When it comes to Cabinet-level appointments, Donald Trump hasn't lost his ability to astonish and dismay. At this point his staffing process has pretty much turned into an extended exercise in trolling, a test to see how much humiliation the American people will endure.
Rick Perry for the Department of Energy? Perry will be running an organization he doesn’t even think should exist. By that logic, I should be the CEO of Citigroup.
Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil, for Secretary of State? Negotiating a peace treaty requires a different skill set than getting a permit to drill in the Black Sea.
The New York Times published a thoughtful op-ed by physicist Lawrence M. Krauss noting that the current Energy Secretary is also a physicist (a Nobel Prize-winning one) and outlining a number of critical issues facing the department. It was headlined, "Rick Perry is the Wrong Choice for Energy Secretary."
The wrong choice? It’s hard to view these nominations as anything but the deliberate mockery of their departments, and of government itself.
I have to admit, I like Rick Perry. He reminds me of a dog I had once. Husky/Collie mix. Good-looking dog with thick fur. Friendly as they come, but dumb as dirt.
Not that I’m saying Rick Perry isn’t intelligent. You can’t be if you’ve had a career like his, right? (Okay, I'm kidding about that.)
Here’s what Rick Perry said in a 2011 debate: "It's three agencies of government when I get there that are gone: commerce, education, and the uh ... what's the third one, there? Let's see."
"The third one,” said Perry. “ I can't …"
Another long pause.
"Oops,” said the future Secretary of Energy.
Perry’s memory re-engaged a quarter of an hour later. "By the way,” he said, “that was the department of energy I was reaching for a while ago."
Like the poet said: “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp.”
And like the old Elvis song says: “I forgot to remember to forget.” I'm pretty sure Rick Perry remembers the Department of Energy now.
But they’d like to forget a few things at the Department of Energy. The Trump transition team presented 74 questions to the Department, including some that seemed especially invasive. Here’s one:
“Can you provide a list of all Department … employees and contractors who have attended any Interagency Working Group on the Social Cost of Carbon?”
This question seems designed to create a ‘hit list’ of employees that have participated in activities the Trump team and its corporate friends particularly dislike. “We will not be providing any individual names to the transition team,” a department spokesperson replied.
Perry comes across as a likable goofball, but make no mistake: He’ll do a lot of harm in his new role. He’s very close to the oil and gas industry, and he denies the reality of climate change. In addition to steering energy policy, he'll also be in charge of our nuclear stockpile and responsible for major counterterrorism efforts.
Then there’s Tillerson. Trump ran against cutting Social Security and Medicare, then picked a Health and Human Services chief who wants to cut them. In the same vein, Trump ran against the Trans-Pacific Partnership and similar deals. Then he chose as Secretary of State someone who said we need to “support international cooperation and energy trade,” and added,
“One of the most promising developments on this front is the ongoing effort for the Trans-Pacific Partnership.”
It gets worse with Tillerson, the ExxonMobil CEO who made his career by trading with Russia and was now-famously awarded the Kremlin’s “Order of Friendship.”
Even some Republicans are worried about him. “Based upon his extensive business dealings with the Putin government and his opposition of efforts to impose sanctions on the Russian government,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, “there are many questions which must be answered.”
These Republicans don’t mention ExxonMobil’s suppression of scientific data that showed carbon fuels contributed to harmful climate change. For decades it denied that its own products were harming the planet. ExxonMobil spent more than $30 million on think tanks that denied the reality of climate change, despite its own groundbreaking but secret research from the 1970s onward that proved the opposite.
To be fair, Tillerson originally supported Jeb Bush for president, which means the fossil-fuel tycoon isn’t always opposed to “low-energy” alternatives.
Trump’s appointees constitute an ‘anti-government,’ to use Eugene Robinson’s resonant phrase. But let’s be clear about what that really means: Trump’s appointees will lead institutions whose functions they fundamentally oppose.
Tillerson has displayed no interest in diplomacy. Rick Perry is the ultimate ‘anti-government’ appointee. His desire to extinguish his new department is matched only by his ability to forget that it even exists. Neither seems to value government’s role in balancing public and private interests.
Trump isn't just making "wrong choices" for these jobs. He's displaying his contempt for the positions themselves. He's showing himself and his friends just how much he can get away with.
Those of us who can see Trump for who he is should stop acting as if he's unique. His pitch is as stale as an old carny’s. His con is as dated as three-card monte.
Trump voters don’t seem to have figured out yet that they’re being trolled and scammed. They will. You can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time – not when the world falls into chaos and the air turns dark with poison.