Media speculation about Donald Trump’s wild and contradictory policy tweets is focusing on the wrong thing. Trump used Twitter during the election to create political turbulence that concealed his authoritarian objectives, revealed more clearly by the consistency in his extremist cabinet picks: they are all from the top executives of business and military organizations where they were able to give orders which would then just get done. That won’t happen with the federal government.
The election has created an unstable political structure, where the orientation of the executive branch is in conflict with the federal bureaucracy, something whose conservatism embodies the results of past social struggles in its laws and restrictions. This instability has been years in the making: for the entirety of Obama’s administration Republicans have campaigned to subvert government and make it less effective. They were able to do this because of long-term social processes connected to deindustrialization and demographic change that not only generated middle-class fear but also undermined political legitimacy.
Each of Trump’s cabinet picks seems designed to put longstanding opponents of the regulatory activities of each agency in charge. For example, Scott Pruitt, a close ally of the fossil fuel industry, installed as head of the EPA; Andrew Puzder, a fast-food chain executive and viciously hostile to the living wage campaign, as Labor Secretary; and Betsy DeVos, a charter-school activist and big Republican donor, as Education Secretary. Trump is surrounding himself, Ayn Randian style, with people who want to shrink the federal state to a minimum and act as a conduit for big business.
During his election campaign, Trump’s rhetoric built on many years of big business’s political disinformation strategies, “devised by a number of public affairs practitioners who recognized that lies were the most potent weapon in the fight against progress. … In the 1970s, scientists at Exxon (now ExxonMobil) knew that their products were changing the climate, but the company nonetheless funded think tanks and organizations dedicated to denying the existence of global warming, such as the Heartland Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Donald Trump has appointed Exxon’s chief executive Rex Tillerson as his secretary of state, while Myron Ebell, who heads Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency transition, directs the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s anti-‘global warming alarmism’ Center for Energy and the Environment, an outfit straight out of the tobacco lobby’s handbook.”
Political science professor Leo Panitch argues that, compared to the more internationally-oriented Bush administrations, staffed by Republican patricians, Trump’s cabinet “has very little autonomy from the capitalists that it represents.” His insistence on recruiting authoritarian “deal-makers” is a shift away from neoliberal “rule-makers” like Robert Rubin who wielded power under the Democrats; but, Panitch says, “then it becomes more difficult for a state to act as the Executive Committee, as Marx once put it, of the whole bourgeoisie. It makes it more difficult for them to do a reading of what’s in the class interests of the bourgeoisie as a whole and, in that sense, what’s in the national interest of a capitalist United States, in a global capitalism. And this could lead – it could lead – to a lot of jerkiness and scandals and dysfunction in such an administration.”
The state of Michigan is a prototype of just such dysfunctional Republican rule and it also shows how the burgeoning mass opposition to it can develop outside of the two-party political structure. Just one of the many scandals of its Republican administration is the unjust denial of unemployment benefits to claimants by an $45 million automated system, which was found to be wrong in 93% of cases. And all indications are that the source of the Flint water supply health disaster lies in governor Rick Snyder’s austerity policies. Four former Flint officials, including two state-appointed emergency managers, Darnell Earley and Gerald Ambrose, have been charged with criminal conspiracy to violate safety rules.
ACLU investigator Curt Guyette, who helped bring the health crisis to light, told Democracy Now: “it was all an attempt to save money. They said that by using the Flint River for two years while a new pipeline was being built, bringing water from Lake Huron to Genesee County, they would save about $5 million. And so, their charge is to cut expenses, to bring the budget in balance, and at any cost. And in this case, the cost was the contamination of a city’s water supply. … they were in such a rush to save money and use the river, that they went ahead before it was safe.” Guyette added that the decision to use the river “ultimately came out of the Governor’s Office.”
Nayyirah Shariff, a director of “Flint Rising”, a coalition of activists and advocates in Flint, travelled to Standing Rock in North Dakota to support the fight against the Dakota Access pipeline. She said: “we’re in this nascent stage of these water wars. And hopefully, what’s happening at Standing Rock—we have the same corporations and the same ideology that is pushing for DAPL. It’s the same ideology that created the emergency manager law, this thing for austerity and privatization and resource extraction for short-term gain, without the impact—without humanity being in that equation.”
The emergency manager law was introduced by governor Rick Snyder and his administration to slash expenditure on schools, pensions, and welfare after giving a multi-billion-dollar tax break to corporations and the rich. As Michael Moore explains: “Then he invoked an executive privilege to take over cities (all of them majority black) by firing the mayors and city councils whom the local people had elected, and installing his cronies to act as ‘dictators’ over these cities. Their mission? Cut services to save money so he could give the rich even more breaks. That’s where the idea of switching Flint to river water came from. To save $15 million!”
The idea of emergency managers was pushed by a Republican think tank called the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which has urged the state since 2005 to employ drastic measures to fix budgets of local towns (in crisis because of the cuts in state funding) by sending in state-appointed financial czars who have the power to override elected officials and tear up union contracts. The group is closely tied to the Republican establishment in Michigan and its funders include the Koch brothers and the same Betsy DeVos who Trump has appointed Education Secretary.
The crisis in Flint is not over: residents still pay the highest water rates in the US (average $200 per month) for water they cannot drink or cook with, and have long-term health problems arising from lead poisoning. But the town’s plight would never have come to national attention if it had not been for its residents who faced arrest when they challenged officials who claimed the water was safe, and on their own initiative contacted the EPA before working with researchers from Virginia Tech to prove the water contained poisonous quantities of lead. They are continuing to fight the state of Michigan and, through groups like Flint Rising, are calling for the prosecution of governor Rick Snyder.
The Michigan Democratic party also reflects the political corruption of the state: its officials are still rigging elections for the discredited party leadership. Sanders supporters were physically ejected from a meeting to vote on delegates to represent Michigan on the Democratic National Committee, when they protested the lack of transparency and openness in the nomination process. “This [presidential] election was a repudiation of elitist politics. The establishment had their candidate and they lost,” said Sam Pernick, president of the Young Democrats of Michigan. “It’s time we started listening to the grassroots. If we have to do the work ourselves, we will. We won’t be stopped by violence and we will continue to peacefully protest and to actively work to change the party from within.” Pernick and other activists are organizing meetings across the state to encourage youth and progressives to engage with the state and local Democratic Party, and to push for reforms.
To break from the corporatist Democratic leadership – which cravenly is suggesting cooperating with Trump’s phoney infrastructure spending – requires a fight from both within and without the party. The resistance of Flint residents to being treated as expendable is a signal of the kind of opposition Trump will face when his corporate-friendly policies begin to bite and voters realize there will be no new working class jobs for them.