What’s worse: Trump’s floundering attempt at governance, his corruption, or his cruelty?

By: Rich Van Heertum

As the clock inches closer to zero hour for a potential impeachment, an interesting conundrum is developing for those who cover the man quickly staking his claim as the worst to inhabit the White House in our 241-year history. The question is whether Trump’s presidency should be framed as the most inept in recent memory, the most corrupt or the cruelest? There are, of course, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush to consider on the cruelty continuum, but it appears Trump’s agenda, if realized, might put both of them to shame, more in line with the nefarious bidding of Dick “the dick” Cheney, who luckily never ascended to the highest office in the land. Richard Nixon, Ulysses S. Grant, Warren Harding, and Andrew Jackson offer strong competition for the apex of corruption. And on the question of ineptitude, there is Dubya again, Herbert Hoover, or Andrew Johnson to contend with. Let’s take the three arguments in turn and see which more appropriately captures the early legacy of the President given to us by our less-than-munificent new benefactor, Putin.


The case for most incompetent

AHCA celebration
Celebrating the AHCA, which he later called “mean.” But it’s great healthcare!

I will start with the chaotic miasma of ineptitude that has largely defined this administration from its earliest days. First up is the inability, or unwillingness, to even fill an extraordinary array of offices, with only 111 of 1,100 top-tier positions even nominated, and a mere 41 confirmed. Taken together with the individuals they have chosen to lead agencies – including conspiracy theorists (Flynn, Bannon), corporate lackeys (Tillerson, Pruitt, Price, and too many others to list here) many with no experience in governance at all (Tillerson again, Carson, Kushner) and several others hostile to the very agencies they now run (Pruitt again, Tom Price again, Rick Perry) – this is shaping up as the closest approximation of the Bad News Bears ever to appear in DC. In the place of the well-functioning, if ideologically skewed, administrations of the past, this one is simply too shabby and unequipped to carry out daily functions of governance. On top of this, Trump has followed the path of Putin and other autocratic-leaning governments, creating a Plutocracy (calling it a Kleptocracy might be more accurate) where Corporate America not only lobbies the government to support its interests, but occupies key positions within the government itself.



Of course, if we stopped here, Trump would not look that different from George W. Bush, except that Bush chose nominees with actual experience in government (and substantially more of them at this point in his tenure). To get to the heart of the incompetence, we have to look at the actual functioning of the threadbare administration he has spawned. First we have the Travel Ban, which has failed in multiple iterations and venues, never getting past a couple of days of chaotic implementation. With the Supreme Court in wait, Trump seemingly put the final nail in its coffin by again admitting it is a Muslim ban, in the process demonstrating his fundamental lack of understanding of U.S. law. Of course, the same may someday be said of our conservative court, as they have allowed it to go forward just today. Then there is Trump’s healthcare bill, so bad it caused a mass revival of the moribund public space of Town Hall meetings and average people, you know, engaging in politics. Though the GOP House did eventually get a bill through to the Senate, it was done in secret, on short notice, and with an unpopularity rare even for conservative legislation in recent years. As Republicans try to push through a bill that only 17% of Americans support, Trump suddenly decides the bill he helped craft is “too mean” and must be made better. Whether they head that tweeted call to action remains to be seen, though the GOP is currently pushing forward with passing a bill that many of their own members have yet to see, much less debate on, though it was finally released last Thursday.

There has also been the disastrous interactions with foreign leaders (including condemning the mayor of London hours after a terrorist attack, then keeping the twitter fight going for days), attacking many of our closest allies, tweeting while Syrian leader Assad continues his march of destruction (with a wink and nod from the Kremlin), the breaking apart of the Western Alliance that has existed since World War II, the courting of autocrats/dictators across the globe from the Philippines and Turkey to Egypt and, of course, Putin himself and the sharing of intelligence from a stalwart ally with a historical foe, who could well give that information to another of our biggest enemies (Iran). In the case of Sissi in Egypt, his soft glove approach, led the dictators to further crack down on civil society. Tillerson, who should have never been confirmed given his long record of choosing corporate interests over those of the country (as well as his close ties to Russia), is making a mockery of the Secretary of State office itself, choosing naps over meetings with world leaders, clandestine rendezvous with Russian diplomats over important congresses with our allies in Europe and offering as little information to the press corps and public as possible.

