Illustration by Nathaniel St. Clair – Photograph by Martin Falbisoner
Donald Trump opened the new year with belligerence. He authored the shutdown of the United States federal government. For a country where everything seems to be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, it is bizarre to have government offices closed for weeks. In a meeting with congressional leaders in early January, Trump threatened that unless he got the money to build the wall between the U.S. and Mexico, he would keep the government shut down for a year. It is likely that the new Democratic leadership in the House of Representatives will come to an accommodation with Trump. Democrats do not have the appetite for a long-drawn-out battle with a man who relishes the opportunity to undermine the government and the idea of the government. That is, after all, the agenda of people like Trump—to destroy government and allow big business to set the rules.
Evidence of Trump’s attitude came quickly as he appointed various former corporate men to high positions in his Cabinet. Four departments in particular are to be headed by men whose former employers had been regulated by their new offices: the Defence Department, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Health and Human Services Department and the Interior Department. Alex Azar, for instance, is a former president of Eli Lilly, a global pharmaceutical company. He is now Trump’s acting Secretary of Health and Human Services. Eli Lilly is one of a handful of firms that will be regulated by Azar’s department. Rules that have closed a revolving door between business and government are loose. They have not sealed the leakage between these two sectors. Trump has wedged the door open. His men make no pretence of being above the muck of corporate corruption.
Patrick Shanahan, a former Boeing executive, is now the acting Defence Secretary. This means that Shanahan, as the head of the Defence Department (known by its unofficial name, the Pentagon), is to oversee the massive contracts given out by the Defence Department to U.S. military contractors. The five largest contractors of the U.S. government are all corporations that manufacture military equipment: Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, Raytheon and Northrup Grumman. Boeing has about $21 billion in contracts from the U.S. government. The Pentagon said that Shanahan would recuse himself in the deals with Boeing. But since Boeing and the four other contractors essentially dominate the procurement process, it seems unlikely that any decision made by Shanahan would not impact Boeing itself.
The EPA and the Interior Department are intended to be stewards of the environment and the 650 million acres of public land in the U.S. Trump’s acting Secretary of the Interior is David Bernhardt, a man who has had experience as a lobbyist for the energy industry. Bernhardt, who previously worked in other offices in the Interior Department, lobbied for Cobalt International Energy and the Independent Petroleum Association of America—both important lobby groups of the U.S.’ petrol and natural gas industry. Bernhardt followed Ryan Zinke, himself a man who had walked the halls of Congress lobbying for the big energy monopoly firms. Zinke, Bernhardt and Trump share the view that the U.S.’ oil and natural gas firms must be given the right to explore energy supplies in the vast public lands. Under Trump, already oil and natural gas leases on public lands produced $360 million in 2017, which is a 90 per cent increase from 2016. All indicators show that the numbers increased in 2018, and under Bernhardt, they will increase further.
Bernhardt has a close ally in Andrew Wheeler, who is Trump’s acting head of the EPA. He comes to the EPA from the coal industry, with the instincts of a coal man rather than of an environmentalist. Wheeler carried the money for Murray Energy, one of the biggest coal producers. Murray Energy lobbied hard against the environmental policy of President Barack Obama. Wheeler facilitated meetings between Murray Energy chief executive officer Robert Murray and Trump’s Energy Secretary Rick Perry. That Wheeler is pledged to undermine the EPA is obvious. That he will be working with Bernhardt should worry all the endangered species that live in the large forests; both Wheeler and Bernhardt should worry the trees as well.
The open door between government and corporations diminishes whatever limited independence the U.S. government had from the demands and needs of large monopoly firms. It is going to create more cynicism in a public that already distrusts government. It is almost impossible for the media to raise these issues and have a serious public discussion about the suffocation of the state by corporate interests. Trump has already, very successfully, eroded public confidence in the media. “Fake news”, he says, and so it is impossible to know what to believe. When Trump says that it is better to have businessmen in government because businessmen are better at doing things than bureaucrats, he covers the ethical problems that are raised by corporate control over state policy.
Eroding faith in the judiciary
In his two years in office, Trump, like strongmen elsewhere in the world, has cleverly eroded public faith in several state institutions. What remains to be cut down to size is the judiciary. The investigation of Trump and his associates by the former Federal Bureau of Investigation head Robert Mueller is due to expand and to produce more indictments of Trump associates. None of this rattles Trump. You almost expect him to send off a tweet about the #FakeJudges.
Mueller has been putting pressure on Trump’s closest associates, people such as Paul Manafort, Michael Cohen and Michael Flynn. Each of these men seemed to be offering Mueller information on Trump’s links to Russian business, such as his eagerness to build a luxury hotel in Russia during the presidential campaign. But then, Mueller’s office suggested that Manafort was talking to them at the same time as he was informing Trump’s lawyers about the progress in the investigation. Mueller rescinded the deal he had given Manafort. But there is a bigger deal on offer. Talking to The New York Post, Trump said that if Manafort was convicted for his arrangements in Ukraine and if Manafort was given a prison sentence, then Trump might very well pardon him. This is a prerogative of the presidency. It will be difficult to freeze Trump’s power to pardon even if this means interference in an investigation in which Trump has an interest. “I wouldn’t take it off the table,” Trump told The Post about a pardon for Manafort. This is a classic manoeuvre of gangsters—to dangle a prize in front of an informer so that the informer thinks twice about talking to the police. In this case, Manafort might not say anything about Trump, take the jail sentence and then wait for this boss to pardon him.
It will all make a mockery of the judicial process. Trump the destroyer would have then galloped through the institutions of the state—setting them aflame with the fires of illegitimacy. The executive branch, the presidency, is already the font of mockery. His acting secretaries are going to deepen the distrust with government. The legislature, already low in public trust, will find its legitimacy eroded further. And then, the judiciary, the final branch of government, will be set aflame. At the end of Trump’s first term in office, it is likely that trust in government will be as low as it could possibly go. If Trump is re-elected, it is likely that during the second term, the government might wither away… leaving behind a police force to patrol the disaffected U.S. population and a military to discipline the world.
This essay originally appeared in The Hindu.