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Horsemen of the Trumpocalypse
A Field Guide to the Most Dangerous People in America
By John Nichols
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Donald Trump has assembled a rogue’s gallery of alt-right hatemongers, crony capitalists, immigrant bashers, and climate-change deniers to run the American government. To survive the next four years, we the people need to know whose hands are on the levers of power. And we need to know how to challenge their abuses. John Nichols, veteran political correspondent at the Nation, has been covering many of these deplorables for decades. Sticking to the hard facts and unafraid to dig deep into the histories and ideologies of the people who make up Trump’s inner circle, Nichols delivers a clear-eyed and complete guide to this wrecking-crew administration.
A Note on How to Use This Book
On January 20, 2017, Donald Trump the man became Donald Trump the presidency. This is a book on how to understand that presidency. It begins with a concept of governing that some in the chattering classes will struggle with, as their obsession with personalities often precludes them from discussing consequential matters. Presidents can often be inconsequential—or foolish, or erratic, or incomprehensible. But presidencies are never any of those things. They are powerful, overarching, definitional. They shape more than policies; they shape our sense of what the United States can be. Jefferson's presidency made America more expansive than even the most adventurous former colonists had dared to attempt, Lincoln's made America freer than all but the most courageous of the founders dared imagine, Franklin Roosevelt's made America fairer than Wall Street had ever been willing to permit, John Kennedy's made a mature nation young again. And Donald Trump's presidency will make America something different than it has ever been—something darker if his autocratic agendas prevail, something brighter if the resistance to those agendas coalesces into the welcoming, humane and aspirational America that Langston Hughes promised it could be.
The test of the Trump era is this: Will these United States go backward on a "Make America Great Again" journey that has everything to do with the word "again" and nothing to do with greatness? Or will they go forward with an honest and unencumbered recognition of the environmental, social and economic challenges of our time, and a bold and brave faith in our ability to meet them with the genius of science, the strength of humanity, the connectivity and liberating power of real democracy?
With his actions and his appointments, Trump has made it clear that he chooses to go backward. He intends for his to be the "again" presidency.
But it will not be Trump who makes the next America happen, just as it was not Jefferson or Lincoln or Roosevelt or Kennedy. Presidents can be exceptional men or awful men, and soon presidents will be women. But there is not enough greatness or horror in any man or woman to turn the page of a vast nation. This is why the intricate webs of individuals and policies and movements that make and unmake presidencies matter more than presidents.
Pundits may choose to focus on presidents. Citizens cannot afford that luxury. When a moment raises questions of liberty versus autocracy, prosperity versus poverty, war versus peace, life versus death, citizens must tune out the gossip of campaigning and tune in on the essential issues of governing. This is only possible if they consider the whole of a presidency. Only an understanding of the whole of a presidency will allow them to determine whether to embrace or resist the possibility of an administration.
This is the essential leap—the one that took America from reverence for FDR to an embrace of a "New Deal," the one that extended from "all the way with LBJ" to a war on poverty and Medicare and Medicaid.
The men and women Trump chooses to surround himself with, and to empower, will determine the America that will emerge from his presidency. They will shape and implement the policies of this presidency. They will check and balance Trump's excesses, or they will steer this inexperienced and impulsive man toward precipices from which neither he, nor this nation, nor this world, can turn back. They will temper or incite Trump, fuel or still the cauldrons of racial and ethnic hatred and division. They will counsel against overreactions or they will make those overreactions inevitable, and incomprehensibly destructive.
But, for the most part, they will operate in the darkness of a media age when the major newspapers, broadcast networks and digital platforms are so absorbed with the pursuit of ratings and clicks that they refuse to put the spotlight on anyone but a "strongman" president.
Because the office of president has always been infused with a measure of majesty, and because it is afforded far more power than is enjoyed by the ceremonial presidents of most other lands, people in the United States and around the world have always struggled with the concept of an executive branch. They are attracted to the notion of an individualized, virtually monarchical executive—a soldier king making every decision, commanding every army, doling out every favor, collecting every emolument.
