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Best and Brightest – Trump’s Cabinet of Oligarchs

By William Harris.

Trump's cabinet

In July the poet and essayist Eliot Weinberger wrote of how “the unpronounceable Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee”, surveyed “his party’s throng of presidential aspirants” at the height of the Republican primary debacle and tweeted: “It’s clear we’ve got the most well-qualified and diverse field of candidates from any party in history.” Weinberger then autopsied, candidate by candidate, the vast anti-climax of the entire astounding field – a field that crumpled one by one to leave us with a picture of Donald Trump, first on the ballot, and then on the steps of the White House, with his family coiffed beside him, and his team, now nearly complete, assembled in flank formation. Trump’s cabinet has been called “bonkers”, “loathsome”, “white supremacist”, “a who’s who of really despicable people”, a group for which “pervasive Islamophobia [is] a central qualification”, “a cabinet of deplorables”, “a cabinet of billionaires”, and a bog of “swamp things”. They’ve also been referred to as “the great men and women who will be helping to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”

For Treasury Secretary, Trump picked Steven Mnuchin, once described by the Wall Street Journal as “someone who drove a Porsche in college”. The college was Yale, and as a student Mnuchin lived in New Haven’s Taft Hotel, a stately landmark whose guests included multiple presidents, Babe Ruth, Katherine Hepburn and the Marx brothers, and whose fussy decadence provided indirect inspiration for Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. Mnuchin’s father worked at Goldman Sachs and now owns an art gallery specialising in male postwar minimalists, male abstract expressionists and male pop artists. His grandfather founded a yacht club in the Hamptons. After Yale Mnuchin too joined Goldman Sachs, leaving after several decades to start a hedge fund, Dune Capital, which at one point was sued by Donald Trump over a skyscraper in Chicago. A lucrative career as a Hollywood financier ensued – Mnuchin financed Avatar – and only ended in 2008’s financial meltdown, when Mnuchin, who excelled in profiting off bankrupt institutions during his Goldman days, decided to return to banking in order to make billions off the collapse of IndyMac. (Protestors took to the streets of Los Angeles with a sign that read: “Steve Mnuchin, stop taking our homes.”) Mnuchin had nothing to do with the campaign until one night last April, when he attended Trump’s primary victory celebration at Trump Tower and found himself suddenly lifted on stage. Bloomberg reports he had been “swallowing some Trump-brand wine”.

Sessions with Trump

Jeff Sessions

For Attorney General, Trump picked Jeff Sessions, a four-term senator from Alabama, and early Trump supporter – Sessions has been wearing a “Make America Great Again” cap since 2015, and he has been trying to garner support in Washington for various types of border fencing for over a decade, pushing first for a 2000-mile, $4-8 billion fence, then more moderate double-layered fencing spanning 700 miles, and now, apparently, a beautifully architected wall paid for by Mexico. Immigration is his passion: he once argued in a Senate committee for banning immigrants on the basis of religion, saying, “we need to use common sense with the who-what-when-where of the threat. It is the toxic ideology of Islam.” In 2006, on the Senate floor, he said: “Fundamentally, almost no one coming from the Dominican Republic to the United States is coming here because they have a provable skill that would benefit us and that would indicate their likely success in our society.” Instead, he went on, Dominicans concoct “sham marriages” to fake their way through immigration with a “false document”. He has called the NAACP and ACLU “un-American” and “Communist-inspired”, claiming they shove civil rights “down the throats of people”, and he once said he considered the KKK “OK until I found out they smoked pot”, a comment he later dismissed as a joke. Reagan nominated him in 1986 to a federal judgeship, but the nomination was rejected by the Senate Judiciary Committee after four Department of Justice lawyers testified that Sessions had made racist remarks in their presence, making him only the second nominee in 48 years not to get past the committee. Richard Spencer, president of the white supremacist National Policy Institute, called Sessions’s appointment “a wonderful thing. What he is not going to do in terms of federally prosecuting diversity and fair housing and so on I think is just as powerful as what he might do.” Sessions once wrote a letter to the National Endowment of the Humanities accusing them of funding trivial projects.

