The Republican health care bill—a tax cut for the richest Americans financed by a massive cut to Medicaid—is the most prominent instance of how, in the era of President Trump, government has retreated from the public interest, acting instead as a vehicle for the upward distribution of wealth. But we shouldn’t forget the other ways this is happening, less dramatic but just as consequential.
One of the biggest, as detailed in a New York Times report, is the Trump administration’s effort to deregulate American business, which in the hands of his aides and appointees, has become an unabashed attempt to let corporations rewrite the rules of the game for their own benefit. “The appointees,” notes the Times, “include lawyers who have represented businesses in cases against government regulators, staff members of political dark money groups, employees of industry-funded organizations opposed to environmental rules and at least three people who were registered to lobby the agencies they now work for.” It’s not one fox guarding the henhouse; it’s an entire skulk.
The last Republican administration was also widely criticized for its deference to business interests. But President Trump has supercharged this dynamic, first by nominating a Cabinet of individuals, like Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who oppose the basic missions of their agencies, and then by giving them free rein to “deconstruct” those agencies for the benefit of private enterprise. And so we have Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, holding private meetings with the CEOs of the largest oil and gas companies and subsequently relaxing emissions standards for the fossil fuel industry. We have DeVos choosing the chief executive of a private student loan company to run the federal government’s financial aid operations. We have a host of men and women in the administration who, just recently, worked on behalf of those industries they are now charged with deregulating.
Donald Trump entered office promising a government that would work on behalf of the “forgotten men and women of our country” who would be “forgotten no longer.” But unless forgotten means something different for Trump, what we have is just the opposite, a government devoted to the narrow interests of private enterprise and wealthy individuals—as Trump continues to hold rallies while in office to maintain his populist bona fides.
One popular analogy for the Trump administration, one I’ve used in the past, is that of a scam. It’s one of the few ideas that fully captures the bait-and-switch ethos of the White House, and it helps us place Trump’s actions in context.
In his business, the standard Trump scam worked something like this. Donald Trump would promise some unbelievable benefit: an incredible investment opportunity, an unprecedented chance to learn valuable real estate skills, high-quality steaks for supermarket prices. The only thing you had to do, as the consumer, was spend a little money; a few thousand dollars on a little property, a few hundred dollars on a couple of classes. Give Trump your money, and you’ll be on your way to success, security, or a decent dinner. Of course, this rarely happened. The investments fell through, the classes were worthless, and the steaks weren’t all that good. You, the consumer, got nothing. Donald Trump turned a profit.
Why has Trump reneged on his promise to protect retirement programs or entitlements? Because he wasn’t being sincere in the first place. Why did the administration of “forgotten” Americans give powerful industries license to pollute the streams and airways those same Americans rely on? Because that was rhetoric meant to sell a product—his presidency—not an actual promise to improve life for ordinary people.
The actual raison d’être of the Trump administration, such that it exists, is the enrichment of a tiny few at the expense of the larger public. For Trump, this is a personal ethos, as well as a governing principle that is now guiding every department of the federal government. Trump uses the power and prestige of his office to steer public funds into his personal coffers; his Republican allies use their window of opportunity to lower taxes for the wealthy, funded by cutting protections for the poor, elderly, and disabled; and his business supporters use their influence with both Trump and the GOP to deregulate their industries and free themselves from the constraints of public responsibility.
The whole thing is a scam, plain and simple. And as we chase the disturbing questions and scandals of the Trump administration, we must remember that in the background, away from scrutiny, Trump and his allies are looting the public for their own private gain.