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Trump's Cabinet Picks: The Usual Suspects

20/12/2016 17:20
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Cabinet choices are crucial for any President-elect, providing an initial insight into both the grand vision and the policy priorities of a new administration. As usual with Trump, this process has become more significant in the media attention it has drawn; the absence of clarity in what makes up 'Trumpism' means his choice of cabinet secretaries provide the only clues as to the outlook of his administration. However, for all his outsider rhetoric and violations of the standards of American politics, Trump looks to have mirrored his predecessor in promising change and providing convention.

Despite the centrality to his election campaign of his promise to "Drain The Swamp", Trump's key nominations don't empty Washington's marshland of corporate interests and Establishment figureheads, but filter them into his own Cabinet. Whilst the media have focussed upon Steve Bannon and Michael Flynn, these are personal advisors rather than administration officials. Whilst by no means savoury characters, having risen to prominence through the misinformation, conspiracy theories and dog-whistle politics of the alt-right, they lack the constitutional power, prestige and tangible control of government departments. Whilst difficult to celebrate, these men are not as yet running the federal government, and will have to compete with GOP stalwarts like Reince Priebus keen to counterbalance their influence.

Trump has reassured Republicans with domestic appointments that reflect GOP orthodoxy; from a Labor secretary opposed to raising the minimum wage to an Education Secretary who plans to expand charter, private and religious schools and whose family has donated hundreds of thousands to various pro-life charities. His choice for Transport, Elaine Chao, served for eight years under George W. Bush and is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Even those considered radical still consist of a four-term senator and former presidential candidates.

Whilst the Democratic campaign emphasised that the Donald "should not have his fingers anywhere near the nuclear codes", his foreign policy appointments are similarly removed from his populist appeal to 'shake up' politics. His pick for Defense Secretary, James "Mad Dog" Mattis, may appear to be a maverick choice, but was floated as a potential third party candidate and led the U.S. Central Command for three years under President Obama. His opposition to closing Guantanamo and criticism of the Iran nuclear deal are far from controversial across the aisle, and he has strong support from both Capitol Hill and the military. Similarly, his pick for State, Rex Tillerson, has received numerous establishment endorsements, from former holders of the office Condoleeza Rice and James Barker, President George W. Bush and Obama's former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

Whilst the oil executive is the most problematic of Trump's appointments, and been rightly pilloried for his connection to Putin, the choice of the owner of the world's largest oil corporation is no huge diversion from a Republican playbook in which wealth is rewarded with political prestige. Whilst to the American, and British, liberal class, these appointments are abhorrent, these would not look out of place in a Cabinet staffed by Rubio, Kasich or Cruz. Whilst none are moderate, all reflect the conventional platform of a contemporary conservative; regular Republicanism rather than revolution.

Most glaringly, Trump's other most notable appointments have been recruited from the very organisation he made a synonym for elitism; Goldman Sachs. Despite turning his opponents' connections to Goldman Sachs into political gold dust, Trump has nominated its former president Gary Cohn as NEC director and Steven Mnuchin as his Treasury Secretary; even the ultimate 'outsider' Steve Bannon is an alumni. Additional campaign strategies, such as the pledge to reduce the influence of private interests and lobbyists have taken a similar backseat to establishment norms, as Trump plans to follow the Obama playbook in funding his inauguration through selling access to donors, who for $1million can enjoy opportunities of lunch with the "ladies of the first families" or a "candlelight dinner" with appearances from Donald and Melania.

These decisions may be examples of glaring hypocrisy, but they are also merely the latest cycles in the revolving door of a corporate-political elite. Whilst Trump rose to power on a populist wave of anti-establishment anger, promising to end the crony corporate culture of Washington, his supporters may be jarred to see an administration brimming with the 'Goldman, generals and gazillionaires' of old. The lack of preparation in the Trump transition team for victory has left a vacuum into which the GOP establishment has poured its usual suspects. For an America woefully unaware of what to expect from a Trump presidency, the staffing of his cabinet may be their Keyser Soze moment; despite voting for anti-establishment change, the electorate is slowly finding that the Trump rebrand might just mean business as usual.

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