There’s junk-banker Steve Mnuchin, Trump’s pick for Treasury secretary, whose lawless “foreclosure machine” kicked tens of thousands of people out of their homes.
And from junk mortgages to junk food, there’s Trump’s pick for labor secretary, Andrew Puzder. As CEO of his fast-food empire, it wasn’t enough to pay workers an abusive, non-livable wage. Several lawsuits also accuse his company of stealing workers’ wages by failing to pay for their labor and overtime.
And moving from junk food to junk science, there is Trump’s pick for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson. As an executive and then CEO of Exxon, his company bankrolled and amplified garbage science and lobbied fiercely against meaningful international climate action behind the scenes. In no small part because of these efforts, the world lost decades when we should have been kicking our fossil-fuel habit, and instead vastly accelerated the climate crisis. Because of these choices, countless people on this planet are already losing their homes to storms and rising seas, already losing their lives in heat waves and droughts, and millions will ultimately see their homelands disappear beneath the waves. As usual, the people impacted worst and first are the poorest, overwhelmingly black and brown.
Stolen homes. Stolen wages. Stolen cultures and countries. All immoral. All extremely profitable.
But the popular backlash was mounting. Which is precisely why this gang of CEOs—and the sectors they come from—were rightly worried that the party coming to end. They were scared. Bankers like Mnuchin remember the 2008 financial collapse and the open talk of bank nationalization. They witnessed the rise of Occupy and then the resonance of Bernie Sanders’s anti-bank message on the campaign trail.
Service sector bosses like Andrew Puzder are terrified of the rising power of the Fight for $15, which has been winning victories in cities and states across the country. And had Bernie won what was a surprisingly close primary, the campaign could well have had a champion in the White House. Imagine how frightening this is to a sector that relies on workplace exploitation so centrally to keep prices down and profits up.
And no one has more reason to fear ascendant social movements than Tillerson. Because of the rising power of the global climate movement, Exxon is under fire on every front. Pipelines carrying its oil are being blocked not just in the United States but around the world. Divestment campaigns are spreading like wildfire, causing market uncertainty. And over the past year, Exxon’s various deceptions came under investigation by the SEC and multiple state attorneys general. Make no mistake: The threat to Exxon posed by climate action is existential. The temperature targets in the Paris climate deal are wholly incompatible with burning the carbon companies like Exxon have in their reserves, the source of their market valuation. That’s why Exxon’s own shareholders were asking increasingly tough questions about whether they were on the verge of being stuck with a whole bunch of useless assets.
Let us be clear: This is not a peaceful transition of power. It’s a corporate takeover. The interests that have long-since paid off both major parties to do their bidding have decided they are tired of playing the game. Apparently, all that wining and dining of politicians, all that cajoling and legalized bribery, insulted their sense of divine entitlement.
So now they are cutting out the middleman and doing what every top dog does when they want something done right—they are doing it themselves. Exxon for secretary of state. Hardee’s for secretary of labor. General Dynamics for secretary of defense. And the Goldman guys for pretty much everything that’s left. After decades of privatizing the state in bits and pieces, they decided to just go for the government itself. Neoliberalism’s final frontier. That’s why Trump and his appointees are laughing at the feeble objections over conflicts of interest—the whole thing is a conflict of interest, that’s the whole point.
So what do we do about it? First, we always remember their weaknesses, even as they exercise raw power. The reason the mask has fallen off, and we now are witnessing undisguised corporate rule is not because these corporations felt all-powerful; it’s because they were panicked.
Moreover, a majority of Americans did not vote for Trump. Forty percent stayed home, and of the people who voted a clear majority voted for Hillary Clinton. He won within a very rigged system. Even within this system, he didn’t win it, Clinton and the Democratic Party establishment lost it. Trump didn’t win with overwhelming excitement and big numbers. He won because Hillary had depressed numbers and a lack of enthusiasm. The Democratic Party establishment did not think campaigning on tangible improvements to people’s lives was important. They had virtually nothing to offer to people whose lives have been decimated by neoliberal attacks. They thought they could run on fear of Trump, and it didn’t work.
