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Donald Trump Continues the Manipulation of Populism by ‘Swamping Up’ His Path to Power

Donald Trump’s brash brand of populism resonated with voters during the election, but he is not delivering on many of his campaign promises as president-elect. (Jim Cole / AP)

White middle- and working-class “heartland” voters helped Donald Trump defeat Hillary Clinton in November. Now, Trump already seems to be betraying them.

Thinking about this reality, I am struck by the living historical relevance of Christopher Hitchens’ description of “the essence of American politics, when distilled,” as “the manipulation of populism by elitism. That elite is most successful which can claim the heartiest allegiance of the fickle crowd; can present itself as most ‘in touch’ with popular concerns; can anticipate the tides and pulses of public opinion. …” Hitchens wrote those words 16 years ago.

We might speak of that essence also as the manipulation of identity politics by elitism. Speaking to the Real News Network in 2013, Truthdig columnist Chris Hedges reflected on how U.S. major party electoral politics is an elite-run sport in which a corporate-managed electorate is identity-played by a moneyed elite that pulls the strings behind the scenes:

Both sides of the political spectrum are manipulated by the same forces. If you’re some right-wing Christian zealot in Georgia, then it’s homosexuals and abortion and all these, you know, wedge issues that are used to whip you up emotionally. If you are a liberal in Manhattan, it’s—you know, ‘They’ll be teaching creationism in your schools’ or whatever. … Yet in fact it’s just a game, because whether it’s Bush or whether it’s Obama, Goldman Sachs always wins. There is no way to vote against the interests of Goldman Sachs.

A ‘Broken System’

The Trump presidency-in-formation is shaping up like something straight out of Hitchens’ and Hedges’ formulations. Candidate Trump charged hedge fund managers with “getting away with murder” by taking advantage of tax-code loopholes. He inveighed against a “financial elite” that bribes politicians in a “rigged” and “broken” system that leaves “millions of our workers with nothing but poverty and heartache.”

In a political advertisement he ran just days before the presidential election, Trump denounced “a global power structure 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.” As Trump’s “populist” verbiage boomed in the background, the commercial flashed images of the New York Stock Exchange, hedge fund billionaire George Soros and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein. It was consistent with a recurrent theme across Trump’s campaign: a pledge to redeem “forgotten” working-class and blue-collar “Americans” from the nefarious global corporations and financial firms that sold them down the river in the name of free trade. As part of that pledge, Trump promised to “drain the swamp in Washington” of “special interests,” including Wall Street elites.

Wall Street seemed to return the enmity. The Center for Responsive Politics reports that the security and investment industry donated more than $78 million to Hillary Clinton’s campaign and super PAC. This was more than 100 times what the industry gave to Trump. Adding insult to injury, Blankfein said last year that the notion of Trump “with his finger on the button blows my mind.”

Different Identity Spins

Of course, the Republicans don’t manipulate populism in quite the same way as the Democrats. While the Democrats don the outwardly liberal and diverse, many-colored cloak of Hollywood- and Upper West Side-approved bicoastal multiculturalism, the GOP connects its manipulation to ugly (Hillary called it “deplorable”) white “heartland” nationalism, sexism, hyper-masculinism, nativism, evangelism and racism. The rightmost major party shades over into a kind of Amerikanner-like neofascism. Donald “Make America Great [Hate] Again” Trump played that nasty card to a chilling degree, sparking more “It Can Happen Here” (fascism, that is) fear than any U.S. political phenomenon in recent memory.

But in both versions, that of the Democrats and that of the Republicans, Goldman Sachs (and Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, et al.) always prevails. The bankrollers and bankers atop the Deep State continue to reign. The nation’s unelected dictatorship of money continues to call the shots. That was certainly true under the arch-neoliberal Barack Obama, whose relentless service to the nation’s economic ruling class has been amply documented by numerous journalists, authors (the present writer included) and academics.

‘Wall Street and Trump Make Up Quickly’

The usual betrayal of “populist” campaign words with elite corporate and financial personnel deeds (and Washington has long understood that “personnel is policy”) is already underway with Trump. There’s no serious attempt to hide it. A recent Wall Street Journal (WSJ) report is titled “Wall Street and Trump Make Up Quickly.” It notes: “After largely opposing his 2016 presidential campaign, financial service executives are making fast friends with President-elect Trump. … Wall Street could wind up being a big winner under Mr. Trump, despite his broadsides against big banks during the campaign.”

You don’t say.

