As a candidate, Donald Trump promised regular people, “I will be your voice,” and attacked the drug industry for “getting away with murder” in setting high prices for lifesaving medications. But as president, he has declared war on regulatory programs protecting the health, safety and economic rights of consumers. He has done so in disregard of evidence that such protections help the economy and financial well-being of the working-class voters he claims to champion.
Already his aggressive actions exceed those of the Reagan administration in returning the country to the “Let the buyer beware” days of the 1950s.
Though Mr. Trump is brazen in his opposition to consumer protections, many of his most damaging attacks are occurring in corners of the bureaucracy that receive minimal news coverage. His administration, for instance, wants to strip the elderly of their right to challenge nursing home abuses in court by allowing arbitration clauses in nursing home contracts. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has announced that it is canceling a proposed rule intended to reduce the risk of sleep apnea-related accidents among truck drivers and railway workers.
And the Environmental Protection Agency is busy weakening, repealing and under-enforcing protections, including for children, from toxic exposure. Scott Pruitt, the director, went against his agency’s scientists to jettison an imminent ban on the use of chlorpyrifos, an insecticide widely used on vegetables and fruits. Long-accumulated evidence shows that the chemical is poisoning the drinking water of farm workers and their families.
This assault began with Mr. Trump choosing agency chiefs who are tested corporate loyalists driven to undermine the lifesaving, income-protecting institutions whose laws they have sworn to uphold.
At the Food and Drug Administration, Mr. Trump has installed Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a former pharmaceutical industry consultant, who supports weakening drug and medical device safety standards and has shown no real commitment to reducing sky-high drug prices. At the Department of Education, Betsy DeVos, a billionaire investor in for-profit colleges, has weakened enforcement policy on that predatory industry, hiring industry insiders and abandoning protections for students and taxpayers.
Mr. Pruitt, as the attorney general of Oklahoma, filed suits against the E.P.A. He has hired former lobbyists for the fossil fuel and chemical industries. Mr. Trump’s aides and Republicans in Congress are pushing to restrict access to state courts by plaintiffs who seek to hold polluters accountable.
The administration is even threatening to dismantle the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and fire its director, Richard Cordray, who was installed after Wall Street’s 2008 crash. Their sins: They returned over $12 billion to defrauded consumers and plan to issue regulations dealing with payday debt traps and compulsory arbitration clauses that deny aggrieved consumers their day in court. (The Senate is now considering legislation to gut the arbitration rule.)
Draconian budget cuts, new restrictions on health insurance, diminished privacy protections and denying climate change while putting off fuel-efficiency deadlines and auto safety standards will hurt all Americans, including Mr. Trump’s most die-hard supporters.
Mr. Trump’s deregulation crowd argues that they are freeing markets to grow. But preventing casualties and protecting consumers are, in fact, good for the economy. Nicholas Ashford, a professor of technology at M.I.T., has shown how safety regulation has fostered innovation. Markets grow in humane and efficient ways when workers make airbags, products to detect contaminants in food and water, and recycling equipment. Fraud prosecutions leave consumers with more money, generating sales, jobs and a higher standard of living.
When courts grant compensation for wrongful injuries, they not only help victims pay their bills but also lessen the burden on public insurance programs like Medicare. Fuel-efficiency standards save consumers money, improve air quality and reduce dependence on foreign oil. The Department of Energy itself says that over five years, a 30-m.p.g. vehicle will save $3,125 if driven 15,000 miles annually.
Mr. Trump’s regulatory abolitionists should know they will face litigation. In the 1980s, the Reagan administration’s repeal of the rule requiring airbags in cars was challenged by the insurance industry and consumer groups. The Supreme Court unanimously required the rule to be reinstated. Labor, consumer and environmental groups are mobilizing to fight efforts to sap health and safety protections. Citizens are rediscovering the benefits of focusing on members of Congress at town halls and other gatherings.
Smashing safety and consumer safeguards will lead to deaths, injuries and diseases that provoke intense news coverage. Demands to hold the profit-obsessed Trump team accountable for conflicts of interest will intensify. And civil servants, blocked from enforcing laws, will respect established procedures or become whistle-blowers, with legal protections.
The administration’s corrosive polices should be a clarion call to Democrats not to mimic Republicans in pursuing special interest campaign dollars and instead devise a powerful consumer protection message for voters left, right and center — voters who can be injured or defrauded regardless of their political views.
Championing a consumer agenda should be a good way to win elections.
This column originally appeared in the New York Times.