There are also the decisions that defy reason that seem to come out on an almost daily basis. To name but a few, the defunding of most scientific research in the country – particularly related to climate change – at what could well be the tipping point to global environmental destruction, pushing the predestined to fail revitalization of the coal industry when renewable energy is both more efficient and creates better (and safer) jobs, the decision to cut funding for research into white supremacist groups at the moment their numbers and vigor appear to be rising, thrusting failed abstinence programs on our young (even as new research shows most teens having sex are actually using contraception), attempting to privatize public education, cut billions of dollars for the poor and working class and even stop feeding disabled elderly via meals on wheels.

DAPL
The Dakota Access Pipeline. Image credit: Tony Webster.

There is the endless lying (The Star puts the total at over 300 so far), the changing of the narrative from one day to the next (on, for example, the reason for the firing of Comey or Flynn), absurd claims about things like the size of his victory and inauguration crowd, taking credit for things he had nothing to do with (even those Carrier jobs he touted as saving are heading to Mexico) and the very real possibility a President who was not involved in the undermining of our election might get himself impeached simply because he can’t keep his mouth shut. It includes the random, hostile, self-aggrandizing and fallacious nature of so many of his tweets that seem to define this president as well as anything he actually does, from the clear need for external validation to the ceaseless and largely unfounded attacks on anyone who crosses him. To give but a few of the hundreds of examples of lying and changing of narrative by this administration, just over a week ago Trump claimed he would pass legislation to disallow new immigrants from receiving welfare (a law that has been on the books since 1996) and that he did, in fact, try to intimidate Comey, a day after finally admitting those tapes he openly threatened Comey with don’t even exist.

In case none of this is enough to convince you, we have the fact that Trump recently held his first full cabinet meeting, two full months after Obama held his first; probably only as a result of the Russian investigation that seems likely to follow Trump until his last day in office – which one hopes is substantially less time than the approximately three years and seven months still allotted to him. More than anything is the clarion lack of clarity on what this administration is doing and what it stands for. Lack of accountability and transparency are defining characteristics of the administration, as is the attempt to dismantle large swaths of the social safety net at a moment when inequality and poverty only get worse with each passing year. There is the continuation of the racism, sexism, Islamaphobic and anti-Immigrant rhetoric that helped lift the most unlikely of candidates to the most powerful office in the world and have since sent the country into a violent spree of intolerance and hatred. There are the incessant attacks on not only the environment and our collective future but science, the arts, the media and government itself. We have all of the leaking that has occurred since he took office from inside his own White House, with few secrets far from public exposure. And we might want to at least consider the call by many psychologists, including Dr. Brandy Lee from Yale, that he suffers from serious mental impairments that should disqualify him from the office he currently inhabits.


The case for most cruel

Executive Order
Rule by fiat.

Yet the incompetence of the administration to date might be cloaking an agenda as cruel as any we have seen since the days of Stalin, based largely on the continued redistribution of money from the poor and middle class to the rich. Let’s start with the aforementioned healthcare bill that the Senate just released to the public, which will take at least 22 million Americans off the insured rolls in the coming decade (according to the Congressional Budget Office), push premiums so high on those with preexisting conditions they might as well start selling their organs now (insurers will be allowed to charge the elderly five times the premiums of the young and a 64-year-old making $26,500 would have to spend $16.5k on insurance!), kick over a million out of retirement homes, cut funding for the poor and elderly by ending Medicaid expansion in 2024 (even as one in five Americans currently qualify for it) and $1 trillion overall when we add cuts to Medicare. This is all so the wealthy and healthcare corporations can get yet another tax cut, to the tune of around $600 billion (while those in the middle will only see a benefit of about $300 a year). To put it all in perspective, Obama raised taxes on the rich to pay for 20 million more Americans having health insurance; the Republicans, led by Trump’s push, are trying to do the exact opposite – take health insurance away from 22 million (or 24, if you consider the House version) Americans to give even more money to the bloated accounts of our richest individuals and corporations. To wit, the top 0.1% of wage earners, or those making at least $3.9 million a year, would get a tax cut of more than $200k; and, not surprisingly, while the cuts to Medicaid will go into effect starting in 2021, that tax break starts right away.

