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Donald Trump Continues the Manipulation of Populism by ‘Swamping Up’ His Path to Power

Posted on Dec 8, 2016

By Paul Street

  Donald Trump’s brash brand of populism resonated with voters during the election, but he is not delivering on many of his campaign promises as president-elect. (Jim Cole / AP)

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White middle- and working-class “heartland” voters helped Donald Trump defeat Hillary Clinton in November. Now, Trump already seems to be betraying them.

Thinking about this reality, I am struck by the living historical relevance of Christopher Hitchens’ description of “the essence of American politics, when distilled,” as “the manipulation of populism by elitism. That elite is most successful which can claim the heartiest allegiance of the fickle crowd; can present itself as most ‘in touch’ with popular concerns; can anticipate the tides and pulses of public opinion. …” Hitchens wrote those words 16 years ago.

We might speak of that essence also as the manipulation of identity politics by elitism. Speaking to the Real News Network in 2013, Truthdig columnist Chris Hedges reflected on how U.S. major party electoral politics is an elite-run sport in which a corporate-managed electorate is identity-played by a moneyed elite that pulls the strings behind the scenes:

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Both sides of the political spectrum are manipulated by the same forces. If you’re some right-wing Christian zealot in Georgia, then it’s homosexuals and abortion and all these, you know, wedge issues that are used to whip you up emotionally. If you are a liberal in Manhattan, it’s—you know, ‘They’ll be teaching creationism in your schools’ or whatever. … Yet in fact it’s just a game, because whether it’s Bush or whether it’s Obama, Goldman Sachs always wins. There is no way to vote against the interests of Goldman Sachs.

A ‘Broken System’

The Trump presidency-in-formation is shaping up like something straight out of Hitchens’ and Hedges’ formulations. Candidate Trump charged hedge fund managers with “getting away with murder” by taking advantage of tax-code loopholes. He inveighed against a “financial elite” that bribes politicians in a “rigged” and “broken” system that leaves “millions of our workers with nothing but poverty and heartache.”

In a political advertisement he ran just days before the presidential election, Trump denounced “a global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth, and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations.” As Trump’s “populist” verbiage boomed in the background, the commercial flashed images of the New York Stock Exchange, hedge fund billionaire George Soros and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein. It was consistent with a recurrent theme across Trump’s campaign: a pledge to redeem “forgotten” working-class and blue-collar “Americans” from the nefarious global corporations and financial firms that sold them down the river in the name of free trade. As part of that pledge, Trump promised to “drain the swamp in Washington” of “special interests,” including Wall Street elites.

Wall Street seemed to return the enmity. The Center for Responsive Politics reports that the security and investment industry donated more than $78 million to Hillary Clinton’s campaign and super PAC. This was more than 100 times what the industry gave to Trump. Adding insult to injury, Blankfein said last year that the notion of Trump “with his finger on the button blows my mind.”

Different Identity Spins

Of course, the Republicans don’t manipulate populism in quite the same way as the Democrats. While the Democrats don the outwardly liberal and diverse, many-colored cloak of Hollywood- and Upper West Side-approved bicoastal multiculturalism, the GOP connects its manipulation to ugly (Hillary called it “deplorable”) white “heartland” nationalism, sexism, hyper-masculinism, nativism, evangelism and racism. The rightmost major party shades over into a kind of Amerikanner-like neofascism. Donald “Make America Great [Hate] Again” Trump played that nasty card to a chilling degree, sparking more “It Can Happen Here” (fascism, that is) fear than any U.S. political phenomenon in recent memory.

But in both versions, that of the Democrats and that of the Republicans, Goldman Sachs (and Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, et al.) always prevails. The bankrollers and bankers atop the Deep State continue to reign. The nation’s unelected dictatorship of money continues to call the shots. That was certainly true under the arch-neoliberal Barack Obama, whose relentless service to the nation’s economic ruling class has been amply documented by numerous journalists, authors (the present writer included) and academics.

‘Wall Street and Trump Make Up Quickly’

The usual betrayal of “populist” campaign words with elite corporate and financial personnel deeds (and Washington has long understood that “personnel is policy”) is already underway with Trump. There’s no serious attempt to hide it. A recent Wall Street Journal (WSJ) report is titled “Wall Street and Trump Make Up Quickly.” It notes: “After largely opposing his 2016 presidential campaign, financial service executives are making fast friends with President-elect Trump. … Wall Street could wind up being a big winner under Mr. Trump, despite his broadsides against big banks during the campaign.”

You don’t say.

Another Wall Street Journal news item one day later was titled “Trump’s Wealthy Appointments Contrast With Populist Campaign Tone.” In this and in other reports from across top media outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post, one learns that Trump has selected two leading and filthy rich Wall Street investors—Steven Mnuchin and Wilbur Ross—for top economic policy positions in his Cabinet. With the mega-billionaire Trump (slated to be the richest president in American history) at its apex, the Trump White House is shaping up to be the greatest monument to uber-plutocracy since the super-pinstriped presidencies of Warren Harding and Calvin (“The Chief Business of the American People Is Business”) Coolidge. As WSJ’s Rebecca Ballhaus reports:

President-elect Donald Trump, who ran a populist campaign … is assembling one of the wealthiest administration teams in recent memory. … In the past few weeks, Mr. Trump has appointed three fellow billionaires to top administration positions, and at least two other millionaires to his cabinet. … On Wednesday, he confirmed that he had tapped Wilbur Ross, the chairman of a private-equity firm, to serve as commerce secretary. Mr. Ross has a net worth estimated at about $2.5 billion. … Steven Mnuchin, a former Goldman Sachs Group, Inc. banker whose net worth is in the hundreds of millions, was chosen as Treasury secretary, and Betsy DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist whose family has a net worth of about $5.1 billion, was picked to head the Education Department. … All told, Mr. Trump’s choices for four cabinet positions—Treasury, Commerce, Education and Transportation—have a combined net worth of at least $8.1 billion.

“The concentration of wealth in Mr. Trump’s Cabinet,” Ballhaus notes, “contrasts with his rhetoric on the campaign trail, where he struck a populist tone.”
Gee, who would have ever guessed? The false pretense of surprise is quite transparent in these news reports.

Good as Goldman

Last week, Trump met with Goldman Sachs President and Chief Operating Officer Gary Cohn to discuss Cabinet appointments. Mnuchin’s appointment continues an old Washington tradition: putting a person with an elite history at Goldman Sachs in a top economic post. Bill Clinton did it with Robert E. Rubin in 1995, and George W. Bush did it with Hank Paulson in 2006. Obama’s top economic team was riddled with Goldman Sachs and Citigroup veterans and operatives.

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