By God — or should it be by jingo — large parts of the corporate press are savaging the cabinet and cabinet-level appointments of a U.S. president-in-waiting. Such intense scrutiny is as welcome as it is unusual, for the team that Donald Trump is in the process of assembling appears to be an extremely dangerous one indeed.1
There is Rick Perry, the former governor of Texas, who has been nominated by Trump to be the next energy secretary (the billionaire oilman and Trump admirer Harold Hamm having ruled himself out of contention). Leaving aside the unprecedented 279 executions he oversaw between 2000 and 2014 from his mansion in Austin, Perry is perhaps most notorious for his repeated out-and-out denials of climate change and his disdain for what he says is the ‘so-called science’ behind it. His selection by Trump — following as it does the latter’s pronouncements on fossil fuel production, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Paris Agreement and Keystone XL — is the latest screaming indication that the new administration will be hell-bent on ‘racing to the cliff as fast as possible’ so far as climate chaos is concerned.2 Indeed, the appointments of Perry and Scott Pruitt — Trump’s pick to head the condemned EPA — seem to be the equivalent of putting ‘arsonists in charge of fighting fires’.3 One might hold out hope that Perry’s earlier calls for the abolition of the Department of Energy will estop him from accepting Trump’s invitation to run it, but regrettably there is little danger of that occurring: this two-time presidential nominee clearly covets too much the power and privilege that accompany high office.
The crusty Jeff Sessions, Trump’s nominee for the office of attorney general, is by no means any less reprehensible, though his work in the coming years will concern the school-to-prison pipeline rather than Dakota Access and the like (if only the latter kind was as impervious to rupture).
Sessions was denied a federal judgeship by the Senate Judiciary Committee back in 1986 on account of his racism, which he apparently did not bother to conceal in his professional career; there are reports of him directing racist language at black colleagues and suggesting that a white civil rights lawyer was a ‘traitor’ and a ‘disgrace’ to his ‘race’. The senator from Alabama is also on record as having described the Voting Rights Act, which aimed to safeguard the voting rights of racial minorities, as a ‘piece of intrusive legislation’; once slammed organisations like the NAACP and the ACLU for ‘forc[ing] civil rights down the throats of people’; and, not long before becoming the first sitting member of the U.S. Senate to endorse Trump, publicly defended the president-elect’s proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the country. In other words, Sessions is eminently qualified to help Trump perpetuate all the racialised violence of the carceral state (which was of course conceived and expanded in the first place by messrs Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Biden and Bush II).
Sessions, if confirmed by the Senate, will be far from the only member of Trump’s team to harbour extremist views of people of colour. The vulgar neocon Michael Flynn will be the president-elect’s national security adviser. Then again, Flynn does not so much harbour racist views as launch them like torpedoes into the danker shallows of public discourse. He has tweeted that ‘[f]ear of Muslims is RATIONAL [sic]’ and this summer asserted that ‘Islamism [sic]’ is a ‘vicious cancer inside the body [sic] of 1.7 billion people’.
According to a recently leaked email, Flynn was fired from his role as the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency in August 2014 because he was ‘abusive with staff, didn’t listen’ and was guilty of ‘bad management’ all-round. We must therefore expect him to enjoy a long and successful tenure in the new administration.
John F. Kelly
Meanwhile, the nomination of Flynn’s fellow general John F. Kelly to the post of secretary of homeland security would suggest that Trump is deadly serious about adopting a militarised and, needless to say, deeply racist approach to the issue of immigration. Indeed, after getting the nod from Trump last Monday, Kelly vowed to spearhead the fight to ‘take back sovereignty at our borders, and put a stop to political correctness that for too long has dictated our approach to national security’.
It is rhetoric like this and men like Sessions, Flynn and Kelly that inadvertently expose the white supremacist underpinnings of U.S. society at the same time as revealing oxymoronic Newspeak like ‘homeland security’, ‘military intelligence’ and the ‘U.S. Department of Justice’ for what is really is — mere ‘words that have very little relationship to reality’.4
It is as well to mention at this juncture the menacing Stephen Bannon, who, though not a prospective member of Trump’s cabinet, will act as counsellor and chief strategist to the future president. Bannon was for four years the executive chairman of Breitbart News, a far-right news website described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a ‘white ethno-nationalist propaganda mill’; the symbolic significance of his selection by Trump is clear for all to see.