Similar cruelty and upward wealth redistribution is at the heart of Trump’s first budget. It slashes social welfare programs to a startling extent, including another $616 billion to Medicaid, on top of the cuts proposed in the GOP healthcare bill (totaling almost 30% of the current levels), alongside TANF assistance, Social Security disability payments and food stamps. It is even more pecuniary to domestic discretionary spending, cutting education, transportation and other programs to the combined tune of 43%. In total, that would bring spending to one-third of its 50-year average share of the economy (a paltry 3.8% – the lowest among advanced capitalist economies).  It ironically includes sweeping cuts to crop insurance and other farm support programs (a sizable part of his base), dramatic reductions to retirement benefits for government employees, and an outright attack on the environment by cutting the EPA’s budget 30%.

The 2017 Budget
Hack and slash, but only for the proles.

Most agencies face huge cuts including the Department of Labor (19.8%), Department of the Interior (10.9%), Department of Housing and Urban Development (13.2%), Department of Education (13.5%), Corps of Engineers (16.3%), and Department of Transportation (12.7%), while the Department of Defense (10.1%), Department of Veteran Affairs (5.8%), and Department of Homeland Security (6.8) are offered increased budgets. And while the 10% increase to Defense might not seem like that big a deal, its $521.8 billion budget is 10 times bigger than all the others mentioned, except Veteran Affairs, at $74.5 billion. Trump also plans to eliminate dozens of federal agencies outright including the Chemical Safety Board, Corporation for National and Community Service, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, International Development Fund, National Endowments for the Arts AND the Humanities, Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation and, seemingly apropos, the U.S. Institute for Peace. You know, just useless agencies that enrich our children, our minds, our bodies and our democracy. Though many of these draconian cuts will never make it through Congress, it does give us insight into the callousness with which Trump would rule in the totalitarian nightmare that one assumes he dreams of each evening.

On top of this, as with so much this administration does, it is being packaged in a way that attempts to rebrand it in very different terms. The budget would create a $3.2 trillion deficit over ten years according to the budget office, but this ignores another $5 to $6 trillion due to the huge tax cuts, benefitting predominantly the wealthy and corporations. And even as he has talked about making the country safer through increased military spending, there are concerns from experts that the budget would do the opposite, cutting funding for the Coast Guard, TSA, and FEMA and undermining biosecurity.

On education specifically, we are largely stuck with the Trump budget to assess the direction he would like to take the country at present, but that budget is informative, as are the words of Betsy DeVos. Among the lowlights of the education section of his budget:

  1. Will eliminate federal funding to keep class sizes lower, even as this has consistently been shown to be of paramount importance for younger children.
  2. Zeroes out all federally-funded afterschool and summer programs that keep millions of poor children safe and well-fed.
  3. Eliminates the loan forgiveness program that helps students pursue teaching careers, funding for teacher preparation and educator support, and guts most other programs that alleviate student debt or make college more affordable. The same section appears to eliminate the gainful employment rules and protection for those defrauded by for-profit education.
  4. Slashes technical education funding.
  5. Cuts one-quarter of the Medicaid funding that now pays for essential school-based services like physical therapists, feeding tubes and other medical equipment and health screenings.

De Vos, Education Sec.
School choice, more important than school quality (or access). Photo credit: Gage Skidmore.

Even his much-ballyhooed infrastructure plan is little more than a sleight of hand corporate handout which, instead of the promised job creator, is instead yet another corporate tax break. According to EPI research, a $1 billion investment in infrastructure has the potential to support more than 18,000 jobs, mostly well-paid. But Trump’s plan is actually only calling for $200 billion in actual federal funding, leveraging the rest from the private sector ($800 billion in tax cuts). The crumbling infrastructure that desperately needs addressing is unlikely to garner developers’ interest to the same extent that new highways, byways and bridges will, simply because the latter can earn money back from consumers in the form of tolls. And the funding of that $800 billion? It is likely to come from state and local taxes. The same budget actually calls for cuts of $139 to “surface transportation infrastructure,” meaning the $1 trillion bill is actually just a $61 billion investment. This is the new normal, where the rhetoric of an initiative or action is so far afield of its actuality that a Trump administration official, Scott Pruitt, can say on television that a plan that creates 1,300 jobs actually creates over 50,000.