George Washington, the revolutionary commander whose countrymen encouraged him to serve as a king, struggled mightily to discourage such thinking. He accepted a system of checks and balances, distributed power to others and surrendered the mantle of authority willingly at the end of a second four-year term. With his democratically inclined secretary of state, Jefferson, he discouraged notions of an imperial presidency and counseled Americans to recognize themselves as sovereigns and their presidents as servants. In the early days of their republican experiment, Washington and Jefferson and their compatriots realized their visions with presidencies so small that they could be loaded up in stagecoaches and moved from city to city as the country sorted out the question of where it would locate its capitol. When it was decided that the District of Columbia would be the nation's center of government, the infrastructure of that government was so limited that Jefferson lodged in a rooming house on the night before his inauguration, walked on his own through muddy streets to the swearing-in ceremony, delivered a short unifying address and scrambled back to the rooming house in time for dinner.
Washington was an imperfect, yet serious man. Jefferson was an imperfect, yet visionary man. Trump is an imperfect man who is neither serious nor visionary.
"Only those Americans with no knowledge or who are self-deluded celebrate the start of the presidency of Donald John Trump, the most unqualified man ever to be elected to our highest office," wrote former White House counsel John Dean, our great philosopher of presidencies gone right and wrong, on the day of Trump's inauguration. "To wit: There is no evidence anywhere that Donald Trump has even a good newspaper or television news knowledge of the American presidency; nor is there any evidence he has ever read a single autobiography or biography of any of his forty-four predecessors in our highest elected office. To the contrary, the evidence suggests he does not have sufficient concentration power to read a book, or even listen to an audio edition, not to mention receive an exhaustive briefing of the duties of his job."
With the exponential growth of the presidency in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the recognizable and defined executive branch of old has been transformed into something altogether foreign and exotic: an elaborate construct that historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. began to identify the better part of a half century ago as the "imperial presidency." Constantly expanding, constantly extending itself, the presidency has become a labyrinth of intrigue and conflict, where even appointees who believe they are doing the bidding of the commander in chief may unwittingly take the nation in directions that the president did not intend. And it becomes a place where ideologues and con artists can, quite wittingly, launch initiatives about which the president knows little or nothing. That is more likely in the presidency of a Donald Trump than in those of his predecessors because Trump has the worst possible "experience" for the managing of a presidency: that of a reality TV–show star who has for decades played the role of a business executive. Corporate CEOs rarely if ever make a smooth transition from the private sphere to the public sphere; as the two most well-trained and experienced business executives ever to share the title of president, frequently failed oil executive George W. Bush and epically failed crony capitalist Dick Cheney, proved when they steered the United States into undeclared and disastrous wars and the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression. But at least Bush and Cheney had familial and personal experience as governmental hangers-on. Trump has no such experience. He is, like the catastrophe that was Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, a dilettante whose business career has never been much more than bad theater and whose governing experience is that of a grifter.
Berlusconi governed Italy from "the gut" as Trump says he will America. But Berlusconi governed in coalition, surrounded by a motley crew of partisans and ideologues and compromised souls who were at his service and at their own. The same is true of Trump. This book groups the Trump circle into rough categories: ideological messengers, political hacks, military-industrial complex generals and dollar diplomats, and privateers and corporatists. Savvy readers will note that some of our subjects, like Steve Bannon or Sean Spicer, could have a place in more than one category. Savvier readers still will recognize that when a book is written at the opening of a presidency, some who were empowered initially will be disempowered eventually. Some who were on the scene at the start will disappear before the finish. Some who were nowhere near the corridors of power will suddenly appear in them. The full story of a presidency cannot be told until after it is finished. But a presidency can be understood, if explorers have a field guide. This book can be understood and embraced as such. More attention is paid to some lesser-known figures than to the celebrities among the newly empowered; that is because, ultimately, this book is more about power than personalities. There is a great deal of history in this book because history provides perspective, and perspective is what we need most of all in a moment so chaotic as this. And there is humor, because humor is required in a moment so daunting as this.
