Trump’s closest friends in government, explained

Naomi Klein‘s brand-new book named “No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics” has recently been released, and costs a measly 12 US dollars. That price even gets you the e-book version for free! I got the e-book for $9.

Here’s an excerpt from the book, where Klein describes Trump’s latest team (if he hasn’t fired most of them yet, between the time of typing this and having it posted):

Meet the Disaster Capitalism

Cabinet Senior members of Trump’s team have been at the heart of some of the most egregious examples of the shock doctrine in recent memory. What follows is a brief overview of their exploits (which, by nature of just how many Goldman Sachs executives Trump has appointed, is by no means exhaustive). Profiting from Climate Change and War Rex Tillerson, US secretary of state, has built his career in large part around taking advantage of the profitability of war and instability. ExxonMobil profited more than any oil major from the increase in the price of oil that was the result of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It also directly exploited the Iraq War to defy State Department advice and make an exploration deal in Iraqi Kurdistan, a move that, because it sidelined Iraq’s central government, could well have sparked a full-blown civil war, and certainly did contribute to internal conflict.

As CEO of ExxonMobil, Tillerson profited from disaster in other ways as well. As we have already seen, as an executive at the fossil fuel giant, he spent his career working for a company that, despite its own scientists’ research into the reality of human-caused climate change, decided to fund and spread misinformation and junk climate science. All the while, according to an LA Times investigation, ExxonMobil (both before and after those two companies merged) worked diligently to figure out how to further profit from and protect itself against the very crisis on which it was casting doubt. It did so by exploring drilling in the Arctic (which was melting, thanks to climate change), redesigning a natural gas pipeline in the North Sea to accommodate rising sea levels and supercharged storms, and doing the same for a new rig off the coast of Nova Scotia. At a public event in 2012, Tillerson acknowledged that climate change was happening—but what he said next was revealing: “as a species,” humans have always adapted. “So we will adapt to this. Changes to weather patterns that move crop production areas around—we’ll adapt to that.”

He’s quite right: humans do adapt when their land ceases to produce food. The way humans adapt is by moving. They leave their homes and look for places to live where they can feed themselves and their families. But, as Tillerson well knows, we do not live at a time when countries gladly open their borders to hungry and desperate people. In fact, he now works for a president who has painted refugees from Syria—a country where drought was an accelerant of the tensions that led to civil war—as Trojan horses for terrorism. A president who introduced a travel ban that, if it had not been blocked by the courts, would have barred Syrian migrants from entering the United States. A president who has said about Syrian children seeking asylum, “I can look in their faces and say ‘You can’t come.’?” A president who has not budged from that position even after he ordered missile strikes on Syria, supposedly moved by the horrifying impacts of a chemical weapon attack on Syrian children and “beautiful babies.” (But not moved enough to welcome them and their parents.) A president who has announced plans to turn the tracking, surveillance, incarceration, and deportation of immigrants into a defining feature of his administration. Waiting in the wings, biding their time, are plenty of other members of the Trump team who have deep skills in profiting from all of that.

Profiting from Prisons Between election day and the end of Trump’s first month in office, the stocks of the two largest private prison companies in the USA, CoreCivic (formerly the Corrections Corporation of America) and the GEO Group, doubled, soaring by 140 percent and 98 percent, respectively. And why not? Just as Exxon learned to profit from climate change, these companies are part of the sprawling industry of private prisons, private security, and private surveillance that sees wars and migration—both very often linked to climate stresses—as exciting and expanding market opportunities. In the United States, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) incarcerates up to thirty-four thousand immigrants thought to be in the country illegally on any given day, and 73 percent of them are held in private prisons. Little wonder, then, that these companies’ stocks soared on Trump’s election. And soon they had even more reasons to celebrate: one of the first things Jeff Sessions did as Trump’s attorney general was rescind the Obama administration’s decision to move away from for-profit jails for the general prison population.

Profiting from War and Surveillance Trump appointed as deputy defense secretary Patrick Shanahan, a top executive at Boeing who, at one point, was responsible for selling costly hardware to the US military, including Apache and Chinook helicopters. He also oversaw Boeing’s ballistic missile defense program—a part of the operation that stands to profit enormously if international tensions continue to escalate under Trump. And this is part of a much larger trend. As Lee Fang reported in the Intercept in March 2017, “President Donald Trump has weaponized the revolving door by appointing defense contractors and lobbyists to key government positions as he seeks to rapidly expand the military budget and homeland security programs….At least 15 officials with financial ties to defense contractors have been either nominated or appointed so far.” The revolving door is nothing new, of course. Retired military brass reliably take up jobs and contracts with weapons companies. What’s new is the number of generals with lucrative ties to military contractors whom Trump has appointed to cabinet posts with the power to allocate funds—including those stemming from his plan to increase spending on the military, the Pentagon, and the Department of Homeland Security by more than $80 billion in just one year.

