The Trump White House is going to be chock full of weird rich people
Enough names have surfaced to tell us two things about President-elect Donald Trump's Cabinet: It will be one of the wealthiest to ever run the executive branch. And it will be shot through with executives from Wall Street.
Needless to say, major media outlets and their headline writers can't express outrage fast enough. Trump took numerous opportunities to rip on financial elites during his campaign: "Trump said hedge funders were 'getting away with murder.' Now he wants one to help run the economy," The Washington Post sputtered.
As understandable as the accusations of hypocrisy are, more interesting is asking why Trump can get away with such a comically brazen self-contradiction.
I think a clue can be found in the biography of his new treasury secretary pick, Steven Mnuchin. He is indeed a former trader at Goldman Sachs and a former hedge fund manager. But Mnuchin's policy preferences are not well known. What he mainly seems to share with the president-elect is a certain devil-may-care attitude.
Like Trump, Mnuchin has been married several times, and is currently wed to a younger woman. Both men have a taste for impressive real estate. They both hang out with impolitic associates: One of Munchin's career detours was into Hollywood, where he helped finance a number of films with Brett Ratner — the filmmaker who lost out on the chance to produce the Oscars when he declared that "rehearsal is for fags." Their production company was literally called "RatPac."
"Mnuchin is described by people who know him as slightly awkward and not one to command a room," The New York Times reports. In fact, Mnuchin was a bit of a black sheep within Wall Street, thanks to his early support for Trump.
Steve Bannon, Trump's chief adviser, is another Wall Street outsider who followed a similarly weird trajectory through Goldman Sachs and Hollywood. Yet Bannon seems to harbor a genuine populist rage at the financial industry, and his tour as executive chairman of Breitbart also revealed him to be a giddy nihilist. Whether or not Bannon personally adheres to white nationalist or anti-immigrant ideology, he clearly hates and despises upper-class liberalism so much that he'll empower actual racists and white nationalists, just to troll his fellow elites.
Then there's Wilbur Ross, Trump's commerce secretary pick. Ross was known as the "king of bankruptcy" for making a killing by snatching up and selling struggling companies. On his third wife, he's a member of a Wall Street fraternity that threw a party in 2012 where the entertainment included sexist and homophobic jabs at Hillary Clinton and then-Rep. Barney Frank, respectively. While one attendee reportedly sported a Confederate flag hat, Ross was spotted wearing "purple velvet moccasins."
Todd Ricketts, tapped to be deputy commerce secretary, is part owner of the Chicago Cubs, and once showed up on the reality TV show Undercover Boss. And let's not forget Trump almost tapped Jerry Falwell Jr. to be education secretary. Ben Carson, the African-American neurosurgeon and erstwhile GOP presidential candidate, freaked out the elite establishment with his religiosity and conspiracy theories about the pyramids. He's a skeptic of anti-discrimination policy in housing who's likely to head housing and urban development.
Many on this list inherited their wealth. And while they've shuffled plenty of money around in their day, few of the nominees have any serious experience running large organizations or government agencies specifically.
Put simply: These people are oddballs within elite circles.
A horrified Ezra Klein, Vox editor-in-chief and committed defender of the sober and responsible elite mainstream, once described Trump as a "a racist, a sexist, and a demagogue, but he's also a narcissist, a bully, and a dilettante." That's all absolutely right and it is horrifying. And whether liberal or conservative, the vast majority of well-educated, upper-class elites would probably agree. (Or at least would like to be seen to agree.)
But Trump's decorum-smashing characteristics are also a very visible middle finger to all that. It's a very simple and effective way of telling the public, "I'm not like them."
So even those who disagree with Trump, as I do, need to be honest and acknowledge that the principles of social progressivism, political correctness, and competent technocratic bearing, while morally laudable, have also intersected with education and class to become a symbol of American aristocracy: a way for the bourgeoisie upper class to differentiate itself from the hoi polloi.
Many voters, I suspect, get this instinctively.
One thing that's driven liberals nuts for a while now is how conservatives get away with talking about "elites" as a cultural category rather than an "economic" one. A simple answer may be that voters have no substantive anti-elite agendas to choose from. Business Insider's Josh Barro just wrote a very insightful piece about Trump's Carrier deal, and how it shows that both Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans miss much of what concerns Americans about the economy and jobs. The GOP is congenitally incapable of proposing any economic policy that doesn't boil down to handing more goodies to owners of capital and financial assets. And the Democrats have hamstrung themselves by conceding the arguments of deficit scolds and big government skeptics. So what aid programs they do offer are super targeted and only help the poor, while bypassing the also-struggling and more populous middle class.
Which is to say, faced with an absence of real options for anti-elitism or economic populism, plenty of voters will default to supporting the cultural affectation of anti-elitism. And lord knows Trump has that down cold. He is an excellent snake oil salesman. He can play the anti-elitist, simply by being a weird, impolitic, gaudy jerk.
As a member of that elite, you'd have to be kind of crazy yourself to support someone like that at the outset of the campaign. But since Trump rewards loyalty, his Cabinet will be filled with people who are simultaneously outsiders and the high-powered of the financial industry.
In a political environment where no genuine cures are on offer, being a very good snake oil salesman is enough.