This cruelty, of course, expands well beyond our borders as Trump proposed cuts to foreign aid could kill millions. America is the greatest donor in the world in actual dollars spent, but only 22nd when we consider aid as a percentage of GDP. Yet rather than address that shortcoming, the Trump administration has decided to go in the opposite direction, by cutting civilian foreign affairs spending by 32% and global aid by $13.5 billion overall. Food aid funding would drop from $3.5 billion in 2017 to $1.5 billion next year, cutting the number fed from 67 to 29 million people, even as famine threatens Sudan, Yemen, Nigeria and Somalia. Beyond basic needs, refugee assistance would be cut by nearly 20%. International disaster assistance, which covers the non-food needs of the world’s conflict and disaster victims, would drop from $2.5bn in the 2017 budget to $1bn in 2018. Aids funding would be cut by a fifth, though there are fears this effect would multiply as they slow down assistance for new victims of the disease, which could cut the number of people likely to volunteer for testing (and thus a ramping up of rates of infection). And non-HIV funding takes an even bigger hit of 50% – meaning more children dying of malaria, the resurgence of preventable diseases like polio and measles, and many, many other deaths besides. By weakening public health systems, these cuts also increase vulnerability to major epidemic threats like Ebola and Zika.

There is also an attempt to end all funding for reproductive health and family planning, based on arguments around abortion. But the cuts would most likely lead to an increase in abortions (estimated at as many as 3.3 million more), while cutting access to birth control and prenatal care that could see infant mortality (and mother’s dying in childbirth) increase precipitously. It is part of the general brutality that will be enacted on women both domestically and abroad, taking control of their own bodies away from them, making it difficult or impossible to get birth control, family planning and prenatal care and potentially worsening the global overpopulation problems already plaguing us. In total, the cuts will harm tens of millions of lives simply to save fractions of pennies.

Finally, are a number of smaller decisions that also demonstrate the administration’s penchant for choosing corporate interests over those of consumers and citizens. The first is the refusal by Trump’s Department of Labor to enforce the “fiduciary rule,” which simply requires that advisors give advice that is in the best interest of the client rather than themselves. It is surprising, to me, that this rule didn’t already exist. But Trump doesn’t like it and estimates claim eliminating those conflicts of interest could have saved consumers $17 billion a year. Instead, Wall Street interests will continue to trump those of Main Street. A host of other decisions will work collectively to make it a lot harder for Americans to unionize, a key facet in the fight to address growing income inequality (an issue that Trump claimed to be fighting to combat). Third, the administration is also rolling back OSHA regulations that helped protect workers from employer abuse. When we add all of these together, we are left with decisions that will literally kill millions of people here and abroad, simply to provide additional tax relief and profits to our wealthiest citizens and corporations.


The case for most corrupt

Trump business interests
Trump business interests, worldwide.

This leads seamlessly into the third facet of his record so far, a corruption that is rivaling those of Grant, Nixon and Jackson. A recent article in open secrets suggest that Trump has made a startling $1.3 billion in the two and a half years since first announcing for president, with some of those investments appearing to be closely tied to current activities in the White House. As just one example, Mar-A-Lago Club in Florida saw a 139% increase in revenue year over year since he made it White House South, aided by the doubling the membership fees. More troubling might be his D.C. Trump International Hotel, where he has already made $19 million, a seemingly small sum, except to us mere mortals, but one made in arrangement with foreign leaders that the president himself is often meeting with while they stay at his hotel. We can add the profits rolling in for Ivanka Trump after a deal sealed with China while meeting with then President-elect Trump, the insane amount of money the Kushner family are garnering from their son’s bafflingly powerful position in the White House, and the many friends of Trump’s currently under investigation, who helped him win, including Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort and Thomas Barrack, to name but three.

Conflicts of interest, of course, extend well beyond Mr. Trump himself. There is the case of Rex Tillerson, whose conflicts are so apparent as to defy reason, as a long-time head of one of the largest corporate misinformation campaigns since the Tobacco industry got out of public research on its own harmlessness. There is the aforementioned case of Michael Flynn and the tangled web of corruption and foreign conflicts he has amassed, potentially on his way to prison (or immunity for testifying against Trump). There is the more recent appointment of Lynn Patton to a senior position in HUD, without any relevant experience except in serving Trump family interests in New York City. And there is his son-in-law Jared Kushner, whose vast wealth makes him rife with potential and real conflicts of interest, and he is, of course, now a key player in the Russian investigation.   