There is, as well, hope because this book is written in a period of resistance to an imperial and imperiling presidency. It proposes to strengthen that resistance by providing insight into the whole of the Trump enterprise. That fuller view, which extends beyond a president to examine a presidency, is essential. It is the wellspring of the popular authority that in a democratic republic can still check and balance the governing leviathan. James Madison, our imperfect and fretful, yet often visionary fourth president, was right in his prescription for America: "a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives."
—John Nichols, June 2017
Betsy DeVos and the Malice Domestic
AN INTRODUCTION TO THE TRUMPOCALYPSE
"Malice domestic" from time to time will come to you in the shape of those who would raise false issues, pervert facts, preach the gospel of hate, and minimize the importance of public action to secure human rights or spiritual ideals. There are those today who would sow these seeds, but your answer to them is in the possession of the plain facts of our present condition.
—PRESIDENT FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT, 1935
Even in America's post-truth moments, even in our ages of "alternative facts" and deliberate deception, the truth comes out. This is the eternal certainty, the promise across time that has sustained us in circumstances so dark as these. Franklin Roosevelt did not invent the notion of "malice domestic." He borrowed it from William Shakespeare, who recalled an ancient malice, and warned of those who might initially cloak their evil intentions in order to obtain authority over great nations. They might get away with it initially, but the damned spot is never washed away. As the wisdom tradition of the proverb writers assures us: "Their malice may be concealed by deception, but their wickedness will be exposed in the assembly." So it was that, in the transition period from the America that was to the America of Donald Trump, Betsy DeVos was exposed not just as an unsettling example of the "malice domestic" as it manifests itself in our times but as the very embodiment of the fraud perpetrated by a "billionaire populist" as he built an administration of greedheads and grifters, climate-change deniers and fake-news presenters, white nationalists and religious zealots, full-on neocons and blank-stare ideologues.
This book is not about Donald Trump, per se. This book is about Trumpism—the combination of propaganda and power, paranoia and plutocracy—that now grips America. Every "ism" needs a cadre of believers and buccaneers, and this book introduces you to the worst of the lot: the empowered elites of Donald Trump's inner circle who, by their actions and inactions, threaten to turn Trumpism into a Trumpocalypse for America and the world. This is the story of cabinet secretaries and assistants, commissioners and counselors, blood relatives and retainers, billionaire "advisors" and unindicted co-conspirators who make up a Trump administration that is absolutely unprepared "to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity" but more than ready for a mission of provocation and plunder.
Despite his own ideological unsteadiness, Trump has surrounded himself with what Walter Dean Burnham, the great scholar of American political progress—and deterioration—refers to as "the most right-wing leadership cadre since Calvin Coolidge left the White House in 1929." The Trump administration is, Burnham warns us, a "wrecking crew" bent on reversing generations of American advancement, perhaps to a "primal date" in the Coolidge era. Hillary Clinton may have been injudicious in her 2016 campaign-trail consignment of Trump backers to a "basket of deplorables," but, surely, Trump's administration is a container so crammed with the contemptible that the very thought of exploring its contents can be overwhelming. Ignorance is no protection from this lot, however; they thrive on the confusion and exhaustion of good citizens and good chroniclers of our new condition. So we should appreciate moments of clarity.
Enter Donald Trump's designee to serve as secretary of education, the aforementioned Betsy DeVos, about whom Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren said: "It is hard to imagine a candidate less qualified or more dangerous." No less an authority than former president George Herbert Walker Bush's assistant secretary of education, Diane Ravitch, dismissed DeVos as "unqualified, unprepared, and unfit for the responsibility of running this important agency." The initial adjudicator of peril and possibility for the America experiment, George Washington, observed that education was so vital to the progress of a nation and its people that "without this foundation, every other means, in my opinion, must fail." So the fact that Betsy DeVos is an unmitigated and overarching fraud is a matter of considerable consequence. And the fact that DeVos was confirmed to serve as the head of so definitional a department, even after her fraudulence was revealed, tells Americans everything they need to know about the breakdown of the system of checks and balances that facilitates Trumpism. So it is only appropriate to point to DeVos as the best evidence of the broader crisis that began on January 20, 2017.