The other thing that has changed is the size of the Homeland Security and surveillance industry. This sector grew exponentially after the September 11 attacks, when the Bush administration announced it was embarking on a never-ending “war on terror” and that everything that could be outsourced would be. New firms with tinted windows sprouted up like malevolent mushrooms around suburban Virginia, outside Washington, DC, and existing ones, like Booz Allen Hamilton, expanded into brand-new territories. Writing in Slate in 2005, Daniel Gross captured the mood of what many called the security bubble: “Homeland security may have just reached the stage that Internet investing hit in 1997. Back then, all you needed to do was put an ‘e’ in front of your company name and your IPO would rocket. Now you can do the same with ‘fortress.’?” That means many of Trump’s appointees come from firms that specialize in functions which, not so long ago, it would have been unthinkable to outsource. His National Security Council chief of staff, for instance, is retired Lieutenant General Keith Kellogg. Among the many jobs Kellogg has had with security contractors since going private was one with Cubic Defense. According to the company, he led “our ground combat training business and focus on expanding the company’s worldwide customer base.” If you think “combat training” is something armies used to do all on their own, you’d be right.

One noticeable thing about Trump’s contractor appointees is how many of them come from firms that did not even exist before 9/11: L1 Identity Solutions (specializing in biometrics), the Chertoff Group (founded by Bush’s Homeland Security director Michael Chertoff), Palantir Technologies (a surveillance/big data firm cofounded by PayPal billionaire and Trump backer Peter Thiel), and many more. Security firms draw heavily on the military and intelligence wings of government for their staffing. Under Trump, a remarkable number of lobbyists and staffers from these firms are now migrating back to government, where they will very likely push for even more opportunities to monetize the hunt for people President Trump likes to call “bad hombres.” This creates a disastrous cocktail. Take a group of people who directly profit from ongoing war and then put those same people at the heart of government. Who’s going to make the case for peace? Indeed, the idea that a war could ever definitively end seems a quaint relic of what during the Bush years was dismissed as “pre–September 11 thinking.”

Profiting from Economic Crisis Ties between the US government and the business world date back to 1776 (several of the Founding Fathers were from wealthy plantation-owning families). The revolving door has been spinning ever since, regardless of whether a Democrat or a Republican was in the Oval Office. The difference with Trump, as is so often the case, is one of volume, and shamelessness. As of this writing, Donald Trump has appointed five current or former Goldman Sachs executives to senior roles in his administration, including Steve Mnuchin as Treasury secretary, James Donovan (formerly a Goldman Sachs managing director) as deputy Treasury secretary, Gary Cohn (formerly Goldman’s chief operating officer) as director of the White House National Economic Council, and Dina Powell (formerly Goldman’s head of impact investing) as the White House senior counselor for economic initiatives. Even Steve Bannon once worked at Goldman. And that’s not counting Trump’s pick to lead the Securities and Exchange Commission, Jay Clayton, who served as Goldman’s lawyer on multibillion-dollar deals, and whose wife is a wealth manager with the company.

Making all these Goldman appointments is particularly brazen given Trump’s invocation of the bank to attack his opponents. In a typically vicious salvo at his GOP rival Ted Cruz, he claimed the Goldman guys “have total, total control over him. Just like they have total control over Hillary Clinton.” It’s also extremely worrying for what it says about the administration’s willingness to exploit the economic shocks that may well reverberate on their watch. Of all the major Wall Street investment banks at the center of the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis, Goldman Sachs was among the most predatory. Not only did Goldman do a huge amount to help inflate the mortgage bubble with complex financial instruments, but it then turned around and, mid crisis, allegedly bet against the mortgage market and earned billions. In 2016, the bank was ordered by the United States Justice Department to pay a settlement of $5 billion—the largest settlement Goldman had ever paid—for these and other malpractices. In 2010, it agreed to a further $550-million fine, the largest ever paid by a Wall Street firm in the then 76-year history of the Securities and Exchange Commission, for its role in the financial crisis.

Democratic senator Carl Levin, who headed the 2010 Senate subcommittee that investigated Goldman Sachs following the financial crisis, summarized their misdeeds: The evidence shows that Goldman repeatedly put its own interests and profits ahead of the interests of its clients and our communities…. Goldman Sachs didn’t just make money. It profited by taking advantage of its clients’ reasonable expectation that it would not sell products that it didn’t want to succeed, and that there was no conflict of economic interest between the firm and the customers it had pledged to serve. Goldman’s actions demonstrate that it often saw its clients not as valuable customers, but as objects for its own profit. This matters because instead of doing well when its clients did well, Goldman Sachs did well when its clients lost money.