Somewhere between Kelly and Bannon on the spectrum of vileness is the unabashedly hawkish Mike Pompeo, a Congressman from Kansas who has been called upon to become the next director of the CIA. Pompeo has robustly defended the Bush administration’s use of torture; described Guantanamo Bay as ‘humane and safe’ and a ‘huge success’; believes that the whistleblower Edward Snowden should be executed; and has called for the expansion of a surveillance apparatus whose intrusiveness (as exemplified by XKEYSCORE and similar programs) was adjudged in a federal court to be unconstitutional. Support for torture and unconstrained mass surveillance are never less than extremely disturbing, but Pompeo is about to be anointed chief of a gigantic federal agency concerned with collecting ‘intelligence’ as part of a murderous and essentially fraudulent War on Terror. His positions, then, are frankly terrifying.
If defense is war and ignorance is strength, then labour is assuredly capital. Andrew Puzder is Trump’s pick for labour secretary. He is also the CEO of CKE Restaurants and earned in the region of 300 times more than the lowest-paid of his 20,000 workers back in 2012. Puzder is vehemently opposed to raising the minimum wage — a stance which bodes ill for the Fight for $15 movement — and has also signalled his belief in the existence of the ‘welfare cliff’, a pet conceit of ultra-conservatives. That such a man is considered fit to head a department whose (stated) aims are to ‘foster, promote and develop the welfare of wage earners [and] job seekers’ is indicative of the contempt in which the president-elect holds workers, many of whom voted for him in the wildly misguided hope that he would revive their falling incomes and so on and so forth.
James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis
One of Trump’s more sinister nominations so far has been James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis. To suggest that the incoming secretary of defense, a retired four-star Marine Corps general, is guilty of war crimes would be far from unwarranted. As a commanding officer in Iraq during the brutal sieges of Fallujah in 2004, Mattis presided over the slaughter of thousands of innocent civilians — with cluster bombs, chemical weapons and other more conventional means — as well as the strafing of mosques, homes and hospitals. Today, the incidence of cancer (including leukemia) and birth abnormalities in Fallujah and the surrounding area is greater than at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, owing to the U.S. military’s clandestine deployment of depleted uranium munitions in the very same battles that Mattis oversaw. And yet neither the role he played in Operation Phantom Fury, nor his authorisation of the Mukaradeeb wedding massacre, nor his 2005 comments that ‘it’s fun’ and ‘a hell of a hoot’ to kill the enemy in war prevented Mattis from being appointed commander of CENTCOM by President Obama in 2010. In fact, one supposes that such a résumé of barbarity must have served to demonstrate Mattis’s fitness for the position. (Of course, when a Freedom of Information Act request brought by the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons in respect of the second battle of Fallujah was referred to CENTCOM during Mattis’s tenure, the command did not hesitate to give its forces a clean bill of health.)
As he stands on the verge of induction into high office, what makes ‘Mad Dog’ so dangerous — his background and constitution aside — is his intense and deeply ingrained animus towards Iran. Like his soon-to-be colleagues Flynn, Sessions, Kelly, Pompeo and Mike Pence — and apparently Trump himself — Mattis believes that Iran is ‘the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East’ and also a threat to the United States. He is convinced that the Iranians will resume their supposed development of nuclear weapons once the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (or Iran deal) expires and considers ‘ISIS nothing more than an excuse for Iran to continue its mischief’ across the region. Such rhetoric is clearly reminiscent of the Bush administration’s on the so-called ‘axis of evil’, and will, when Trump ascends to the White House, have the effect of disinterring once again the possibility of a one-sided military confrontation with Tehran.
Of course, the reality is that there is no hard evidence that Iran has ever pursued a nuclear weapons program. In worldwide opinion polls it is the United States, not Iran, that is seen as the greatest threat to world peace. And in light of the revelation that ‘[t]he boys in Tehran know Israel has 200 [nukes], all targeted on Tehran’, hysterical assertions like ‘Israel lives under the threat of total annihilation from Iran’ (Flynn, naturally) reveal that Trump’s team is no less affected by the war-psychosis that continues to hold the nation in its grip than mainstream Republicans and Democrats.5 Indeed, the appointment of a man like Mattis to run the Pentagon means it is incumbent on anyone who believes — on the basis of his reluctance to provoke Russia — that Trump is not quite as hawkish as Hillary Clinton to accept that they’ve been hoodwinked.
Given that he only retired from active duty three years ago, Mattis will require an exemption from Congress to serve in Trump’s cabinet. But with both chambers under Republican control and Democrats like Michelle Flournoy — who would likely have been HRC’s pick for defense secretary — praising ‘Mad Dog’ as an ‘outstanding candidate’, we must brace ourselves for the accession of the most bellicose Pentagon chief since Donald Rumsfeld.