For Defense Secretary, Trump picked James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis, a blustery retired Marine Corps General celebrated in the military for his “Mattisms”, red-blooded quips that tend to bypass thought or irony for straightforward violence. On the pleasures of war: “You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn’t wear a veil. You know, guys like that ain’t got no manhood left anyway. So it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them. Actually it’s quite fun to fight them, you know. It’s a hell of a hoot. It’s fun to shoot some people. I’ll be right up there with you. I like brawling.” On advice to young Marines: “There are some assholes in the world that just need to be shot.” On how to handle yourself in Iraq: “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.” On protecting American exceptionalism: “Find the enemy that wants to end this experiment in American democracy and kill every one of them until they’re so sick of the killing that they leave us and our freedoms intact.” Mattis, also known as the ‘Warrior Monk’, has been described as one of “the more intense intellectuals in the military”. “He can quote Homer as well as Sun Tzu,” said retired Army Major General Robert Scales, and he reportedly owned thousands of books before giving many away to libraries. Mattis reserves the most extreme reaches of his hawkishness for Iran, calling it “not a nation state” but a “revolutionary cause devoted to mayhem”. He once said he considers “ISIS nothing more than an excuse for Iran to continue its mischief”, a bewildering claim refuted by even the most cursory grasp of the Syrian civil war, and his required reading list for Marines under his command included books by Thomas Friedman and Bernard Lewis, the latter a pop Orientalist whom Edward Said accused of “demagogy and downright ignorance”. A meme posted on the Facebook page of former Army general Allan West featured a picture of Mattis, who retired three years ago, mid-way through the Obama administration, accompanied by the slogan: “Fired by Obama to please the Muslims. Hired by Trump to exterminate them.” Although Mattis’s appointment is illegal – federal law stipulates you must be a civilian, or have been out of the military for at least seven years, to serve as Defense Secretary – so far everyone seems to feel this is a fine moment to ignore the militarisation of our civilian leadership.

For Secretary of Energy, Trump picked Rick Perry, about whom Eliot Weinberger wrote:

They could have picked Rick Perry, the former governor of Texas, whose personal summer hunting camp was called ‘Niggerhead’. He is the author of On My Honor: Why the American Values of the Boy Scouts Are Worth Fighting For and Fed Up! Our Fight to Save America from Washington. He has said that ‘there’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military, but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.’ The American Cowboy Culture Association has given Perry its ‘Top Cowboy of Texas’ award. He wears boots with the word ‘Liberty’ embossed on them, and bragged that he shot a coyote that was bothering his dog when he was out jogging. … As he said, ‘I happily cling to my guns and my God, even if President Obama thinks that that is a simpleminded thing in his elitist heart.’ At one point in 2012 he was the frontrunner, but his campaign crashed when, in a debate, he pledged to eliminate three cabinet-level government agencies, but couldn’t remember the third.

The third, it turns out, was the Department of Energy. Trump once said of Perry: “He should be forced to take an IQ test before being allowed to enter the GOP debate.”

Rick Perry

Rick Perry

For Secretary of Labor, Trump picked Andrew Puzder, CEO of a hamburger conglomerate and author of Job Creation: How It Really Works and Why Government Doesn’t Understand It, who dreams of replacing fast-food workers with robots, since robots are “always polite, they always upsell, 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”, and yet who opposes raising the minimum wage because he wonders: “Does it really help if Sally makes $3 more an hour if Suzie has no job?” Accused of routinely running sexist ads for Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., he said: “I like our ads. I like beautiful women eating burgers in bikinis. I think it’s very American. I used to hear, brands take on the personality of the CEO. And I rarely thought that was true, but I think this one, in this case, it kind of did take on my personality.”

For Secretary of Transportation, Trump picked Elaine Chao, “the consummate Washington insider” and one of two people of colour in the cabinet, who, as Bush’s Labor Secretary, went around calling herself “the first Secretary of Labor in the twenty-first century”, an appellation she used to tear down “old” regulations, neglect to investigate wage theft and fudge the books.

For Secretary of Homeland Security, Trump picked John Kelly, the former Marine Corps deputy to ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis and loud defender of Guantanamo (“they’re all bad boys”) who opposes having women in combat and who, when asked during the Iraq War about the possibility of defeat, said, “Baghdad ain’t shit.”

For Secretary of Health and Human Services, Trump picked Tom Price, the doctor from Georgia who wants to end the Affordable Care Act, defund Planned Parenthood, slash Medicaid, privatise Medicare, demolish the federal health insurance exchange, and make abortion illegal. Price – member of the ultra-reactionary Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, an innocuous sounding group that believes AIDS isn’t caused by HIV, that abortions lead to breast cancer, that childhood immunisations lead to autism and that being gay lowers one’s life expectancy – once signed a letter asking Atlanta’s mayor to reinstate a fire chief dismissed for self-publishing a book equating homosexuality to paedophilia and bestiality, and has suggested Hurricane Sandy might have been divine punishment for the legalisation of gay marriage, saying, “the consequences of activity that has been taken as outside the norm are real and must be explored completely.”