Even among Goldman alumni, Steven Mnuchin has distinguished himself by his willingness to profit off misery. After the 2008 Wall Street collapse, and in the midst of the foreclosure crisis, Mnuchin purchased a California bank. The renamed company, OneWest, earned Mnuchin the nickname “Foreclosure King,” reportedly collecting $1.2 billion from the government to help cover the losses for foreclosed homes and evicting tens of thousands of people between 2009 and 2014. One attempted foreclosure involved a ninety-year-old woman who was behind on her payments by 27 cents. These predatory practices drew fire during Mnuchin’s confirmation hearing for Treasury secretary (though not enough for Republicans to vote against him). Oregon Democratic senator Ron Wyden said during the hearing that, “while Mr. Mnuchin was CEO, the bank proved it could put more vulnerable people on the streets faster than just about anybody,” and charged “OneWest churned out foreclosures like Chinese factories churned out Trump suits and ties.”

Profiting from Natural Disasters And then there’s Vice President Mike Pence, seen by many as the grown-up in Trump’s messy room. Yet it is Pence, the former governor of Indiana, who actually has the most disturbing track record when it comes to bloody-minded exploitation of human suffering. When Mike Pence was announced as Donald Trump’s running mate, I thought to myself, “I know that name. I’ve seen it somewhere.” And then I remembered. He was at the heart of one of the most shocking stories I’ve ever covered: the disaster capitalism free-for-all that followed Katrina and the drowning of New Orleans. Mike Pence’s doings as a profiteer from human suffering are so appalling that they are worth exploring in a little more depth, since they tell us a great deal about what we can expect from this administration during times of heightened crisis.

Profiting from Natural Disasters

And then there’s Vice President Mike Pence, seen by many as the grown-up in Trump’s messy room. Yet it is Pence, the former governor of Indiana, who actually has the most disturbing track record when it comes to bloody-minded exploitation of human suffering. When Mike Pence was announced as Donald Trump’s running mate, I thought to myself, “I know that name. I’ve seen it somewhere.” And then I remembered. He was at the heart of one of the most shocking stories I’ve ever covered: the disaster capitalism free-for-all that followed Katrina and the drowning of New Orleans. Mike Pence’s doings as a profiteer from human suffering are so appalling that they are worth exploring in a little more depth, since they tell us a great deal about what we can expect from this administration during times of heightened crisis.

One was a specific disregard for the lives of poor Black people, whose homes in the Lower Ninth Ward were left most vulnerable by the failure to fix the levees. This was part of a wider neglect of public infrastructure across the United States, which is the direct result of decades of neoliberal policy. Because when you systematically wage war on the very idea of the public sphere and the public good, of course the publicly owned bones of society—roads, bridges, levees, water systems—are going to slip into a state of such disrepair that it takes little to push them beyond the breaking point. When you massively cut taxes so that you don’t have money to spend on much of anything besides the police and the military, this is what happens. It wasn’t just the physical infrastructure that failed the city, and particularly its poorest residents, who are, as in so many US cities, overwhelmingly African American. The human systems of disaster response also failed, the second great fracturing. The arm of the federal government that is tasked with responding to moments of national crisis like this is the Federal Emergency Management Agency, with state and municipal governments also playing key roles in evacuation planning and response. All levels of government failed.

It took FEMA five days to get water and food to people in New Orleans who had sought emergency shelter in the Superdome. The most harrowing images from that time were of people stranded on rooftops—of homes and hospitals—holding up signs that said HELP, watching the helicopters pass them by. People helped each other as best they could. They rescued each other in canoes and rowboats. They fed each other. They displayed that beautiful human capacity for solidarity that moments of crisis so often intensify. But at the official level, it was the complete opposite. I’ll always remember the words of Curtis Muhammad, a longtime New Orleans civil rights organizer, who said this experience “convinced us that we had no caretakers.” The way this abandonment played out was deeply unequal, and the divisions cleaved along lines of race and class. Many people were able to leave the city on their own—they got into their cars, drove to a dry hotel, called their insurance brokers. Some people stayed because they believed the storm defenses would hold. But a great many others stayed because they had no choice—they didn’t have a car, or were too infirm to drive, or simply didn’t know what to do. Those are the people who needed a functioning system of evacuation and relief—and they were out of luck. It felt like Baghdad all over again, with some people taking shelter in their own private Green Zones while many more were left stranded in the Red Zone—where the worst was yet to come.

