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Tomgram: Nomi Prins, The March of the Billionaires

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Just whom Donald Trump will appoint to various key posts in his future administration has an unbearably enticing set of moving targets for the media (until, as at a recent rally in Cincinnati, dramatic announcements are made at unexpected moments, or released in other ways). And give The Donald credit: if he has a genius for anything, it's for dominating the news cycle in ways -- from his pre-crack-o'-dawn tweets to those rallies -- that simply haven't been seen here before. And be suitably amazed that, as during the election campaign, he continues to have an uncanny knack for flooding the screens of our world with that larger-than-life figure of his dreams, Donald Trump, nearly 24/7. He's the media-made man of our -- and his -- (endless) moment.

Until each appointment is announced, the speculation goes on endlessly about which billionaire or multimillionaire will be included in the latest round of The Chosen. In some ways, those officially or unofficially being considered, whether appointed or not, offer us a strange window into the future Washington world of Donald Trump. Take, for instance, two oily selections touted recently as possibilities for the man who has committed himself to elevating fossil fuel extraction to a high art. Trump has, after all, already promised to make a future Saudi America independent of oil imports from the actual Saudi Arabia or any other "foe" or member of the "oil cartel," come -- if you'll excuse a phrase that, in the context of climate change, is all too apt -- hell or high water.

In such situations, it undoubtedly makes a certain sense to think about going directly to the trough. If you want someone to oversee the Department of Energy, why not, for example, consider Harold Hamm, the Oklahoma oil tycoon and 60th richest person on the planet, whose fortune, according to Forbes, rose by $1.7 billion to $14.7 billion in the wake of Trump's election victory? (On the subject of such a possible appointment, Hamm himself has been diffident.) Or if it's the State Department you're thinking about and global energy policy is on your mind, why not put aside the thought of frog legs and Mitt Romney for a second and at least consider -- as Donald Trump reputedly is doing -- Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil, a man who made a salary of $27.3 million last year alone? After all, it would ensure transparency if the global energy policy you were going to pursue was directed by the man who had steered one of the top fossil-fuel extractors on the planet through years of choppy waters, right?

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If you're a normal human being and not a billionaire, this ongoing spectacle has to have a phantasmagoric feel to it. After all, we're now in a world in which -- I'm not kidding you -- Sarah Palin has denounced Trump's deal with Carrier to keep 1,000 jobs in Indiana as "crony capitalism"! And if you're feeling that way now, just wait until you take the initial tour of his onrushing world that TomDispatch regular (and author of All the Presidents' Bankers) Nomi Prins offers today, billionaire by billionaire. My suggestion: buckle your seatbelt; it's going to be a bumpy ride. Tom

Trump's Bait and Switch
How to Swamp Washington and Double-cross Your Supporters Big Time
By Nomi Prins

Given his cabinet picks so far, it's reasonable to assume that The Donald finds hanging out with anyone who isn't a billionaire (or at least a multimillionaire) a drag. What would there be to talk about if you left the Machiavellian class and its exploits for the company of the sort of normal folk you can rouse at a rally? It's been a month since the election and here's what's clear: crony capitalism, the kind that festers and grows when offered public support in its search for private profits, is the order of the day among Donald Trump's cabinet picks. Forget his own "conflicts of interest." Whatever financial, tax, and other policies his administration puts in place, most of his appointees are going to profit like mad from them and, in the end, Trump might not even wind up being the richest member of the crew.

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Only a month has passed since November 8th, but it's already clear (not that it wasn't before) that Trump's anti-establishment campaign rhetoric was the biggest scam of his career, one he pulled off perfectly. As president-elect and the country's next CEO-in-chief, he's now doing what many presidents have done: doling out power to like-minded friends and associates, loyalists, and -- think John F. Kennedy, for instance -- possibly family.

Here, however, is a major historical difference: the magnitude of Trump's cronyism is off the charts, even for Washington. Of course, he's never been a man known for doing small and humble. So his cabinet, as yet incomplete, is already the richest one ever. Estimates of how loaded it will be are almost meaningless at this point, given that we don't even know Trump's true wealth (and will likely never see his tax returns). Still, with more billionaires at the doorstep, estimates of the wealth of his new cabinet members and of the president-elect range from my own guesstimate of about $12 billion up to $35 billion. Though the process is as yet incomplete, this already reflects at least a quadrupling of the wealth represented by Barack Obama's cabinet.

Trump's version of a political and financial establishment, just forming, will be bound together by certain behavioral patterns born of relationships among those of similar status, background, social position, legacy connections, and an assumed allegiance to a dogma of self-aggrandizement that overshadows everything else. In the realm of politico-financial power and in Trump's experience and ideology, the one with the most toys always wins. So it's hardly a surprise that his money- and power-centric cabinet won't be focused on public service or patriotism or civic duty, but on the consolidation of corporate and private gain at the expense of the citizenry.

It's already obvious that, to Trump, "draining the swamp" means filling it with new layers of golden sludge, similar in color to the decorations that adorn buildings with his name, including the new Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House where foreign diplomats are already flocking to curry favor and even the toilet paper holders in the lobby bathrooms are faux-gold-plated.

The rarified world of his cabinet choices is certainly a universe away from the struggling working class folks he bamboozled with promises of bringing back American "greatness." And yet the soaring value of his cabinet should be seen as merely a departure point for our four-year (or more) leap into what is guaranteed to be an abyss of inequality and instability. Forget their wealth. What their business conflicts, relationships, and ideological stances indicate about what they'll do to America is far more worrisome. And though Trump promised (and tweeted) that he'd be "completely out of business operations," the possibility of such a full exit for him (or any of his crew) is about as likely as a full reveal of those tax returns.

Trumping History

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There is, in fact, some historical precedent for a president surrounding himself with such a group of self-interested power-grabbers, but you'd have to return to Warren G. Harding's administration in the early 1920s to find it. The "Roaring Twenties" that ended explosively in a stock market collapse in 1929 began, ominously enough, with a presidency filled with similar figures, as well as policies remarkably similar to those now being promised under Trump, including major tax cuts and giveaways for corporations and the deregulation of Wall Street.

A notably weak figure, Harding liberally delegated policymaking to the group of senior Republicans he chose to oversee his administration who were dubbed "the Ohio gang" (though they were not all from Ohio). Scandal soon followed, above all the notorious Teapot Dome incident in which Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall leased petroleum reserves owned by the Navy in Wyoming and California to two private oil companies without competitive bidding, receiving millions of dollars in kickbacks in return. That scandal and the attention it received darkened Harding's administration. Until the Enron scandal of 2001-2002, it would serve as the poster child for money (and oil) in politics gone bad. Given Donald Trump's predisposition for green-lighting pipelines and promoting fossil fuel development, a modern reenactment of Teapot Dome is hardly beyond imagining.

Harding's other main contributions to American history involved two choices he made. He offered businessman Herbert Hoover the job of secretary of commerce and so put him in play to become president in the years just preceding the Great Depression. And in a fashion that now looks Trumpian, he also appointed one of the richest men on Earth, billionaire Andrew Mellon, as his treasury secretary. Mellon, a Pittsburgh industrialist-financier, was head of the Mellon National Bank; he founded both the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa), for which he'd be accused of unethical behavior while treasury secretary (as he still owned stock in the company and his brother was a close associate), and the Gulf Oil Company; and with Henry Clay Frick, he co-founded the Union Steel Company.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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