During his campaign, Donald Trump successfully cast himself as the populist avenger for America’s working class.
So far, his cabinet picks appear to be either the revolutionary realization of that promise or a total capitulation to corporate America.
At a time when America’s partisan tribes are seeing the world through radically different lenses, the widely disparate perceptions of Mr. Trump’s cabinet are not surprising. But they do suggest that Trump appears to be going all in to disassemble what the right sees as President Obama’s “regulatory state.”
To liberals, these regulations were essential to preventing corporate America from running roughshod over Americans for their own gain. To conservatives, they were the shackles holding back America from shifting into a higher economic gear that would benefit all.
In many ways, the picks make sense. Mr. Trump is assembling a cabinet in his own image, full of tycoons, swagger, and political newcomers. It is the kind of group you’d assume a Manhattan billionaire would assemble.
But if Trump’s goal is to repay the Midwestern working-class voters who propelled him to an astonishing victory, the years ahead stand as a test. If anything, his cabinet represents a doubling down on the establishment Republican orthodoxy that economic growth comes by helping the “job creators,” with wealth trickling down to the middle class. Only on trade has Trump blazed a different path.
The question now is whether Trump’s new cabinet points America toward the transformational economic change he has promised or whether it is poised to make the gap between the haves and the have-nots even worse.
Not surprisingly, each side has wildly different opinions on the subject.
A deregulation dream team
Writing in the conservative National Review, Andy Koenig suggests that “the ever-growing regulatory state has harmed economic growth, job growth, and wage growth.”
Citing data from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, which is heavily funded by the billionare Koch brothers, Mr. Koenig adds: “Since 1980, regulations have cost the economy $4 trillion, or about $13,000 per American.”
They are sentiments that members of Trump’s cabinet have repeatedly expressed.
• His choice for the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, has sued the EPA five times as the attorney general of Oklahoma and has called himself “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda.”
• Proposed Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has been one of the nation’s most aggressive advocates for privatizing education and has successfully pushed her home state, Michigan, to dramatically expand charter schools at the expense of public schools.
• Trump’s pick for Labor secretary, Andy Puzder, the chief executive of the Hardee’s fast-food chain, has repeatedly spoken out against raising the minimum wage and in an opinion article for Forbes, wrote: “One can only wonder when the advocates of progressive economics will realize that, despite their best efforts, you cannot regulate your way to economic prosperity.”
It is a deregulation dream team – and a team that looks like Trump himself in some ways. Secretary of Commerce-designate Wilbur Ross is worth an estimated $2.5 billion. Ms. DeVos is from a family worth some $5.1 billion. Trump’s choice to run the Small Business Administration, Linda McMahon, has a net worth of about $1.15 billion with her husband.
“One newspaper criticized me, why can’t they have people of modest means? Because I want people who made a fortune because now they’re negotiating with you, OK?” said Trump on Thursday night at his Des Moines, Iowa, political rally.
The clear goal: To unleash the unbridled power of American business for all Americans.
It’s not unusual for president-elects to pick cabinets that reflect their own personalities and interests. Mr. Obama’s first Cabinet was full of Democratic politicians and technocrats. Take Tim Geithner as secretary of the Treasury, or Hillary Clinton as secretary of State.
A billionaire's club?
But the concern is that, with a cabinet full of billionaires running America, billionaires might be the big winners.
Since Ronald Reagan launched America’s small government, anti-regulation revolution, the incomes of the top 1 percent have tripled, while the incomes of the middle 60 percent have gone up by less than half, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. For the 30 years before that, both went up at the same rate.
And among Republican-run states that have moved aggressively toward the “trickle down” principle of economic growth, the results have been mixed. Some, like Texas, have done well, based on a strong energy economy. Others, such as Wisconsin, have seen average growth. And others, like Kansas, have cut taxes to the point that they teetered on the brink of disaster.
In Michigan, the move toward aggressive school choice – including things like for-profit charter schools and online charters, which generally have poor track records – has devastated public school budgets in certain cities. And some studies show the charter schools are achieving at lower rates than the public schools. A yearlong investigation by the Detroit Free Press found that the “record number of charter schools run by for-profit companies … rake in taxpayer money and refuse to detail how they spend it.”
How much will the cabinet picks matter? Much will depend on what Trump leans on his cabinet for. It’s possible he’ll use it as a sounding board. But generally speaking, modern cabinets manage their departments, carrying out marching orders shaped much more by the president himself and the White House senior staff.
What’s important in a governing cabinet is ideological diversity, writes Bilal Baloch, a University of Oxford PhD candidate and fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in New Delhi, in today’s Monkey Cage political science blog at The Washington Post.
This doesn’t mean members of opposing parties so much as people with a wide range of views. Otherwise cabinet members can harden around intolerant positions.
An administration needs internal ideological checks and balances and vigorous debate, according to Mr. Baloch.
“Trump could select an ideologically diverse administration that would check extreme actions,” Baloch writes. “To date we have seen little evidence that he will.”
• Staff writer Peter Grier contributed to this report.