Of all President-elect Donald Trump’s election promises, “draining the swamp” in Washington was one of the most popular. It is also likely to prove one of the most difficult to fulfil. Thinking about why tells us much about the nature of contemporary politics.
Even the incoming president’s biggest admirers would probably concede that he’s not the normal embodiment of republican virtue. Throughout the election campaign – and subsequently, for that matter – many of Trump’s statements have little connection with economic, political or even strategic reality as it is generally understood.
It’s difficult to know whether this is a carefully calculated use of untruth to unsettle opponents, shake up the establishment and generally muddy the political waters. The alternative is that Trump is a congenital confabulator who actually believes in both his own rhetoric and his capacity to change reality simply by saying so.
The latter is the more likely, highly discomforting reality, I think.
The potentially glaring contradictions that are contained in the first senior appointments to his administration are consequently unlikely to trouble him. It is not just his willingness to appoint dangerous racists and ideologues like Steve Bannon that ought to give the rest of us cause for concern though.
Some of his more “sensible” choices are completely at odds with his election promises and demonstrate why the swamp is likely to remain undrained. The nominee for treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, is a prominent former Wall Street banker of a sort that was routinely pilloried in the election campaign.
It’s not just that appointing billionaires like Mnuchin and Wilbur Ross – tipped to run the Commerce Department – doesn’t look in keeping with the swamp-draining imperative, but it’s also unlikely to have any impact on the sort of economic inequality that is at the heart of America’s and the world’s increasingly toxic politics.
On the contrary, across-the-board tax cuts of a sort that are seemingly a key part of the incoming administration’s economic agenda will disproportionately favour the rich.
Perhaps Trump’s legion of admirers among the increasingly angry, not-very-well-educated, white working class will not notice such inconsistencies. Debates about tax policy don’t get the pulses racing in quite the way that bashing immigrants, Muslims or political opponents does, after all.
But surely even the dimmest and/or most enthusiastic of Trump’s supporters will eventually realise that “Washington” – or more accurately, perhaps, the key institutions that govern political and economic activity in the US – is still in the hands of “elites”.
Despite all the bluster and the demonisation, it could hardly be otherwise. It’s not simply that well-connected elites are able to access positions of power and influence in ways Trump’s proletarian diehards could never hope to.
Sure, being a wealthy political donor is not a hindrance to landing a plum appointment, but not all the jobs that need filling are sinecures. At least some degree of competence is usually required.
Given the abysmal performance of America’s mass education system, this already dramatically limits the field of potential recruits. Like much else about that astounding country, America’s education system contains the best and the worst: Harvard, as well as the 25% of Americans that are effectively innumerate.
Not only are such people never going to participate in running the country, but even in the rather unlikely event that Trump manages to “bring the jobs back” to the US, they may not be able to do many of them either. The increasingly vilified idea of “globalisation” really does pit the world’s poor and badly educated in a fairly brutal struggle for a limited number of badly paid jobs.
But if you’re one of the global elite that’s actually running the world, things look rather more agreeable. Not only are you likely to be fabulously well-paid – even for doing a bad job, as we saw in the global financial crisis – but globalisation actually means you are likely to be paid even more in the future.
After all, all your chums in comparable companies around the world are being lavishly rewarded, so it’s only right that you should be, too. Otherwise, you might leave, and where would that leave the rest of us? Corporate and personal tax rates have got to be ruthlessly driven down to reflect global competitive pressures.
Actually doing anything tangible, much less transformative for the people who elected the new president in such circumstances looks improbable and unrealisable. The one area of hope is the – conspicuously unfunded – promise to massively expand infrastructure spending.
If it actually happens it will need to be overseen by a competent central government staffed by unrepresentative elites. It will inevitably be carried out by private sector companies well connected to Washington and Wall Street. It was ever thus.
This is not necessarily a bad thing – unless you promised to overturn the established order and replace it with some unspecified alternative. Perhaps some sort of distraction might be in order? A trade war with China perhaps?
But why stop there? Some of the incoming security advisers to the new regime no doubt have some good ideas on that front, too. They might even be achievable.
Authors: Mark Beeson, Professor of International Politics, University of Western Australia