The interrelation of U.S. foreign policy objectives and the petroleum resources of other countries has long been common knowledge. Speaking at the Center for Strategic & International Studies earlier this year, Mattis himself stated that there are ‘three imperatives for us to stay engaged in the Middle East’ and that ‘[t]he first [of those] is oil.’
It is, of course, the duty of the secretary of state to oversee such engagement, and Rex Tillerson, the man appointed by Trump to this most august of offices, happens to be the CEO of the world’s largest publicly traded international oil and gas company. ExxonMobil is chief among those gigantic transational corporations that plunder the wealth of the Global South and thereby obstruct its development; cause environmental disasters on an industrial scale year after year and enjoy impunity for doing so; contribute significantly to climate change through their extraction of fossil fuels while pouring millions into funding climate change denial (and latterly corporate greenwashing); and exercise unaccountable influence over lawmakers on both sides of the Atlantic by way of an extensive system of lobbying and donations. Like Halliburton, from whose board Dick Cheney retired on becoming VP in 2001, Exxon — along with BP, Chevron, Shell and others — profited immensely from the invasion and occupation of Iraq. And now, as pipeline geopolitics continue to play their part in a Middle East scorched by war, Big Oil will have a reliable representative at the very heart of government. This is potentially orders of magnitude more serious than Hillary Clinton’s self-enrichment whilst in office, and of course makes a mockery of Trump’s promise to ‘drain the swamp’.
But it is perhaps Steven Mnuchin’s appointment that gives the lie most emphatically to the view, common among his supporters, that Trump will effect a departure from business as usual. Like his predecessors Rubin and Paulson, and his soon-to-be colleagues Bannon, Gary Cohn and Anthony Scaramucci, the new Treasury secretary is a veteran of Goldman Sachs, the big-shorting, Clinton-courting ‘great vampire squid’ that most recently had its blood funnel affixed to Greece. After 17 years at Goldman, Mnuchin went on to run a hedge fund backed by George Soros, before taking over the collapsed mortgage lender IndyMac in the heat of the Great Recession and transforming it into OneWest Bank. As CEO of the new concern, Mnuchin became notorious for the relish with which he summarily and fraudulently foreclosed on the homes of tens of thousands of (disproportionately non-white) families.6
It’s not difficult to infer from all this roughly what Mnuchin’s policy positions will be. Three weeks ago, in a joint interview he gave with the incoming secretary of commerce — the billionaire vulture investor Wilbur Ross — he deigned to set a couple of them out. Mnuchin baldly declared that ‘[w]e’re going to cut corporate taxes’, and went on to add that the new administration can be expected to roll back Dodd-Frank, the 2010 legislation that purported to place a heavier regulatory burden on Wall Street following the cataclysmic crash it had precipitated two years earlier. Of course, a handful of pronouncements on CNBC do not amount to a comprehensive economic plan, but on hearing Mnuchin’s proposals the phrase ‘reheated Reaganomics’ came immediately to mind. And what, if not the spirit of Reaganomics, with its necessary emphasis on financialisation, deregulation and corporate welfare, has done more than anything else to exacerbate the alienation, indebtedness and racialised inequality that continue to dog and define U.S. society?
Accumulation is still Moses and the prophets, but in the age of monopoly-finance capital, as Trump & Co well know, the bulk of it occurs in the markets, far away from the stagnant realm of real production. Government subsidies and our ever-expanding household debt feed the fraudulent and socially useless speculation that generates, as if by alchemy, obscene amounts of wealth for the gilded few, and when it all goes wrong — as it did in 2008 — we are forced to foot the bill, through bailouts, austerity and the like. So it is that power in advanced capitalist economies remains securely with a constellation of financial elites who seem as remote to the average serf as the stars. To believe, especially after his tapping of men like Mnuchin, that the president-elect is able or willing to tamper with the status quo in this regard is to labour under a hefty delusion indeed.
Things fall apart…
All things considered, then, we can say with some justice that Trump’s top team — stocked as it is with crooks, thugs and zealots of the rough beast’s own choosing — seems primed to become the most overtly racist, plutocratic, militaristic and ecocidal Executive Branch in living memory. Our dissent against the new regime, which cannot express itself as nostalgia for the collapsed centre-ground, must be ferocious and unceasing.
1. Indiana governor Mike Pence, the fanatical opponent of abortion and LGBT rights, is, alas, not discussed at any length in the main body of this piece on account of his being selected as Trump’s vice presidential running mate all the way back in July.