Donald Trump’s reign of ruin began even before his inauguration, when the GOP House caucus voted to geld the independent Office of Congressional Ethics before its members were even sworn in, only to retreat in the face of public outcry and (ironically) Trump tweets. Once Congress convenes, the first order of business will be a reconciliation bill that would begin the repeal of the Affordable Care Act without a plan to replace it. The first skirmishes will come as Senate committees commence hearings on the billionaires, generals, and ideologues that Trump has chosen for his cabinet.
Trump’s choices—economist Simon Johnson characterizes them as rule by “extreme oligarchy”—personify the president-elect’s own bait-and-switch, from the fake populist of the campaign trail to country-club reactionary. Their shared priorities include deep top-end tax cuts, wholesale deregulation of public protections, and the privatization of public services. They claim these measures will spark growth and generate jobs. In fact, they’ll open up a new era of predation, with CEOs salivating at the chance to gorge themselves on the public dime. At risk are the essential public services and protections on which Americans depend.
§ Public schools: Betsy DeVos, Trump’s choice to head the Department of Education, is a fierce zealot for privatizing public schools—something she considers a way to “advance God’s Kingdom.” The beleaguered school systems of major cities will be pushed to repeat the ruin she helped wreak on Detroit’s public schools.
§ Workers’ rights: Andrew Puzder, Trump’s perverse choice for the Department of Labor, is a fast-food magnate who opposes unions, a higher minimum wage, overtime rules, paid sick leave, and even the Medicaid and food stamps that his underpaid workers rely on. Puzder will gut the already-paltry enforcement of workplace safety and turn a blind eye to wanton wage theft.
§ Health care: Representative Tom Price, named to head the Department of Health and Human Services, is a leading advocate for repealing Obamacare; privatizing Medicare and Medicaid; and defunding Planned Parenthood.
§ Environment and climate: Former Texas governor Rick Perry, Trump’s risible choice to head the Department of Energy, and Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, named to head the EPA, are avowed enemies of the agencies they’ve been chosen to lead. Their first target will be reversing Obama’s policies on climate change.
§ Consumer protection: Treasury nominee Steven Mnuchin, a former Goldman Sachs foreclosure baron, pocketed millions by trading securities in the financial wilding before the economic crisis and then foreclosing on its victims after the crash. He intends to unleash Wall Street, with a particular focus on weakening the Dodd-Frank financial regulations, which provides people with some protection against the banksters’ frauds and traps.
§ Civil rights and civil liberties: Senator Jeff Sessions, the bigot named to head the Department of Justice, considers the Voting Rights Act “intrusive” and the NAACP and ACLU “un-American.” He could gut the enforcement of hate-crime laws, the Violence Against Women Act, and more. He favors stop-and-frisk policing and harsh drug sentences—and he’s an avid fan of Trump’s vow to deport the undocumented and exclude Muslim immigrants and refugees.
Senate Democrats plan to target most of these nominees, as well as Rex Tillerson as secretary of state and South Carolina Representative Mike Mulvaney as head of the Office of Management and Budget. But these days, cabinet nominees only need a majority vote in the Senate, and Republicans enjoy a 52–48 margin. The last time that chamber voted down a cabinet nominee was in 1989. So blocking any of these choices will be difficult.
Democrats will focus on two areas. The first will be various conflicts of interest, including Tillerson’s deals with the Russians and Price’s speculation in health stocks while serving on a subcommittee that made decisions directly impacting them. The billionaires will be pushed to reveal their taxes and to sign standard ethics agreements on divesting themselves and their families from various financial conflicts. Following Trump’s scornful example, his appointees have thus far dragged their feet in meeting these basic obligations.
Far more important, for the Democrats and the nation, is the second area: probing the priorities and presumptions of these nominees. This will help expose Trump’s big lie—that instead of advancing new populist policies for working people, he’s bringing in billionaires and ideologues committed to the failed policies of the Republican right.
Americans should be on high alert regarding the battles to come. Senators of both parties should get no pass on these nominations. Citizen mobilization can turn what is normally a Beltway ritual into a public spectacle exposing malicious intent. The call from Senator Bernie Sanders and other Democratic leaders for public demonstrations on January 15 to defend Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid is a good first step. Donald Trump was elected president, but not on this agenda. The pirates are at the gate, and citizens should hold accountable anyone who votes to let them in.