There has been much criticism levied towards President Donald Trump’s cabinet picks, though usually from a partisan perspective. For example, naming Rick Perry, an oil man and climate change denier, as Secretary of Energy is appalling to environmentalists and those on “the left.” But the stated purpose of the Department of Energy is “to ensure America’s security and prosperity by addressing its energy” and it is expected that a Republican President would seek to focus on fossil fuel energy, much as a Democrat may be expected to focus on green energy.
While selections like Perry deserve criticism and opposition, they do not make Trump a tyrant so much as they make him a stereotypical Republican.
What partisan criticisms are missing — the real moment of tyranny, if you will — is that some of Trump’s picks extend beyond the bounds of partisanship and begin to reject the very framework of the American democratic system.
Consider the following four frighteningly material administration selections:
Scott Pruitt: Director of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
The stated purpose of the EPA is “to protect human health and the environment.” This is expanded upon within departmental doctrine to specify the purposes of ensuring “environmental protection is an integral consideration in United States policies,” and “natural efforts to reduce environmental risk are based on the best available scientific information.”
In selecting Scott Pruitt as Director of the EPA, Trump has named not only a fossil fuel advocate and climate change denier but a man who describes himself on his own website as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda.”
Certainly, this self-description is not an exaggeration.
As the Attorney General of Oklahoma, Pruitt repeatedly (and unsuccessfully) sued the EPA over environmental regulation. He allowed fossil fuel lobbyists to use his office stationary to write letters to the Federal Government. And more than just the denial of climate change, he vigorously opposed regulation on pollution, air quality standards around national parks, smog crossing state lines, and mercury emissions from coal plants.
Now, as EPA Director, he will be tasked with the development and enforcement of environmental regulations; administering government grants to state environmental programs, nonprofits, and environmental organizations; and facilitating the collaboration between government, the private sector, academic institutions, and other countries on environmental science.
Pruitt’s selection, described by one unnamed EPA scientist as an“unprecedented disaster,” is not simply a partisan selection to the Trump administration. Even George W. Bush’s former EPA director recently stated, “I don’t recall ever having seen an appointment of someone who is so disdainful of the agency and the science behind what the agency does. It doesn’t put us in a good place, in my mind.”
If people like Scott Pruitt have a place in the discussion on industry and environment, it is on the side of fossil fuels, and in opposition to environmental and scientific entities like the EPA.By selecting Pruitt as EPA director, Trump has rejected the idea that science and the environment have a place in the discussion at all.
Betsy DeVos: Secretary of Education
“promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access to education,” including “prohibiting discrimination.”
In selecting Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, Trump selects someone who has spent most of her adult life fighting not only for the deregulation and privatization of America’s education system but also to “advance God’s kingdom” through education reform.
DeVos has been an ardent supporter of both vouchers and charter schools in her home state of Michigan, two ideas shown to divert public funds to private, often religious, schools, and to directly harm the educational opportunities of large numbers of children, specifically, pointed out by the NAACP, low-income children and children of color.
In fact, after years of DeVos’ involvement, Michigan ranks near the bottom in national education rankings. The situation is so dire that a civil rights lawsuit was recently filed alleging that students in Michigan were being denied “fundamental access to literacy.”
Now DeVos, who, as Secretary of Education, will be in charge of filling gaps in state and local support for education, assuring equal access to education, and the creation and oversight of specialty programs for students with disabilities, low-income students, Native Americans, immigrants, and students with limited English, is set to take her educational philosophy which has failed so dramatically in Michigan to a national level.
While curriculum, standards and funding may change from administration to administration, what, to this point, has not is America’s fundamental commitment to universal public education.
In naming Betsy DeVos Secretary of Education, Trump, in the words of American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, “makes it loud and clear that his education policy will focus on privatizing, defunding, and destroying public education in America.”
Andrew Puzder: Secretary of Labor
The stated purpose of the Department of Labor is to:
“foster, promote, and develop the welfare of wage earners, job seekers, and retirees of the United States; to improve working conditions; advance opportunities for profitable employment; and assure work related benefits and rights.”
In selecting Andrew Puzder as Secretary of Labor, Trump taps for the position a man who is not only an opponent of minimum wage and overtime pay, but whose company — CKE Restaurants, the parent company of fast food establishments Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. — has been built on opposing and infringing upon the rights of workers.
While under the leadership of Puzder, CKE has been cited with nearly 100 safety violations, 36 of which were described as those “that could have resulted in death or grave physical harm that the employer should have been aware of.” They were also the subject of numerous investigations for not paying workers money they were owed, known as “wage theft.”
Additionally, Puzder, who will now oversee the construction of worker benefits, mediation between unions and employers, as well as the administration and enforcement of laws and regulations designed to protect workers, has displayed a disturbing preference for automated employees over the real flesh and blood American workers he will now represent, stating they are “always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case.”
