In his 2009 utopian novel Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us, Ralph Nader conjures up a scenario in which a group of enlightened U.S. billionaires spark a populist uprising against excessive corporate power. Calling themselves Meliorists, people such as Warren Buffett, George Soros, Ted Turner and Bill Gates Sr. use their wealth to bankroll creative efforts to undermine the stranglehold of big business and promote an agenda of universal healthcare, a living wage, sustainable energy, public financing of elections and other forms of popular democracy.
It is unlikely that Donald Trump has read the 733-page volume, but his emerging administration is well on its way to becoming an ugly variation on Nader’s theme. Rather than enlightened billionaires promoting a progressive agenda, Trump is building a government that will be run by wealthy proponents of reactionary policies. After a presidential campaign in which he railed against elites and suggested that he would shake up the system, he is filling his cabinet and other top jobs with individuals who, like himself, have exploited it to the hilt.
Trump’s pick for Treasury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin, worked for 17 years at Goldman Sachs but made his real money purchasing distressed IndyMac Bank amid the financial crisis in 2009, and after engaging in controversial foreclosure practices resold it at a hefty profit. The proposed Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, whose personal wealth is estimated by Forbes at $2.9 billion, has an even longer track record as a vulture investor who has turned around failing businesses but often at a high cost to employees. Betsy DeVos, Trump’s choice for Education Secretary, is a school privatization zealot who comes from a wealthy family and is married to an heir to the Amway fortune.
According to news reports, Trump is likely to name even more members of the 0.1 Percent to his administration. Plutocracy, once used as a rhetorical flourish, is increasingly a literal description of where things are heading.
Even those members of the Trump team who are not listed on the Forbes 400 are known for promoting policies that benefit the billionaire class rather than the workers who voted for the Republican ticket. Health and Human Services nominee Tom Price is a pharma-friendly, anti-Obamacare fanatic who seems to want to create a system of bare-bones coverage that is highly profitable to the insurance industry. Seema Verma, named to head the agency that oversees Medicare and Medicaid, is a pro-privatization consultant. And then there are the dozens of industry lobbyists installed on the landing teams for individual federal agencies who are helping target a wide range of regulations that protect consumers, workers and the general public.
Perhaps out of an awareness that his supporters may be starting to look askance at this power grab by corporate interests, Trump has taken pains to fulfill his campaign promise to help workers at the Carrier Corporation plant in Indianapolis whose jobs were being sent to Mexico.
The president-elect has just announced a deal in which some 800 of the 1,400 affected workers will save their jobs. This is welcome news for those workers and their families, who probably don’t care that Mike Pence used his soon-to-expire powers as governor to grant the company the kind of special “incentives” that Trump frequently denounced during the campaign.
For the rest of the country, it difficult to avoid thinking that Trump and Pence are using the Carrier situation mainly as a way to boost their popularity and distract people from the overwhelmingly pro-business bent of the rest of the transition.
We are likely to see more of this as the Trump Administration creates a new form of inequality: big and lucrative policy gains for the powerful and smaller, mainly symbolic benefits for the rest of the population. The question is: will Trump’s working class enthusiasts settle for crumbs while the powerful gorge themselves?