Abandoned in the city without food or water, those in need did what anyone would do in those circumstances: they took provisions from local stores. Fox News and other media outlets seized on this to paint New Orleans’s Black residents as dangerous “looters” who would soon be coming to invade the dry, white parts of the city and surrounding suburbs and towns. Buildings were spray-painted with messages: “Looters will be shot.” Checkpoints were set up to trap people in the flooded parts of town. On Danziger Bridge, police officers shot Black residents on sight (five of the officers involved ultimately pled guilty, and the city came to a $13.3-million settlement with the families in that case and two other similar post-Katrina cases). Meanwhile, gangs of armed white vigilantes prowled the streets looking, as one resident later put it in an exposé by investigative journalist A.C. Thompson, for “the opportunity to hunt Black people.” In the Red Zone, apparently, anything goes. I was in New Orleans and I saw for myself how amped up the police and military were—not to mention private security guards from companies like Blackwater who were showing up fresh from Iraq. It felt very much like a war zone, with poor and Black people in the crosshairs—people whose only crime was trying to survive. By the time the National Guard arrived to organize a full evacuation of the city, it was done with a level of aggression and ruthlessness that was hard to fathom. Soldiers pointed machine guns at residents as they boarded buses, providing no information about where they were being taken. Children were often separated from their parents.

What I saw during the flooding shocked me. But what I saw in the aftermath of Katrina shocked me even more. With the city reeling, and with its residents dispersed across the country and unable to protect their own interests, a plan emerged to ram through a pro-corporate wish list with maximum velocity. Milton Friedman1, then ninety-three years old, wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal stating, “Most New Orleans schools are in ruins, as are the homes of the children who have attended them. The children are now scattered all over the country. This is a tragedy. It is also an opportunity to radically reform the educational system.” In a similar vein, Richard Baker, at that time a Republican congressman from Louisiana, declared, “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.” I was in an evacuation shelter near Baton Rouge when Baker made that statement. The people I spoke with were just floored by it. Imagine being forced to leave your home, having to sleep in a cot in some cavernous convention center, and then finding out that the people who are supposed to represent you are claiming this was some sort of divine intervention—God apparently really likes condo developments.

Baker got his “cleanup” of public housing. In the months after the storm, with New Orleans’s residents—and all their inconvenient opinions, rich culture, and deep attachments—out of the way, thousands of public housing units, many of which had sustained minimal storm damage because they were on high ground, were demolished. They were replaced with condos and town-homes priced far out of reach for most who had lived there. And this is where Mike Pence enters the story. At the time Katrina hit New Orleans, Pence was chairman of the powerful and highly ideological Republican Study Committee (RSC), a caucus of conservative lawmakers. On September 13, 2005—just fourteen days after the levees were breached and with parts of New Orleans still under water—the RSC convened a fateful meeting at the offices of the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC. 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”—thirty-two pseudo relief policies in all, each one straight out of the disaster capitalism playbook. What stands out is the commitment to wage all-out war on labor standards and the public sphere—which is bitterly ironic, because the failure of public infrastructure is what turned Katrina into a human catastrophe in the first place. Also notable is the determination to use any opportunity to strengthen the hand of the oil and gas industry. The list includes recommendations to “automatically suspend Davis–Bacon prevailing wage laws in disaster areas” (a reference to the law that requires federal contractors to pay a living wage); “make the entire affected area a flat-tax free-enterprise zone”; and “repeal or waive restrictive environmental regulations…that hamper rebuilding.” President Bush adopted many of the recommendations within the week, although, under pressure, he was eventually forced to reinstate the labor standards. Another recommendation called for giving parents vouchers to use at private and charter schools (for-profit schools subsidized with tax dollars), a move perfectly in line with the vision held by Trump’s pick for education secretary, Betsy DeVos. Within the year, New Orleans became the most privatized school system in the United States.

And there was more. Though climate scientists have directly linked the increased intensity of hurricanes to warming ocean temperatures, that didn’t stop Pence and his committee from calling on Congress to repeal environmental regulations on the Gulf Coast, give permission for new oil refineries in the United States, and green-light “drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.” It’s a kind of madness. After all, these very measures are a surefire way to drive up greenhouse gas emissions, the major human contributor to climate change, which leads to fiercer storms. Yet they were immediately championed by Pence, and later adopted by Bush, under the guise of responding to a devastating hurricane. It’s worth pausing to tease out the implications of all of this. Hurricane Katrina turned into a catastrophe in New Orleans because of a combination of extremely heavy weather, possibly linked to climate change, and weak and neglected public infrastructure. The so-called solutions proposed by the group Pence headed at the time were the very things that would inevitably exacerbate climate change and weaken public infrastructure even further. He and his fellow “free-market” travelers were determined, it seems, to do the very things that are guaranteed to lead to more Katrinas in the future.

And now Mike Pence is in a position to bring this vision to the entire United States.

  1. The man’s dead, but still living in the minds of these guys.[back]
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