The American labor movement came to prominence around the turn of the 20th century, culminating with the creation of the Department of Labor as a cabinet-level department in 1913, breaking the ironclad autonomy of the American employer, and contributing to innumerable improvements in the rights of the American workers.
By selecting Andrew Puzder as Secretary of Labor, Trump has rejected the idea that the American worker has a seat at the table in a discussion on American business.
Steve Mnuchin: Secretary of the Treasury
“maintain a strong economy and create economic and job opportunities by promoting the conditions that enable economic growth and stability at home and abroad, strengthen national security by combating threats and protecting the integrity of the financial system, and manage the United States government finances and resources efficiently.”
This is expanded to specify “encouraging sustainable economic growth,” “predict and prevent economic and financial crisis,” and “improving the safeguards of our financial system.”
In selecting Steve Mnuchin as Secretary of the Treasury, Trump has chosen a man for whom ideas like stability, crisis prevention, and safeguards have been mere hurdles to overcome during a career in the financial sector.
Mnuchin got his big break in the 1980s while working at Goldman Sachs, where his father was a partner, when he “saw how the bank could profit from the 1980s savings-and-loan crisis by buying up cheap assets, repackaging them, and selling them off.”
More recently, he resigned as Chairman of Relativity Media shortly before it went bankrupt, but not before funneling $50 million from the company to OneWest bank – where he is the CEO – in an example of what bankruptcy experts call “illegal preference.”
And, during the financial crisis, his OneWest bank foreclosed on tens of thousands of Americans, disproportionately senior citizens and people of color, without even pursuing options to keep borrowers in their homes. They accomplished this using a practice called “Robo-signing” to secure evictions, which they have since admitted was fraudulent.They also manipulated federal “crisis era” insurance programs to make billions in profits while costing the government over $10 billion.
Yet now Mnuchin, as Secretary of the Treasury, will be in charge of “supervising national banks,” “enforcing federal finance and tax laws,” and “advising on domestic and international financial policy,” in order to protect the integrity of a financial system all are somewhat obligated to participate in.
The financial crisis was a disaster for millions of Americans who lost their homes and their life savings, but it was a rousing success for Steve Mnuchin, who was not only a beneficiary but an architect of the collapse.
In naming Mnuchin Secretary of the Treasury, Trump rejects the idea of a financial system which exists for the benefit of all and instead proposes a kleptocracy in which risk is socialized by the many and profits are privatized for the few.
The obvious question which arises is: If Trump is seeking to sabotage these departments from within, why does he not simply eliminate them altogether?
The answer: It is not that simple.
The idea of eliminating certain departments within the government has been popular with certain Republicans since the days of Reagan. Yet modern history has seen exactly zero cabinet-level agencies eliminated. This, thanks to the procedural labyrinth which impedes any attempt.
Special interest groups, who lobbied for the creation of certain departments and fight for funding, must be considered. Civil service laws make it nearly impossible to fire federal employees without cause. And, of course, approval from both the House and the Senate is necessary to eliminate any department — difficult not only for partisan reasons but for both the personal and district-specific benefits each department bestows.
But there is a point to this difficulty of elimination. It is a safeguard to the structure of a functioning democracy.
It is a structure set up to ensure space for different sides of debate, the push and the pull of opposing forces. This is why there are different political parties, a separation of federal and state powers, the freedom of the press, and, yes, different departments within government focusing on different, and sometimes conflicting, purposes.
An oil man may run the Department of Energy, but they must engage in debate and politicking with representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency. The Department of Commerce may represent the interests of American business, but it must engage with representatives from the Department of Labor.
While different leaders and different parties can slant operations of each department in a partisan way, their very existence allows for the type of back and forth, the search for compromise, that is crucial in a democratic system.
Damaged though the American system may currently be, its progressive achievements still represent something historically unique, something fundamental to the system it purports to be.
The serf did not speak of a minimum wage, overtime, or safety regulations. Kings, Queens, and dictators had no concern for how their economic policies would impact the general population, telling them instead to “eat cake.” Education, traditionally, was a right only of a certain class, and concern for the natural environment was scientifically incomprehensible, not to mention irrelevant in the practice of empire building.
What Trump proposes with the appointments listed above is not a partisan slant on the organization of government, but the rejection of fundamental precepts: that the voice of labor should be included in a discussion on American business, that the voice of environmentalism should be included in a discussion on American industry, that public education is a universal right, and that the financial system should consider the risks to, and the needs of, all.
In reality, what Trump proposes is not much different than prohibiting freedom of the press, or outlawing opposing political parties.
It is the inclusion of disparate voices that creates and maintains the existing democratic system. Without them, the experiment of “America” ceases to exist. And in its place? Perhaps “Trump’s America.”