A Perfect Storm : Kleptocracy and Disingenuous Populism Part Two

As mentioned earlier, Donald Trump’s electoral success relied critically on an outsider’s populist appeal to white disenchanted working class Americans, many of whom dislike him personally but found no other viable alternative.  Do they stand to gain anything?  His cabinet choices seem to belie the message, as each selection represents unprecedented wealth and privilege in the highest bureaucratic roles in the government.  Further, Trump’s allegation that his opponents, including Ted Cruz in the primaries and Hillary Clinton in the general election, are paid-for lackeys of Goldman Sachs, seems to ring rather hollow after noting that his roster of nominees and advisors comfortably represent the banking giant in Steven Mnuchin, Steve Bannon, and Anthony Scaramucci.  Will they represent Main Street?  While at IndyMac, Mnuchin presided over some 36,000 foreclosures on American families, many of whom were elderly folks duped into reverse mortgage scams; Trump’s constituent supporters parallel many of these victims demographically.  As secretary of the treasury, Mnuchin would regulate the very institutions responsible for the housing and financial crises; will he protect these same families?  Trump’s commerce secretary pick in billionaire investment banker Wilbur Ross follows a similar theme.  Will donning a red cap confer to him understanding of the plight of American working families?  Trump’s own business interests carry myriad ethical conflicts, as articulated by Robert Weissman of Public Citizen in a recent analysis.  Early signs of promoting his self-interest are public record; three days after Trump’s telephone chat with the president of Argentina, a long delayed construction project of Trump received a greenlight.

The recent publicity stunt to preserve a thousand or so American jobs (Trump’s numbers don’t jive with facts) within the Indiana-based Carrier corporation might seem to bode well, except it’s accomplished through gentle promises of tax cuts (bemoaned on the campaign trail by Trump) for Carrier’s parent corporation rather than the harsh, authoritarian threats to increase tariffs issued by Trump while campaigning; a possible consequence could be corporate threats to offshore jobs to trim their alleged tax burdens.  In fact, a frequent talking point in the quest to restore jobs for American workers is that the effective corporate tax rate in the U.S. is simply too high and thus drives out business: it turns out this is simply false.  On the critical question of restoring manufacturing jobs to the U.S., it’s worth noting that both political parties have missed golden opportunities.  Obama’s government bailout of the automotive industry in the early days of his administration was extremely costly and essentially restored ownership to the very people responsible for its demise, yet we could have easily repurposed the plants and retrained their highly skilled workers to construct high-speed rail, an badly needed advance in public transportation, remarkable mostly in its total absence from the United States.  Trump promises $1B to infrastructure; it’s unclear whether he plans to deliver.

What is clear is that his pick for education secretary in Christian supremacist Betsy Devos represents a hard right turn for public education; a long outspoken proponent of vouchers for “for-profit” schools, she’ll likely press forward with a the right’s strong desire to dismantle the public education system.  Education vouchers, conceived by economist Milton Friedman in the 1950s, have long been a carrot of “free choice” proffered by religious and business interests eager to Christianize American youth, cash in on the taxpayer, and whitewash from history and science the purported (though largely unsubstantiated) liberal atheist bias.  Yet private institutions receiving the vouchers often fail to outperform their public counterparts, and public support for vouchers is still quite low.  Will this effort reflect the hopes of Trump’s followers?

Another shot across the bow for supporters of Trump’s populism is the rush to repeal the Affordable Care Act, promised by Trump, and to privatize Medicare and Medicaid, eyed greedily by Paul Ryan as critical set pieces of the arch-conservative agenda; such measures likely will harm working class families whose incomes cannot cover medical care, many of whom voted for Trump.  Republicans and Democrats have long stymied efforts to reform our ailing semi-public/semi-private healthcare system, deferring to an obscene insurance lobby at great cost to American taxpayers; a source of international ridicule, our system leaves millions uninsured, and as much as ACA was a meager step in the right direction, Obama himself abandoned the public option without ever trying to leverage his electoral mandate, something largely unreported in the mainstream press.  With Trump’s plan to eliminate ACA, many of his supporters will suffer without an alternative, and the tepid, incremental crumbs tossed by Democrats face utter reversal.

And what of Trump’s promises to deport millions of immigrants and revamp the H1-B visa program?  As mentioned in a previous article, lost in the hysteria surrounding illegal immigration are the careful analyses demonstrating the advantages conferred to the American economy.  Frankly, I find these arguments rather hollow when one considers the ethical questions of why the immigrants come here and whether we should tear families apart in observance of the shamefully obsolete notion of citizenship.  Argued simply, why should being born five hundred feet south of the Rio Grande differ so much from being born five hundred feet north of it?  The majority of illegals in this country do what the majority of poor and working class people do: they work harder, longer hours than perhaps anyone else.  Trump’s ascent strikes fear into immigrants who genuinely want a chance at decent existence; I know some of these people personally, and rarely have I encountered anyone harder working.  Trump’s stern warnings of curtailing H1-B visas would damage the technology sector where a tremendous scarcity of talent has necessitated extending opportunities to foreigners.  Nativists organize petitions with the largely unsubstantiated claim that the program harms American workers; a more moral approach might be to recognize that uplifting outsiders enriches both the American economy and the technology sector with more talent.