Here’s the good news: All this makes Donald Trump incredibly vulnerable. This is the guy who came to power telling the boldest and brashest of lies, selling himself as a champion of the working man who would finally stand up to corporate power and influence in Washington. A portion of his base already has buyer’s remorse, and that portion is just going to grow.
Something else we have going for us? This administration is going to come after everyone at once. There are reports of a shock-and-awe budget that will cut $10 trillion over 10 years, taking a chainsaw to everything from violence-against-women programs, to arts programs, to supports for renewable energy, to community policing. It’s clear that they think this blitzkrieg strategy will overwhelm us. But they may be surprised—it could well unite us in common cause. And if the scale of the women’s marches is any indication, we are off to a good start.
Building sturdy coalitions in a time of siloed politics is hard work. There are painful histories that have to be confronted before progress is possible. And foundation funding and activist celebrity culture tend to pit people and movements against one another rather than encourage collaboration. Yet the difficulties cannot give way to despair. To quote a popular saying on the French left, “The hour calls for optimism; we’ll save pessimism for better times”. (“L’heure est à l’optimisme, laissons le pessimisme pour des temps meilleurs.”)
Personally, I can’t quite muster optimism. But in this moment when everything is on the line, we can, and we must, locate our most unshakable resolve.
Get Ready for the First Shocks of Trump’s Disaster Capitalism
We already know that the Trump administration plans to deregulate markets, wage all-out war on “radical Islamic terrorism,” trash climate science and unleash a fossil-fuel frenzy. It’s a vision that can be counted on to generate a tsunami of crises and shocks: economic shocks, as market bubbles burst; security shocks, as blowback from foreign belligerence comes home; weather shocks, as our climate is further destabilized; and industrial shocks, as oil pipelines spill and rigs collapse, which they tend to do, especially when enjoying light-touch regulation. All this is dangerous enough. What’s even worse is the way the Trump administration can be counted on to exploit these shocks politically and economically.
Speculation is unnecessary. All that’s required is a little knowledge of recent history. Ten years ago, I published “The Shock Doctrine,” a history of the ways in which crises have been systematically exploited over the last half century to further a radical pro-corporate agenda. The book begins and ends with the response to Hurricane Katrina, because it stands as such a harrowing blueprint for disaster capitalism.
That’s relevant because of the central, if little-recalled role played by the man who is now the U.S. vice president, Mike Pence. At the time Katrina hit New Orleans, Pence was chairman of the powerful and highly ideological Republican Study Committee. On September 13, 2005 — just 14 days after the levees were breached and with parts of New Orleans still underwater — the RSC convened a fateful meeting at the offices of the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.
Under Pence’s leadership, the group came up with a list of “Pro-Free-Market Ideas for Responding to Hurricane Katrina and High Gas Prices” — 32 policies in all, each one straight out of the disaster capitalism playbook.
To get a sense of how the Trump administration will respond to its first crises, it’s worth reading the list in full (and noting Pence’s name right at the bottom).
What stands out in the package of pseudo “relief” policies is the commitment to wage all-out war on labor standards and on the public sphere — which is ironic because the failure of public infrastructure is what turned Katrina into a human catastrophe. Also notable is the determination to use any opportunity to strengthen the hand of the oil and gas industry.
The first three items on the RSC list are “automatically suspend Davis-Bacon prevailing wage laws in disaster areas,” a reference to the law that required federal contractors to pay a living wage; “make the entire affected area a flat-tax free-enterprise zone”; and “make the entire region an economic competitiveness zone (comprehensive tax incentives and waiving of regulations).”
Another demand called for giving parents vouchers to use at charter schools, a move perfectly in line with the vision held by Trump’s pick for education secretary, Betsy DeVos.
All these measures were announced by President George W. Bush within the week. Under pressure, Bush was eventually forced to reinstate the labor standards, though they were largely ignored by contractors. There is every reason to believe this will be the model for the multibillion-dollar infrastructure investments Trump is using to court the labor movement. Repealing Davis-Bacon for those projects was reportedly already floated at Monday’s meeting with leaders of construction and building trade unions.