For Secretary of Commerce, Trump picked Wilbur Ross, a business tycoon, or “bottom-feeder king”, who was once leader of the secret Wall Street fraternity Kappa Beta Phi, founded in 1929 with the express purpose of denying that the Gilded Age ever ended. The group meets yearly for heavy drinking and the performance of a variety show. Ross rose to ambiguous fame in the early 2000s for investing against the odds in American industry, buying up steel companies weeks before George Bush imposed protectionist tariffs favouring American steel. He cut pensions and medical benefits and fired workers, stabilising and consolidating the businesses before selling for billions. In 2005 he purchased the bankrupt Sago coal mine in West Virginia, a mine charged with numerous safety violations – its roof had caved 20 times the previous year, and it had been ordered 13 times to partially shut down – claiming he “believed the mine was fundamentally safe”. The next year the mine exploded, killing 12. An avid art collector with an impressive roster of Chinese pop art and Magritte paintings, Ross then bought a bankrupt textile company in North Carolina and shipped most of its production to China and Mexico. “I think everybody likes surrealism – it’s fun,” he once told a lifestyle reporter. When Trump’s own Atlantic City casinos were sinking, it was Ross, then senior managing director for Rothschild Inc., who came to the rescue. “The one percent is being picked on for political reasons,” he complained in 2014, adding that “education is the way to get people out of the ghetto and into, if not the one percent, something close to it.” Asked whether the term ‘vulture investor’ was an apt term for his practices, Ross said: “I think if we had a bird, it wouldn’t be the vulture. A vulture picks flesh off a dead carcass.” Ross would rather be seen eating the living.

For Secretary of Education, Trump picked Betsy DeVos, one of four women named to cabinet or cabinet-level positions, of which there are 23 in total, and one of three billionaires, of which there are 540 in the US. DeVos followed up her career as an investor by spearheading a movement for school privatisation, one obsessed with recasting national vocabulary – DeVos refers to public schools as “government schools”, public education as “a monopoly”, teachers as “government workers”, and school privatisation, as I termed it above, as “educational choice”. She homeschooled her children in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and grew up attending private schools in the nearby town of Holland. She is heir to the Prince Corporation fortune; her husband is heir to the Amway fortune, and her brother, the notorious Erik Prince, founded the much-maligned private security firm Blackwater, which made billions off the Iraq War. DeVos’s zealous interest in education reform came about, as she and her husband explained, because “the Lord led us there”. The lobbying group she chaired, All Children Matter, violated Ohio campaign finance laws by laundering $870,000 into an Ohio PAC, surpassing the $10,000 maximum contribution allowed from a single source. (They’ve yet to pay the $5.3 million in fines.) Her desire “is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s kingdom”. She funds a group that champions “conversion therapy” for anyone veering from heterosexuality, and even within the charter school movement has the reputation of an incompetent ideologue. Her husband, who boasts identical convictions, ran the most expensive gubernatorial race in Michigan history, and lost.

Trump, Pence and families

Trump, Pence and families

For Vice President, Trump picked Mike Pence, a Bible-belt hero and former governor of Indiana who talks with mannered modesty, as if he’s portraying a Midwestern populist on a Hollywood film set. One night during the spring of his freshman year in college his “heart was literally broken wide, with gratitude, and with joy”, when he realised that “what happened on the cross, in some, small measure, actually happened, for me”. He explained all this while reading off a teleprompter, alone in some television studio, and then finished: “and I know all of you in the room share that same passion, and that same sense of gratitude, for what was done on our behalf.” His values are our values – he always introduces himself by saying he is “a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order” – and his favourite rights are “the rights of the unborn”, as he famously displayed by signing legislation requiring women to fund funerals for miscarried or aborted fetuses. He loves making people pay. He ran a think tank in the 1990s that pushed for prison privatisation and recommended prisoners fund their own time behind bars by working wage-free; once in office he imposed severe penalties on low-level drug offenders while relying on campaign donations from the private prison industry. Pence thinks “smoking doesn’t kill”, championed a law that gave businesses, employees and healthcare providers the right to refuse service to LGBTQ people, and refers to Planned Parenthood as “Big Abortion”. He insisted during the lead up to the Iraq War that Saddam Hussein had links to al-Qaeda. At the height of the war, he travelled to Baghdad, visited an outdoor market and reported back that “it was just like any open-air market in Indiana in the summertime”. He thinks “the earth is actually cooler today than it was about 50 years ago”, but nevertheless “the environmental movement has found a new chant for their latest ‘chicken little’ attempt to raise taxes and grow centralized governmental power.” Dick Cheney is his role model. Ronald Reagan used to be, but then Pence realised that “the free market has been sorting it out, and America’s been losing”. He was picked in large part for his connections: both as a legend on the Christian right and as a close friend of Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, the Atlas Shrugged-toting, Miller High Life-loving privatisation czar from Wisconsin who will be invaluable in pushing a reactionary agenda through congress.