Another Wall Street Journal news item one day later was titled “Trump’s Wealthy Appointments Contrast With Populist Campaign Tone.” In this and in other reports from across top media outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post, one learns that Trump has selected two leading and filthy rich Wall Street investors—Steven Mnuchin and Wilbur Ross—for top economic policy positions in his Cabinet. With the mega-billionaire Trump (slated to be the richest president in American history) at its apex, the Trump White House is shaping up to be the greatest monument to uber-plutocracy since the super-pinstriped presidencies of Warren Harding and Calvin (“The Chief Business of the American People Is Business”) Coolidge. As WSJ’s Rebecca Ballhaus reports:

President-elect Donald Trump, who ran a populist campaign … is assembling one of the wealthiest administration teams in recent memory. … In the past few weeks, Mr. Trump has appointed three fellow billionaires to top administration positions, and at least two other millionaires to his cabinet. … On Wednesday, he confirmed that he had tapped Wilbur Ross, the chairman of a private-equity firm, to serve as commerce secretary. Mr. Ross has a net worth estimated at about $2.5 billion. … Steven Mnuchin, a former Goldman Sachs Group, Inc. banker whose net worth is in the hundreds of millions, was chosen as Treasury secretary, and Betsy DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist whose family has a net worth of about $5.1 billion, was picked to head the Education Department. … All told, Mr. Trump’s choices for four cabinet positions—Treasury, Commerce, Education and Transportation—have a combined net worth of at least $8.1 billion.

“The concentration of wealth in Mr. Trump’s Cabinet,” Ballhaus notes, “contrasts with his rhetoric on the campaign trail, where he struck a populist tone.”
Gee, who would have ever guessed? The false pretense of surprise is quite transparent in these news reports.

Good as Goldman

Last week, Trump met with Goldman Sachs President and Chief Operating Officer Gary Cohn to discuss Cabinet appointments. Mnuchin’s appointment continues an old Washington tradition: putting a person with an elite history at Goldman Sachs in a top economic post. Bill Clinton did it with Robert E. Rubin in 1995, and George W. Bush did it with Hank Paulson in 2006. Obama’s top economic team was riddled with Goldman Sachs and Citigroup veterans and operatives. Mnuchin has a strong Goldman pedigree. His father was an early Goldman Sachs partner who pioneered stock trading over more than three decades at the firm. But it’s not just about Goldman. “Mnuchin,” former Morgan Stanley executive Gary Kaminsky told the Times, “is somebody who can speak to bankers” at other firms too: [JPMorgan Chase CEO] Jamie Dimon, Lloyd Blankfein, [Morgan Stanley CEO] James Gorman and [Bank of America CEO] Brian Moynihan. He can speak their language. … He comes from a trading desk, and that’s something that is very strong.”

So what if these are the same “masters of the universe” who pushed the global economy over the cliff (at epic taxpayer expense) eight years ago? Who cares if they’ve been trailblazing a New Gilded Age inequality so stark that the top tenth of the nation’s 1 percent owns nearly as much wealth as the nation’s bottom 90 percent.

Swamping Up: A Cabinet of Vultures

Trump’s spokesman Jason Miller calls the president-elect’s appointees a “Cabinet of winners.” It might be better to see them as a Cabinet of vultures. The multi-millionaire Mnuchin (Treasury), 53, is a longtime hedge fund manager, and the billionaire Ross (Commerce), 79, is a former leveraged buyout and corporate “turnaround” specialist. Both have feathered their uber-opulent nests by buying distressed properties and selling them for a profit—turning others’ losses into their personal gains.

Mnuchin co-founded a bank (OneWest) that foreclosed on thousands of homeowners during the 2008 financial crisis. He made millions after that parasitic action. At one point, his bank foreclosed on a 90-year-old woman after she made a 27-cent payment error.

If there’s anything distinctive about Trump’s appointments so far, it is the extremism of their wealth. Trump’s picks for four Cabinet positions—Treasury, Commerce, Education and Transportation—have a combined net worth (at least $8.1 billion) that is more than four times the net worth of President Barack Obama’s appointees for those posts in 2013 and nearly 20 times the worth of President George W. Bush’s picks at the beginning of his second term.

“Mr. Trump,” Ballhaus notes, “has often said that he admires those who, like him, have succeeded in the business world, and that he wants to attract people who can transfer those skills into government.” Trump, it appears, agrees with U.S. founder John Jay, who said that the people who own the country ought to run the country.

Trump clearly isn’t interested just in merely successful business class appointees. He wants Cabinet members from the super-wealthy—people with the “winner” genes and character he identifies with his own perceived personal superiority and “greatness.” (Personal enrichment has been Trump’s only true personal religion ever since his silver-spooned childhood and his youthful indoctrination by Marble Collegiate Church pastor Norman Vincent Peale, who emphasized “self over faith” and preached “positive thinking” without self-criticism.)

