Donald Trump campaigned as the man who would shake up Washington. He was the anti-candidate, the enemy of political correctness, the scourge of the establishment, the “only one” who could turn things around. With hyperbole and swagger, Trump presented himself as the agent of upheaval.
Although many hoped he would lean to the mainstream once elected, Trump has shown he will govern the way he campaigned. In his recent choices for cabinet secretaries and White House positions, he has exacted a kind of revenge against all those who opposed him. Mitt Romney, in front of whom he dangled and then withdrew the job of secretary of state, was a symbol of his larger purpose. Disdaining the wisdom of experience, Trump has used surprise and even whimsy (e.g., his choice of the unqualified Ben Carson for HUD and the clueless Rick Perry for the Department of Energy) to humble his opponents and project his uncontested authority.
The candidates themselves, a combination of wealthy tycoons with top-down leadership styles and ideological extremists inimical to compromise, generally echo Trump’s overbearing approach. In sync with the President-elect’s promise to change Washington, the candidates seem more likely to whip and chasten the departments they will lead than make them work according to their given mission.
Among this Team of Wreckers, for example, are billionaire Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education, an avid opponent of public schools; Senator Jeff Sessions for Attorney General, a narrow interpreter of voting rights and proponent of deporting undesirables; Congressman Tom Price for Secretary of Health and Human Services, a hard-liner determined to get the government out of health and human services; fast-food magnate Andrew Puzder for Secretary of Labor, a libertarian who opposes unions and a livable minimum wage; and Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt for head of the Environmental Protection Agency, a climate-change denier currently suing the agency he would lead.
Perhaps even more consequential, Trump has appointed two individuals who perfectly represent the wrecking philosophy to critical positions in the White House, neither requiring Senate confirmation: Steven Bannon to the office of White House Strategist and General Michael Flynn to National Security Advisor.
Bannon, former head of Breitbart News and enabler of the alt-right, would be the Trump administration’s demolition expert. Bannon has described himself as “virulently anti-establishment,” someone who “wants to bring everything crashing down,” and, perhaps with some bravado, a “Leninist.” He sees the world in bipolar terms and shares Trump’s zero-sum view of winners and losers. As Breitbart chief, he has given the country a clinic on how to wage a war on the establishment he despises: through the targeting and discrediting of enemies and out-groups, the dissemination of conspiracy theories, and the mobilization of an army of alt-right sympathizers.
Bannon’s way of defining the “establishment” serves his purposes well. For him, the term includes not just the progressive left but the “institutional Republican Party.” It does not include, oddly but apparently, the sort of plutocratic elites and Republican rightists that his boss has picked to administer his government. Gannon’s anti-establishment battle translates into an effort not simply to disempower its leaders and opinion-makers. It would seek to discredit the mainstream worldview that they and most Americans accept, one that embraces optimism, freedom, inclusiveness, and today’s globalism. In its place, he would promote an authoritarian nationalism that polarizes rather than unites and singles out certain groups for their non-conformity and otherness.
While Bannon works on general strategy, Michael Flynn as National Security chief would focus on threats and dangers. Like Bannon, Flynn looks upon much of the “establishment,” especially elements of the intelligence community (e.g. the CIA) with disdain. Flynn seems to relish the role of outlier and contrarian. His abrupt firing as the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency for poor management and an authoritarian style of leadership has likely only reinforced his defiance.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Flynn is drawn to the same alarmist, conspiracy-laden view of the world as others in the Trump inner circle. Most specifically, his view of Islam as an existential threat to Western civilization, one that carries little nuance, makes him unusually confrontational. He is an active member of ACT for America, the largest anti-Muslim group in the country and believes that sharia law, a red flag for rabid Islamophobes like Pamela Geller, is a threat to America’s constitutional order. Flynn is dangerous because he is prepared, against all evidence, to treat America’s small Muslim minority as a fifth column within our democratic system.
With his attempt to install his version of kakistocracy (government run by the worst, least qualified, or most unscrupulous persons), Trump has shown a brazen disregard for the responsibilities of office. One looks desperately in Trump’s chosen appointments for any voices who could provide a check to his impulses. One sees none so far. The common good, fairness and justice, and the people’s rights and freedoms are all potentially at risk. Under these circumstances there can be no normalization of this presidency. The consequences will soon be all too obvious, and it is time now to prepare for resistance.