The Trumps
What’s nepotism?

Beyond all this are the executive orders and other early decisions by the administration that appear to benefit his friends and corporate backers at the expense of the American people. He has called for reorganizing or eliminating all federal agencies—a move that will create lucrative opportunities for private contractors. He has ordered government employees to lift “regulatory burdens” on American businesses. He has signed decrees that would open up millions of acres of federally protected land to private development, promote oil and gas drilling, fast-track infrastructure projects, and roll back regulations designed to protect consumers against Wall Street scams.

The corruption and competing business interests are so intertwined with his administration, we already have lawsuits filed by the governments of Baltimore and Washington DC for breaking the emoluments clause of the constitution, among others, and by Democratic members of Democratic Senators led by Senator Richard Blumenhal of Connecticut. In fact, the legal challenges appear to be coming from every corner and building momentum with each passing week, even as Trump has arguably assembled the most unimpressive legal defense team since Groucho Marx defended his brother in Duck Soup. There is, of course, the ongoing Russia investigation, which would be the worst crime ever committed by a U.S. President, surpassing even those of Nixon. Among the most obvious corruption in this case, even if Trump was not actively involved in the Russian Hacking, is the obstruction of justice he has engaged in since we learned of those attacks, which appear to grow in magnitude and reach with each passing week.

Corporations have an incredible amount of say over what happens from one day to the next in this administration, as made clear in many of the points enumerated in the paragraphs above, but one area that might be the most damaging to our long-term future as not only Americans but a species, comes with the global warming “doubters” in this administration. Trump, of course, took us out of the Paris Climate Accord earlier this month, has wiped much of the available data on climate change from all government websites and just completed his culling of all scientists from the EPA’s scientific advisory board, led by oil and gas advocate Scott Pruitt. Pruitt is not the only corporate lackey working in the administration, however, as noted earlier, it is chalk full of them. In fact, Trump decided to tell an audience last week that he doesn’t want “a poor person” running the economy. A more accurate statement might be that he doesn’t want a poor person breathing the same air as he does and hopes to enact policies that will soon solve that problem once and for all.   

The Trumps
“I, Scott Pruitt, do solemnly swear to dismantle environmental protection, so help me shareholders.” Photo credit: Gage Skidmore.

There is, at the core, a dishonesty that is startling, combined with one meaningless red herring after another, all scripted to keep the attention of the masses away from an administration whose only raison d’etre appears to be power, culled predominantly by serving the interests of people who look and act a lot like Mr. Trump himself. This might be made clearest by the at least 16 Bush administrative personnel that have been given ethics wavers so far. Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and advisor Kellyanne Conway are the most well-known cases, but the rest of the list is just as troubling, including lobbyists like Michael Catanzaro (an oil, gas and coal lobbyist now working inside the administration to overturn Obama-era environmental rules), Shahira Knight (a Fidelity Investment lobbyist now working on tax and retirement policy that would likely serve her prior employer quite nicely) and Andrew Olmem (also advising on financial policy after lobbying for Amex, MetLife and S&P Global in the past). Returning to the Paris Climate Accord decision, it has emerged that big oil and gas advocates helped push Trump to make a decision that many inside his own administration begged him not to, using data – as he is apt to do – that the source later claimed were manipulated and misrepresented.  

Trumping all of these, of course, is the Russian investigation itself (there is a detailed timeline here). To put it in a nutshell – Trump has ties to a host of shady figures with close ties to Russia and/or Putin that go back several decades, the Russians hacked the presidential election helping Trump (through the release of DLC emails, a fake news campaign against Clinton and for Trump and hacking of voter data in at least 21 states), Trump then engaged in activities that seem to help Russia while attempting to obstruct the investigation into any ties between he, his campaign staff and Russia. More specifically, Trump hired a man he knew was compromised and thus potentially vulnerable to blackmail, fired the man investigating him and then lied about the reasons, before later admitting he was let go because of “this Russian thing,” allowed his son in law to create a back channel for communication between the President-elect and Russia, just admitted he used the threat of tapes that turned out not to exist to affect Comey’s testimony, tried to cajole the director of national intelligence and NSA director to refute reports of Russian collusion (lying about all six actions repeatedly) and has engaged in a number of decisions that seem to benefit Russia, even as the investigation continues.