Trump seems to want direct rule by the wealthiest among the wealthy few, without managerial intermediaries like Lawrence Summers and Timothy Geithner.

This isn’t draining the swamp. It’s finding some of the biggest Deep State swamp creatures around and putting them in top positions. We might call it “swamping up.”

Looking Forward to an ‘Asset-Friendly’ Presidency

Wall Street is eagerly making up with Trump. Top financial services trade groups like the American Bankers Association are running to help Trump fill top financial regulatory positions in the next White House. Financial Services Roundtable is raising $4 million to help Trump “pay for the transition process.” After Trump defeated Hillary Clinton, Blankfein praised the victor as “market friendly and asset friendly.” So what if the Deplorable One threatens to launch World War III with a Twitter fit at 3 a.m.?

The accommodation makes perfect sense. Janus-faced finance capital runs like water to the powers that be at the end of the day. And the elite financial sector is looking forward to significant regressive corporate and personal tax cuts and financial deregulation with Republicans in charge of both the White House and Congress in coming years. The stocks of Bank of America, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley have been on a great run ever since the election.

‘Trickle Down’ Hopes

Do Trump and his fellow vultures worry that his appointments will antagonize the “white working class” that helped vote him into office? Not likely. They are counting on identity politics and nationalism, by global conflicts and terror scares, to combine with the commercial media culture to keep the “bewildered herd”—the “rabble,” the “proles” in George Orwell’s “1984,” the restless many, and working-class majority—clueless and confused.

It is unlikely that Trump and his team see any contradiction between their super-wealthy appointments and their claims of concern for the American working class. Their militantly capitalist world view tells them that putting outlandishly wealthy business-class “winners” in charge of government to slash financial, labor and environmental regulations will unleash growth and thereby redound to the benefit of all in “trickle-down” fashion. Sound familiar? Capitalist “free market” ideology is a powerful thing, especially in the minds of those who have ridden it to obscene wealth and power.

It isn’t just the rich who buy into the ideology. “If he could be someone who could really benefit his Cabinet and be better for America, I say go for it,” said Joe Terry, a 54-year-old maintenance worker and father of five. Terry told The Washington Post that he has no problem with Mnuchin’s appointment to head Treasury. “Let’s face it, he’s going to look out for corporations, to make things work for them, to bring jobs back home,” Terry said. “And as things trickle down—as they’re going to because it’s America—the little guy will get something, too.”

Reporting on a post-election rally Trump held in Cincinnati, Ohio, Post reporter Jenna Johnson found that “many of Trump’s [white middle- and working-class supporters] said they completely trust their president-elect to make the right decisions for the country, even if they don’t understand his motives.”

Slandering Populism

Meanwhile, a different kind of “manipulation”—perhaps I should say slander—“of populism” has been let loose in the reigning U.S. media-politics culture. Populism, properly understood, is an egalitarian sentiment driven by the citizenry’s elementary understanding that (in the words of one-time Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis) “we must make our choice. We may have democracy in this country, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.”

You wouldn’t know this from the corporate media, which tends to treat populism as right wing, racist, sexist, quasi-fascist, white nationalist and nativist. The dominant media smears populism as ugly and authoritarian. That’s because the media is owned and run by people who fear and hate the working-class majority and democracy.

Trump didn’t really “run a populist campaign.” The only major party presidential contender who came close to actually doing that was Bernie Sanders, who made opposition to the over-concentration of wealth and (hence) power the centerpiece of his candidacy. The media made sure to cover his more genuinely populist campaign (which attracted giant crowds across the nation during the primary season) with far less fanfare and frequency than it gave to every idiotic tweet and facial expression emanating from the quasi-fascist Trump.

People who dream that Trump is going to make things better for “the white working class” are in for a rude awakening. The masters of Goldman Sachs and the rest of the financial super-elite are slated to win again, as usual. You can take that to the bank.

The only real mystery is how far Trump is going to go in honoring his darker racist, sexist, nativist, white-nationalist and ecocidal pledges. And whether “we the people” can form a real broad-based opposition and popular resistance—one that can’t simply be dismantled in service to a big “get out the vote” campaign for Democratic candidates and their version of Hedges’ “game” and Hitchens’ “essence of American politics.”

Paul Street
Contributor
Paul Street holds a doctorate in U.S. history from Binghamton University. He is former vice president for research and planning of the Chicago Urban League. Street is also the author of numerous books,…
Paul Street

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