For Secretary of the Interior, Trump picked Ryan Zinke, a political opportunist from Montana. Zinke ran a campaign for state representative based on his past in SEAL Team Six, the group that killed Osama bin Laden three years after Zinke returned to civilian life. His campaign sent emails asking for donations with the subject line: “Who Killed Osama bin Laden?” (“If you read it carefully,” Zinke explained to reporters, “it does not say that I killed bin Laden.”) A year ago he called Hillary Clinton the “anti-Christ”.

For Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Trump picked Ben Carson, about whom Eliot Weinberger wrote:

They could have picked Dr. Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon, who, with his unfocused gaze and mumbled rambles about the ‘fruit salad of life’, often seemed as though he’d spent too much time in the hospital pharmacy. An African American, he called Obamacare ‘the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery’, declaring it to be, in fact, ‘slavery in a way’, because its passage was part of a larger Leninist push to impose communism on America. … He has also explained that the ‘Adversary’, Satan himself, entered the heart and mind of Charles Darwin and persuaded him to come up with the theory of evolution to undermine God’s word. … Trump, for some reason, compared the somnambulist Carson to a child molester: ‘You don’t cure these people. You don’t cure a child molester. There’s no cure for it. Pathological, there’s no cure for that.’ In Carson’s home there is a large painting of Jesus with his hand on Dr. Ben Carson’s shoulder.

The controversy over Carson’s appointment to a position he appears to have no qualification for has been especially pitched, much of it revolving around whether or not Carson grew up in public housing. “Ben Carson is first HUD Sec to have actually lived in gov’t housing,” tweeted former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. “Fancy Nancy Pelosi says he’s not qualified; is she racist or just dumb?” In actuality Carson never lived in public housing, though that hasn’t stopped him from having ideas about it; he refers to it as “social engineering” and a “failed socialist experiment” that, unlike low corporate taxes, prevents people from lifting themselves out of poverty. “This is what you see in communist countries,” he said, “where they have so many regulations encircling every aspect of your life that if you don’t agree with them, all they have to do is pull the noose.” He finds that “it really is not compassionate to pat people on the head and say, ‘There, there you poor little thing, I’m going to take care of all your needs, your healthcare, your food, and your housing, don’t you worry about anything.’” While Carson has limited experience in housing, Trump has plenty: as a landlord in the 1970s he faced a federal lawsuit for refusing to rent to black people.

Rex Tillerson

Rex Tillerson and others

The list goes on. For a moment, as the transition team fluttered from Trump Tower to Mar-a-Lago, lavish dining room to private golf resort, it appeared Trump might choose fellow plutocrat Mitt Romney as Secretary of State. Just months earlier Romney had anointed himself the ineffectual leader of the ineffectual mission to oust Trump from the Republican ticket, but suddenly, as Mitt took in the mise-en-scène of an intimate, sinister dinner at Jean-Georges, the three-Michelin-starred restaurant in Trump Tower, his sheepish face showed things had changed – he was now willing to accommodate the “phony”, the “fraud”, the “con man” whose “promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University”, someone “very, very not smart” who has “neither the temperament nor the judgement to be president”, and who is “playing the American public for suckers”. Romney, whose favourite foods are cereal and meatloaf, ate lamb chops, frog legs, garlic soup, scallops, and chocolate cake. He had “a wonderful evening”. It didn’t matter; instead, Trump went with Rex Tillerson, longtime CEO of Exxon Mobil. Tillerson, a pious Boy Scout who – like Paul Ryan and Andrew Puzder – counts Atlas Shrugged as his favourite book, thinks climate change is more or less real but essentially unsolvable and therefore mostly a waste of time. He boasts intriguing relations with numerous oil-producing countries, considers Putin a close friend, and if approved will be the first Secretary of State in US history to have never before held public office. Meanwhile, Mitt returns humiliated to his quiet life of bland food and perpetual vacation.

Already the richest cabinet in history – with the net worth of Commerce Secretary Ross alone surpassing by a factor of ten the entire net worth of George W. Bush’s cabinet, known at the time as “the cabinet of millionaires” – Trump’s picks await their Senate confirmation hearings. Surveying the throng of cabinet appointees, Reince Priebus, now set to be Chief of Staff, tweeted: “Best and brightest ready to #MakeAmericaGreatAgain.”


William Harris

William Harris has written for The Los Angeles Review of Books, Full Stop, Review 31, The Point, The Awl and others. He lives in Minneapolis.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, December 21st, 2016.