President-elect Donald Trump welcomes retired United States Marine Corps general James Mattis. Drew Angerer/Getty Images
America under Donald Trump is like a blockbuster movie due to come out just in time for the Oscars. We’ve seen the trailer, we’ve watched the star and the director on late-night talk-shows and we know the names of most of the supporting cast. But until the reviews have been written and the opening weekend receipts are counted, it’s all hype.
The President-elect could turn out to be a semi-house-trained Saddam, running the country as if he owned it, rewarding his friends and punishing his enemies. It may be, as some have alleged, that all he cares about is making deals around the word to open more Trump hotels and golf courses.
On the other hand, he might be so busy building new international business model that he will have no time in which to keep his wackier promises – to build a 2,000-mile wall along the Mexican border, for instance – or start a war. With environmental controls switched off, fracking operating at full throttle and corporate taxation sharply down, it is entirely possible that America over the next four years will create another three million jobs. If he does, a second term will surely beckon.
But which will it be? During his rambunctious campaign, Trump made much of the fact that as President he would represent not the rich – people like him – but the little guy. Those who had been forgotten by the Washington élites would be forgotten no more, he said.
Yet, as we have seen, practically every top-level nominee he has unveiled so far is a member of the business or banking Establishment. More a board of directors than a cabinet, they could no more represent the little guy than Bernie Sanders could be CEO of JPMorgan Chase or Nigel Farage could stand for the presidency of the European Commission.
You will have read generally about these people, Trump’s inner circle. But bear with me, for it pays to look at them in a little more detail.
At the top of the list, , the current chief executive of Exxon-Mobil, one of the world’s largest oil companies is Trump’s choice to be Secretary of State, the country’s top diplomat and troubleshooter. The Texan – awarded the Order of Friendship by Putin in 2013 – has trousered some $250 million in salary and bonuses over the last 20 years. He opposes economic sanctions as instruments of policy and views Russia as an important potential ally, which is hardly surprising given that he and the Kremlin boss have been associates since the mid-1990s.
Trump was unabashed in his praise. “Rex,” he said, “knows how to manage a global enterprise, which is crucial to running a successful State Department, and his relationships with leaders all over the world are second to none.”
We’ll see. The last businessman to be secretary of state was George Schultz, who served President Ronald Reagan for six-and-a-half years having previously been head of the Bechtel Group, one of the world’s largest construction and engineering companies. Schultz won praise for his astute handling of a series of challenges, but was aided by the fact that, prior to joining Bechtel, he had been Secretary of Labour, Director of the Office of Management and Budget and Secretary of the Treasury. Tillerson has been in the oil business all his adult life.
Steven Mnuchin, a 17-year veteran of Goldman Sachs, who went on to take over a failing bank and was subsequently accused of promoting “aggressive foreclosures,” is to be Treasury Secretary. Mnuchin is a billionaire, one of at least three in the proposed Trump cabinet, the others being Betsy De Vos, his pick as Education Secretary, married to marketing magnate Dick De vos (wealth $5.1bn); and Wilbur Ross, a private equity mogul and former Rothschild banker, worth some $3bn, who is slated to take the helm at Commerce.
De Vos, a surprise proponent of alternative energy, is a devout Christian who believes “fiercely” in spending public money to send bright children from poor backgrounds to private schools. What she would do to improve the failing, underfunded state system is less than clear. Ross probably did more than anyone to save the U.S. steel sector when it was under the greatest threat from Chinese dumping, earning him the grudging respect of the trade unions. Against that, the 79-year-old helped turn round the ailing coal industry in West Virginia by cutting back sharply on miners’ pensions and healthcare provision.
Gary Cohn, Goldman’s long-time number two and a veteran of the Greek debt crisis, is to be director of the National Economic Council, overseeing the Administration’s economic policy. According to Bloomberg News, Cohn will pocket “compensation” of $58 million from his erstwhile employers for entering government service, plus an estimated $226m in deferred stock options and bonuses. He could expect, after a brief “cooling-off” period, to return to Goldman’s after making his mark in government, thus adding to the bank’s already impressive list of Washington insiders.
