was to be through the production of a “church militant”, which would be strengthened by a war against Islam. The leap from the problems of free-market and crony capitalism to a war against Islam is confounding. It is what anchors Bannon’s views.
To bring the wealthy and the generals into the Cabinet goes along the grain of this kind of approach. Problems of the “forgotten Americans” will not be solved by compassionate social policy. They are to be solved by more social inequality and more wars.