The celebrations of hate groups, mentioned in the previous article, bode dangerously for people of color and other marginalized groups.  The Roberts court quickly moved to gut key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, perhaps the most significant civil rights piece of legislation in American history; Trump’s repeated, unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud persist even now as he arrogantly insists he “won the popular vote” when one subtracts votes cast by illegals.  Never in American history has the winner of the electoral college so denigrated the integrity of American elections.  If anything, voter suppression and disenfranchisement of minorities and the populations of the coastal cities should be of much greater concern.  Trump’s power to appoint justices to SCOTUS means a sharp, rightward turn for perhaps the least democratic yet tremendously powerful component of our government; the right to choose, marriage equality, and the wafer thin protections against plutocracy are now in play, and his choices will shape the court for decades to come.  Likely we’re facing a metastasis of Citizen United decisions and their ilk.

Regarding Trump’s damning foreign policy proposals, he insists our military, bigger and more expensive than all other militaries combined and a veritable sinkhole for tax revenues, needs much greater might; he also with some confusion indicated that first nuclear strike capability should be a reserved power to America, and that our nuclear arsenal desperately needs an update, following carefully the Obama doctrine of nuclear modernization .  The Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has monitored the danger of nuclear war for some time, and analysts easily articulate the threat of mutually assured nuclear devastation as one of the two greatest existential threats ever to face the human species.  A cavalier, reckless attitude toward weapons which can easily decimate chances of decent survival among the human race is quite dangerous.  Pervasive in the past 70 years is the looming threat of even trivial mistakes and accidents capable of wiping out civilization.  Somewhat understood is the Cuban missile crisis, described by historian Arthur Schlesinger as the “most dangerous moment in human history,” when a single Russian submarine commander saved the world by disobeying orders to deploy nuclear warheads.  Less known are the myriad false alerts which have imperiled civilization, including incidents in 1979, 1983 and 1995.  Permitting anyone, let alone a man marred by aspersions of narcissistic pathology and grandiosity, access to such destructive force seems suicidal.  Trump promised no more regime change in a recent statement, but like so many former president-elects, he likely won’t keep this promise; murdering hundreds of thousands of people and exiling millions more has been a small price to pay to maintain “access to key markets” and “security.”  His carrying the tradition of hysteria with respect to outsiders, Iran, and the Middle East strongly indicates a pseudo-fascist foreign policy likely to heighten global tensions and diminish further the very safety and security many of his supporters sought in him.

So what of the other looming threat facing the human species?  Donald Trump is the very first president-elect to deny the overwhelming scientific consensus of anthropogenic climate change.  Species loss currently exceeds the natural background rate by a factor of ten according to the fossil record, suggesting strongly that the changes in climate very well could precipitate another mass extinction event, the fifth and most recent of which occurred 65 million years ago when an asteroid destroyed the dominant reptilian megafauna on earth.  On a more personal note, when I grew up in a small Texas town in the 1980s, virtually no one I knew disputed the rather obvious understanding of the runaway greenhouse effect and the human contribution to the gases known to cause it.  Through a concerted propaganda campaign led by fossil fuel and energy agencies and complicity in mainstream media in offering “equal time” to the very fringe one to two percent of scientists who deny very well-understood mechanisms, American understanding of the issue is considerably more muddled than that of other western democracies and even the third world.  I suspect this is a feature of the post-truth era, something we’ll examine more closely in later posts.  In any case, warning sign after warning sign, including massive amphibian die-offs, destruction of coral reefs, rising ocean levels and temperatures, along with massive droughts caused by glacial retreat, and increased releases of methane, a greenhouse gas orders of magnitude more potent than carbon dioxide, from peat bogs in the melting Siberian tundra go virtually unnoticed in most mainstream reporting.  Trump’s insistence that no such mechanisms exist not unexpectedly coincide with lavish promises of opening up more federal lands for fracking and extraction of other fossil fuels.  Trump also supports, both in policy and in his private investments, the Dakota access pipeline, a rarely discussed construction project in North Dakota resulting in further destruction of native burial and sacred grounds; in recent months the Water Protectors, native groups and sympathizers, have clashed with violent security forces.  Unlike in other dark periods of American history, we have cellular technology which offers firsthand looks at how private security and law enforcement treat descendants of the original Americans.  Recent evidence has emerged that the Obama administration has attempted to conceal the destructive effects of fracking on water supplies, a pattern very likely to continue in what promises to be a secretive, exploitative Trump administration.  I’ve witnessed the effects of fracking myself, having had family living in regions of the U.S. where running water is undrinkable and very often not safe for contact with human flesh.

The evidence currently seems clear; for all his promises to “drain the swamp” and restore the American economy, Trump’s policies will likely harm further his chief constituencies by robbing them of medical care, enriching the masters running the very companies who caused the banking collapse and were happily a party to the neo-liberal program, further deepen his own financial interests, and at worst edge us more rapidly into a world in which decent survival isn’t possible.

So what can we do? In our final article in this series, we’ll investigate how activism works and what we can do to peacefully resist the neo-fascist kleptocracy and rising alt-right movement.

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