Making the swamp even muddier

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{Image via CNN}

Far & Near column published in the Hindustan Times (12 January, 2017)

In India, the cliché has it that people enter politics to become rich. It’s a cynical truism, a measure of the lamentable corruption in the political system. In the United States, the reverse seems to be increasingly true; you have to be rich to enter politics. And not just rich, but stupendously rich. The members of Donald Trump’s proposed Cabinet include several billionaires and numerous captains of finance and industry. Together, they will form the wealthiest Cabinet in American history, estimated to be worth $12 billion. During his populist campaign for the presidency, Trump pledged to “drain the swamp” of Washington, to sweep away encrusted political elites and corporate interests. Now as president-elect, he is assembling an administration that will tug the United States towards oligarchy.

Republicans in Congress rushed through the confirmation of a slew of Trump’s appointees this week despite grave concerns voiced by the office of government ethics. According to the New York Times, the standard ethics and financial disclosure forms don’t have enough boxes to accommodate the extraordinary assets of many of the nominees. The worry is that the new Cabinet members’ historic investments in certain domestic industries and in strategically sensitive countries abroad may improperly shape government policy.

But what’s wrong with having successful businesspeople in charge? I’ve often heard well-educated, professional Indians bemoan the dominance of “career politicians” in India, those men and women who have no track records of accomplishment outside of politics, whose only credentials seem to be ingratiating themselves with party leaders and marshalling their cadre.

From a middle class perspective, politicians are not to be trusted because politics is their livelihood. They seek power in order to line their pockets. Americans, too, share a similar disdain for the political class, fed by a steady trickle of scandals involving national and local figures. In the last year in New York, where I live, a number of prominent state politicians were imprisoned for acts of corruption, bribery, and misuse of public office (all prosecuted by the tenacious Indian American federal attorney Preet Bharara). Many New Yorkers saw those crimes not just as the sins of a few individuals but as proof of the guilt of the entire political establishment.

In both places, the corrupt failings of traditional politicians make some people yearn for more technocratic, managerial leadership. That’s why it’s not uncommon to hear praise in Indian sitting rooms for the more decisive, bulldozing (and undemocratic) Chinese system. Sensing the changing national mood, the current and previous ruling governments in Delhi have invited leading businessmen to work more closely with the Centre.

Trump campaigned entirely on his credentials as a businessman, since he has no political experience. It worked, in large part because voters were drawn to the idea of Trump as the consummate Washington outsider; his extraordinary wealth freed him from having to play the same tawdry game as other politicians, freed him from needing to curry the favour of powerful, moneyed interests. When his supporters called Washington a “swamp”, they imagined the capital as a place infested with career politicians, corporate lobbyists, and other back-scratching elites disinterested in the lives of ordinary Americans.

Instead of draining the swamp, Trump is muddying the waters. His choices for Cabinet include individuals who have donated lavishly to his campaign, as well as former executives from Wall Street (vilified during his campaign, embraced after his victory). Betsy De Vos, the prospective secretary of education, is a billionaire who has spent her entire career championing the dismantling of the public education system that she will now preside over. Andy Puzder, picked to head the department of labour, made his fortune in the fast-food business and is dead-set against expanding the minimum wage and other provisions for workers. Scott Pruitt, the next head of the environmental protection agency, attacked that same agency on behalf of oil companies. Rex Tillerson, the presumptive secretary of state, was until recently head of Exxon, and now will be in charge of US foreign policy, suggesting that the caricature of the state department as merely an organ of corporations may now carry greater truth.

That’s just a few of Trump’s disgraceful nominations. The worry here is not that these figures will tilt American policy in a frightfully Right-wing direction, but that their ascent represents the triumph of the “revolving door” between government and business, where the desires of big corporations become the imperatives of the political executive.

Trump’s own conduct doesn’t bode well. While he has surrendered his rights and responsibilities in The Trump Organization to his sons, he has refused to divest from his vast holdings or form a blind trust. He seems keen to treat the White House like a family business, bringing his daughter Ivanka to Washington. He recently appointed his son-in-law Jared Kushner as senior White House adviser. This isn’t the way democracies should be run. As journalist Jon Schwarz noted, other politicians to deputise their sons-in-law include Raul Castro, Saddam Hussein, and Mussolini.

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