Back in 2005, the Republican Study Committee meeting produced more ideas that gained presidential support. Climate scientists have directly linked the increased intensity of hurricanes to warming ocean temperatures. This connection, however, didn’t stop Pence and the RSC from calling on Congress to repeal environmental regulations on the Gulf Coast, give permission for new oil refineries in the United States, and to greenlight “drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.”
All these measures are a surefire way to drive up greenhouse gas emissions, the major human contributor to climate change, yet they were immediately championed by the president under the guise of responding to a devastating storm.
The oil industry wasn’t the only one to profit from Hurricane Katrina, of course. So did a slew of well-connected contractors, who turned the Gulf Coast into a laboratory for privatized disaster response.
The companies that snatched up the biggest contracts were the familiar gang from the invasion of Iraq: Halliburton’s KBR unit won a $60 million gig to reconstruct military bases along the coast. Blackwater was hired to protect FEMA employees from looters. Parsons, infamous for its sloppy Iraq work, was brought in for a major bridge construction project in Mississippi. Fluor, Shaw, Bechtel, CH2M Hill — all top contractors in Iraq — were hired by the government to provide mobile homes to evacuees just 10 days after the levees broke. Their contracts ended up totaling $3.4 billion, no open bidding required.
And no opportunity for profit was left untapped. Kenyon, a division of the mega funeral conglomerate Service Corporation International (a major Bush campaign donor), was hired to retrieve the dead from homes and streets. The work was extraordinarily slow, and bodies were left in the broiling sun for days. Emergency workers and local volunteer morticians were forbidden to step in to help because handling the bodies impinged on Kenyon’s commercial territory.
And as with so many of Trump’s decisions so far, relevant experience often appeared to have nothing to do with how contracts were allocated. AshBritt, a company paid half a billion dollars to remove debris, reportedly didn’t own a single dump truck and farmed out the entire job to contractors.
After all the layers of subcontractors had taken their cut, there was next to nothing left for the people doing the work. For instance, the author Mike Davis tracked the way FEMA paid Shaw $175 a square foot to install blue tarps on damaged roofs, even though the tarps themselves were provided by the government. Once all the subcontractors took their share, the workers who actually hammered in the tarps were paid as little as $2 a square foot. “Every level of the contracting food chain, in other words, is grotesquely overfed except the bottom rung,” Davis wrote, “where the actual work is carried out.”
In Mississippi, a class-action lawsuit forced several companies to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in back wages to immigrant workers. Some were not paid at all. On one Halliburton/KBR job site, undocumented immigrant workers reported being wakened in the middle of the night by their employer (a sub-subcontractor), who allegedly told them that immigration agents were on their way. Most workers fled to avoid arrest.
This corruption and abuse is particularly relevant because of Trump’s stated plan to contract out much of his infrastructure spending to private players in so-called public-private partnerships.
In the Katrina aftermath, the attacks on vulnerable people, carried out in the name of reconstruction and relief, did not stop there. In order to offset the tens of billions going to private companies in contracts and tax breaks, in November 2005 the Republican-controlled Congress announced that it needed to cut $40 billion from the federal budget. Among the programs that were slashed were student loans, Medicaid, and food stamps. In other words, the poorest people in the United States subsidized the contractor bonanza twice: first, when Katrina relief morphed into unregulated corporate handouts, providing neither decent jobs nor functional public services; and, second, when the few programs that directly assist the unemployed and working poor nationwide were gutted to pay those bloated bills.
Trump and Pence come to power at a time when these kinds of disasters, like the lethal tornadoes that just struck the southeastern United States, are coming fast and furious. Trump has already declared the U.S. a rolling disaster zone. And the shocks will keep getting bigger, thanks to the reckless policies that have already been promised.
What Katrina tells us is that this administration will attempt to exploit each disaster for maximum gain. We’d better get ready.”