Make Everything Great Again (v2)
Making Everything Great Again, in Vilnius. Photo credit: CategoryV.

Among the policies that have directly or indirectly benefitted Russia:

  1. Trying to backchannel support to lift or lessen sanctions against Russia.
  2. The aforementioned sharing of intelligence.
  3. Selecting Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State (called a “gift to Putin” by a former Top Russian minister).
  4. Letting several senior individuals in the State Department go who have been thorns in the side of Russia for years while slashing their budget overall.
  5. Softened language in the RNC convention platform around the Ukraine invasion (the only issue his team altered).
  6. A more moderated (or even positive) position on Putin himself – including defending him on national TV while denigrating Americans.
  7. Appointing a Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross, who also has close ties to Russia.
  8. Not going after Russia for the hacking, or providing much criticism of their behavior in general.
  9. Weakening NATO, the EU and the global stature of the U.S., thus buffering the resistance to Putin’s activities.

Obama has been open to substantial criticism himself, for not informing the American people of the hacking and concomitant attempts to undermine our democracy, but an interesting article from the Washington Post argues that Republican obstructionism, at the state and federal level, played a huge role in that decision (along with his assumption Clinton would win). The fact that more conservatives are not calling for Trump’s head given his behavior before and after the election in regards to the Russian attempt to undermine our democracy and sovereignty, maybe speaks to the larger issue with the entire Grand Ole Party.


Conclusion

Essentially, when we add the incompetence to the cruelty and corruption we are left with a country that is crumbling below us, both figuratively and literally. Trump is doing his best to undermine democracy, sever separation of church and state, screw the poor and middle class, fortify the corporate state to heretofore unimaginable levels, pound in the final oil drill in the cemetery of the planet’s future, destroy our global credibility and leadership and hand our sovereignty and national interest to our most fervent enemy for the better part of the past 70 years.

I think the best way to handle the quagmire of which of the three best captures Trump’s nascent administration is to simply say, all three! Congratulations, President Trump, on setting the bar so low it is hard to believe anyone can limbo underneath it this century. If one must choose among the three, though, we might take cruelty out first, mainly because, even with majorities in the House, Senate and State governments and control of the Supreme Court, the administration has not really accomplished any legislative victories of note yet, even as a number of their smaller decisions have started us along a path to the Bannon worldview of global destruction. While corruption might then seem to take the lead, there is a lot of competition for that crown–besides the fact that very little of it has fallen below the radar. And so it appears that, by default, most incompetent might best reflect the reality of the Trump Presidency, at least at present.

The Woman's March
Resistance. Not futile.

Yet what we can say is that the American people are neither as ignorant nor craven as we have been led to believe by many pundits. Activism is now rivaling that of the Vietnam era, progressive movements spreading across the country and Europe, his approval ratings as paltry as any young administration in history and the growing fury manifesting itself in small and large ways across the heartland of the country. America is clearly waking up to the reality of this presidency with a whopping 6 in 10 Americans believing he has “no respect for democratic institutions” (AP News), his approval ratings remaining historically low and, if we are to believe Nate Silver (one of the few to warn Trump could win), his base is shrinking

Whether Democrats will seize on this momentum and chart a new course for the country is still up in the air, with early signs pointing toward the same craven, feckless path that got us here in the first place. Let’s hope they heed the call to populism that has started to sweep across Europe and swaths of America and save the country and globe before it’s too late …

About The Author

Richard has published over 25 academic essays, hundreds of articles in the popular press on movies, music, sports and politics, and three books, Hollywood's Exploited (Palgrave, 2010), Educating the Global Citizen (Bentham, 2011) and The Selling of Bohemia (RJV Books, 2015). He earned a PhD in cultural studies and education from UCLA and a masters in economics from SDSU. He is a rabid sports fan who roots for Arsenal, the NY Jets and Dallas Cowboys (he knows, he knows), the Yankees and the Celtics.

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