It’s time, claimed candidate Trump just a few weeks ago, to “drain the swamp.” That was how he referred to an entirely Washingtonian metaphor, which is false, stating that the capital is built on a swamp.
But Trump is not even halfway done crossing the swamp when even his side begins to doubt whether it will be rid of its malaria one day. As Newt Gingrich implied three days ago on Dec. 22 (only to withdraw his statement the next day, it’s true) seeing the nominations underway, we are far from purging the swamp of lobbies and special interests. It’s hard, said President Reagan in 1983, “when you’re up to your armpits in alligators, to remember you came here to drain the swamp.” Barack Obama tried to do it when he limited by decree the existence of revolving doors between the government and lobbies; he partially failed.
The fault lies partly in the spoils system, which provides that “to the victor go the spoils.” So, 4,100 people must be nominated by the new government to lead the agencies, bureaucracies and departments. Among them, 1,212 are secretaries and their deputies, leaders of most government agencies, ambassadors, etc. They must be approved by the Senate and undergo background checks on potential conflicts of interest and national security. And these nominations are an indicator of the direction of the new government, which has more than 70 days to implement an operational structure, and which will take at least six months to fill all the vacancies.
Already the president-elect, who will come into power in one month, has nominated three inexperienced people to be part of his cabinet (among them Ben Carson), as well as a handful of politicians (two-thirds of whom come from Dixieland*) and four members of the military. Beside two former lobbyists, he has nominated eight presidents of large companies: Two have ties to Goldman Sachs, three got rich during the crisis from speculative investment funds to the restructuring of bankrupt companies, or home seizures at nearly industrial rates. All of them are fiscal conservatives, some are opposed to raising the minimum wage; they support the reduction of basic social services and putting an end to health care insurance plans like the one implemented by President Obama known as “Obamacare;” sometimes they prefer robots over workers, deny the existence of climate change, or they are close, very close, to the oil industry.
Force of Inertia
Yet, all this time, life goes on in Washington. That’s probably where the new government will find that time is long. Indeed, federal agencies and the federal bureaucracy play a defining role in the production of regulations that frame and define the structure of governance. They represent 4 million people whose hearts do not go out to Trump, as the election results of the capital region demonstrate. This does not mean the bureaucracies will not work with the new government, but it could induce a greater force of inertia, especially if the transition is badly managed.
And chaotic transitions could lead to disasters. On the eve of Hurricane Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Administration, led by an inexperienced administrator like Michael Brown, had 17 vacant political posts and managed the hurricane catastrophically. Under Trump’s transitional government, a survey sent to the administrators of the Department of Energy asked for a list of employees and subcontractors who have participated in programs linked to climate change or the reduction of the carbon footprint and asked about their contributions to websites linked to these issues. The department responded by saying it did not have that kind of information, but the damage was already done. The feeling that there is a witch hunt going on is already there. And the media make no mistake about it: The Washington Post and The New York Times have already cast their lines in the water, like in the Nixon era, because the leak is a classical mode of communication in Washington, especially when disagreements cannot find a bureaucratic outlet.
While it’s often outsiders who affirm the need to free the government of lobbies and conflicts of interest, they always end up becoming alligators themselves once at the top of the food chain. It will be painful to see how and when the famous white middle class voters of the Midwest will get their fair share. The 17 members of Trump’s cabinet are worth $9.5 billion, or an amount equivalent to the total income of the 43 million poorest American households. The cabinet nominees belong to an economic elite whose reach extends to well-established conservative and libertarian think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute or the Heritage Foundation, whose members are already starting to infiltrate the current government.
The swamp is no less muddy this Christmas Eve. The new president is just starting to learn.
*Editor’s note: Dixieland is a word used to refer to the South.