As Labour Secretary, charged with job-creation and regulation, Andrew Puzder brings with him a whiff of Ebenezer Scrooge in his dealings with Bob Cratchit. Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr, the fast-food chains he runs, have on numerous occasions fallen foul of federal safety regulations and been fined for failing to pay employees for working overtime. Puzder likes to keep his salary and wealth private, possibly because he is a working-class boy who made very good indeed. In the 1970s, he was a dropout who took part in protest marches. Today, he favours automation of the restaurant business because, he says, machines are “always polite, they always up-sell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall or an age, sex, or race discrimination case.” Presumably, also, they are unlikely ever to complain to the Department of Labour
Scott Pruit, the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency, once described himself as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda”. He has even sued it for misrepresentation of the facts. Christine Whitman, who as head of the EPA under President George W Bush declared (wrongly) that the smoke and fumes swirling around lower Manhattan after 9/11 were not injurious to health, but who apologised earlier this year and admitted she was wrong, said she could not recall the appointment of someone “so disdainful of the agency and the science behind what the agency does”.
The nominee to head the Department of Energy, three-time Texas governor Rick Perry, would make the Ewing clan, from the television show Dallas, seem lukewarm in their support of the oil industry. Perry, who once forgot the name of the Department of Energy and told an interviewer that the America Revolution was fought in the 16th century, is expected to work closely with Pruit. “Somebody has to tell the EPA that we don’t need you monkeying around and fiddling around and getting in our business with every kind of regulation you can dream up,” he told a meeting of the Tea Party in 2011. “You’re doing nothing more than killing jobs. It’s a cemetery for jobs at the EPA.” This is music to Trump’s ears. He has already made clear to his new energy secretary that he expects him to slim down his department and concentrate on expanding production of oil and gas.
And so on and so on. One of the very few nominees so far who does not fallen into the rich white category is Dr Ben Carson, tapped to be Secretary for Housing and Urban Development. Carson, who is rich and black, was an acclaimed neuro-surgeon who when he stood against Trump for the Republican nomination revealed himself to be not only an extreme conservative, but ever so slightly off his trolley. He told CNN that the German people could have defeated the Nazis before they were able to engineer the Holocaust if only they had been armed. He also claims to have tried to kill a schoolfriend with a knife, only for the blade to have struck the boy’s belt buckle instead of his belly. Trump mocked him for that during the primaries.
The choice to be Attorney-General in the Trump Administration, Alabama Senator Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, is by Senate standards just this side of the poverty line. He has to rub along on a mere $4.6m. What he does have is a wealth of strongly held opinions. He is anti-gay, an orientation that in the past he has defined by reference to “sodomy and sexual misconduct,” and therefore opposed to same-sex marriage, now embedded in federal law. He is strongly Pro-Life and, simultaneously, pro-Death, believing that women should not be allowed to choose to have an abortion and that murderers should be strapped to a gurney and injected with a cocktail of lethal chemicals until they die. Unsurprisingly, he also opposes embryonic stem cell research. Sessions has little time for the idea of climate change. He sees no reason to limit greenhouse gas omissions and has voted to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil-drilling. An outspoken opponent of gun-law reform, he rates an A+ from the National Rifle Association – the gun lobby’s highest accolade.
It is not hard in America to find individuals who would share each or most of Sessions’s views. What is odd, and disturbing, is that this is the man chosen to be the United States Government’s chief law officer.
One cabinet appointment that has so far failed to raise the eyebrows of liberals and moderate Republicans is that of retired four-star Marine General James Mattis as Secretary of Defence. “Mad Dog” Mattis may be a bona fide sonofabitch, who once described firefights as “a hell of a hoot”. But he is also bright and, like Patton, well read and can be expected to stand firm if pushed by Trump to do something stupid. It is possible that the soon-to-be occupant of the Oval Office, in an act of prophylactic self-preservation, recognised this in putting forward the nomination.
If we are to judge him by the company he keeps, Donald Trump could be the worst thing to happen to fair and equal treatment in the United States since the outbreak of the Civil War. Indeed, there are those who fear that internal conflict could be a direct result of his presidency. But the truth is we won’t know how bad things are – or how much relief we are entitled to feel – until the first 100 days have passed, around the time when Theresa May says she will invoke Article 50 to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union. In this context, it is at least a blessing that Trump’s nomination of Nigel Farage as the British ambassador to Washington is not in the hands of the Republican-dominated U.S. Senate.