Donald Trump is a masterful con man, and his presidency will be a bait-and-switch of epic proportions. He will, on one hand, appeal to the populist temper of the time—as he did this week with his “thank you tour”—and with stunts, as he did with the Carrier deal or his series of tweets purporting to hold Boeing to account for overcharging the Air Force.
The switch comes in Washington, with what David Axelrod dubbed a “Monster’s Ball” of Wall Street and right-wing ideologues in the cabinet. Republican majorities in Congress will work to further rig the economy for the wealthy few.
Trump’s opening speech of his “thank you tour” in Ohio laid out the bait. While putting forth his “action plan to make America great,” Trump dished out nationalist and populist themes with a characteristic mix of racist signaling. Trump promised to put America first: “There is no global anthem. No global currency. No certificate of global citizenship. We pledge allegiance to one flag and that flag is the American flag. From now on it is going to be: America First,” Trump said. “Never anyone again will any other interests come before the interest of the American people. It is not going to happen again.”
Trump echoed Bernie Sanders with his focus on the “forgotten” American worker. Trump felt their pain, and indicted trade deficits and flight of manufacturing jobs. He promised good jobs. He will renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement and take on China. He bragged about the Carrier deal, and pledged a 35 percent tariff on companies that offshore jobs and try to ship products back into the United States.
Like Sanders, Trump proposed a major plan to rebuild America, including “our inner cities.” His plan will have “two simple rules”: “Buy America” and “Hire America,” phrases that too many Democrats would choke on.
The conservative core of his program—corporate tax cuts, deregulation, reviving coal and oil, repealing Obamacare—is wrapped in this populist gauze.
The switch, of course, will take place in the suites of Washington where, instead of draining the swamp, he’s populating it with predators. Trump’s CEO council, which will advise him on taxes and regulation, is a classic gang of thieves. Steve Schwarzman, head of the Blackstone Group, and impassioned defender of the carried-interest tax-break scam, is the chairman of Trump’s group. (He famously compared the effort to roll back this obscene tax rip-off with Hitler’s invading Poland). It also includes Jamie Dimon, head of JPMorgan Chase, the bank with one of longest rap sheets coming out of the financial debacle. His bank paid over $38 billion in fines for various fraudulent schemes from 2008 to 2015, and still counting.
Add Mary Barra, the CEO of General Motors, bailed out by the Obama administration, which managed to pay no federal taxes despite $7.7 billion in world earnings in 2015.
And there’s Doug McMillon, the CEO of Walmart, America’s largest and viciously anti-union employer, infamous for paying its workers so little that they are forced to depend on billions in taxpayer subsidies in everything from food stamps to low-wage housing assistance, while the six heirs of the founder have wealth equaling the combined fortunes of 40 percent of Americans.
After scorning Goldman Sachs on the campaign trail, Trump wants to hand the Treasury Department to a second-generation Goldman Sachs alum, Steven Mnuchin, whom Senator Elizabeth Warren dubbed the “Forest Gump of the financial crisis” because he seemed to be everywhere. Mnuchin profited at Goldman trading the collateralized mortgage-backed securities and debt swaps that helped blow up the economy, and then cleaned up after the crash by purchasing IndyBank and running one of the most fraudulent foreclosure mills in the country.
In interviews held simultaneous to Trump’s “thank you” tour, Mnuchin laid out the real agenda. “Our number-one priority is tax reform, the largest tax change since Reagan.”
The administration will push to lower corporate taxes to 15 percent, and give the companies that evaded taxes by stashing the money abroad a massive tax break. The rich will clean up with “middle-class tax reforms” that feature lower-top-end taxes and an end to the estate tax. Mnuchin suggested that closing loopholes would keep the rich from benefiting from top-end personal tax cuts, a preposterous falsehood.
The second priority will be rolling back the “complications” of Dodd-Frank financial reform. Trump is brandishing the threat of 35 percent tariffs on companies who ship jobs abroad, but his nominee for Commerce Secretary, billionaire investor Wilbur Ross, noted “tariffs are the last thing…part of the negotiation. The real thing is going to be to increase American exports,” echoing every American president since Clinton.
Representative Tom Price, the anti-abortion zealot nominated to head the Department of Health and Human Services, will work with House Speaker Paul Ryan to repeal Obamacare. The plan now is repeal and delay—repealing the reform on a date certain three or so years from now, while working out the “replacement” in the meantime. With Trump and the Republican Congress intent on slashing taxes and raising military spending, the resulting deficits will be used justify an attack on Medicaid and Medicare as part of “reform.” In control of the Congress and the White House, Republicans will push to roll back and privatize basic pieces of the safety net.
Progressives will necessarily find themselves embattled on many fronts. Deportations will ramp up. Anti-Muslim rhetoric will fuel increased surveillance and restriction. Law-and-order rhetoric and brutal stop-and-frisk policies will unleash harsh reprisal against Black Lives Matter demonstrators. Voter-suppression efforts will find a home in the Department of Justice. Unions—particularly public-employee unions—will be assailed from the start.
Solidarity will be vital for activists who are targeted, communities threatened, families torn apart by deportations or worse.
To expose the bait-and-switch on the economy, it will be vital to follow the money, and expose the corruptions and the lies. Challenging Trump’s appointments will provide the first opportunity to pierce the veil.
Fierce opposition is needed, not simply defense. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi claimed, “I don’t think people want a new direction.” That is wrong. The question is: What side are you on? Who will fight for changes that make this economy work for working people? More of the same is not an answer.
Defending Barack Obama’s trade policy against Trump’s “protectionism” won’t get the job done. Criticizing Trump for running up deficits, in contrast to Obama’s austerity, is a sucker’s game. Progressives can’t defer to cautious leaders calling for least-common-denominator unity. They have to put forth bold reform ideas to contrast with Trump’s depredations. Bernie Sanders offered a decent example, calling Trump out on outsourcing, while putting forth a bill that would punish companies for moving jobs abroad, not allowing them to extort subsidies for staying here.
But ultimately this debate won’t be decided in Washington but across the country among mobilized citizens.
For example, Fight for $15 can drive reform at the state and local level. People will swarm congressional meetings to protect Social Security or Medicare. They must do the same to stop another round of tax giveaways to corporations and the rich that drain the public purse and add to inequality.
Trump can fool many of the people for some of time. He inherits an economy with low unemployment and wages beginning to stir. If he manages to get a major infrastructure program out of this Congress, the jobs created could help tighten labor markets enough to begin to lift wages. He can stoke his base with race-baiting politics and by taunting the establishment’s delicacies (such as taking the call from the prime minister of Taiwan).
But his show will get stale over time, particularly if the rip-offs are exposed, the divisive racial and gender politics are confronted, and working families learn that the crony capitalists on the inside are cleaning up while they are getting stiffed. Trump is a wily and experienced confidence man, but selling his remedy won’t be easy once people realize it’s the same old failed brew.