Like many of Trump's nominees and appointees, formal counselors and casual consiglieres, Betsy DeVos was an unknown entity to the vast majority of Americans when she was tapped for a cabinet post. Upon her nomination in November of 2016, a statement from the Trump transition team had the president-elect hailing the billionaire philanthropist as a "brilliant and passionate education advocate" who "will reform the U.S. education system and break the bureaucracy that is holding our children back so that we can deliver world-class education and school choice to all families." But that was just press-release happy talk from an administration that would soon affirm its determination to communicate "alternative facts." The truth is that Trump was so unfamiliar with his nominee to run an agency with a $70 billion budget, more than four thousand employees and responsibility for serving 50 million students in 16,900 school districts nationwide, along with 13 million post-secondary students, that, when he signed the paperwork nominating her for the cabinet post, the president looked around quizzically and asked: "Ah, Betsy. Education, right?" As it turns out, the only Trump administration insider who was more confused than the president about Betsy DeVos was Betsy DeVos.
In January 2017, at a hearing organized by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, DeVos was supposed to make the case for her confirmation. Instead, she exposed herself. No, she did not have an education degree. No, she had never taught in a public school and nor had she administered one. No, she had not served on an elected school board. No, she had not sent her children to public schools. No, she had never applied for a student loan and nor had her children. But, yes, she did think that guns might have a place in public schools as a defense against grizzly bears. Asked about the basic measures of educational attainment, she struggled to distinguish between growth and proficiency in an exchange with Al Franken so agonizing that the senator from Minnesota felt it was necessary to speak very slowly and deliberately as he explained to the nominee for secretary of education that "this is a subject that has been debated in the education community for years." Toward the end of the many agonizing hours of questioning and attempts at answering on that January day, New Hampshire senator Maggie Hassan, the mother of a child with cerebral palsy, asked DeVos about programs and protections for students with disabilities.
DeVos, the nation's most urgent advocate of private-school voucher programs that educators and parents have identified as a particular threat to the educational prospects of children with disabilities, assured the senator that "I will be very sensitive to the needs of special needs students and the policies surrounding that." Yet, the nominee seemed to be unfamiliar with "the policies surrounding that" in general, and, more particularly, with the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
"That's a federal civil rights law," Hassan explained to the flailing nominee. "So do you stand by your statement a few minutes ago that it should be up to the states whether to follow it?"
Grasping desperately for the most reassuring of the talking points she had been provided, DeVos replied: "Federal law must be followed where federal dollars are in play."
Hassan eyebrows rose. "So were you unaware, when I just asked you about the IDEA, that it was a federal law?" the senator asked. "I may have confused it," replied DeVos.
Americans who worry about maintaining the promise of public education for all students may at that point have been confused about how Betsy DeVos ended up in so embarrassing a circumstance, and about why anyone would think she was prepared to oversee education in America. Yes, DeVos had spent many decades and many dollars on campaigns to privatize and voucherize public education. But, as her Senate testimony revealed so glaringly and so egregiously, DeVos had not bothered, in all those years of self-promotional politicking, to familiarize herself with the essentials of the education system she proposed to "reform." How could someone who American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten dismissed as a partisan automaton with "no meaningful experience in the classroom or in our schools" position herself to become "the most ideological, anti-public education nominee put forward since President Carter created a Cabinet-level Department of Education"?
The answer to that question came in the form of a question.
Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, who for years had warned of the danger that America was veering toward "of the rich, by the rich, for the rich" plutocracy, grilled DeVos on a host of issues, from school privatization to college costs. But he opened the discussion with an inquiry that resolved the mystery of DeVos's presence before the committee.
"Ms. DeVos," the senator began, "there is a growing fear in this country that we are moving toward what some would call an oligarchic form of society, where a small number of very wealthy billionaires control our economic and political life. Would you be so kind as to tell us how much your family has contributed to the Republican Party over the years?"
Resorting to the canned talking points that most of Trump's nominees used to avoid meaningful exchanges, DeVos responded: "Senator, first of all, thank you for that question. I was pleased to meet you in your office last week." Then she tried to dodge the question by saying: "I wish I could give you that number."
Sanders was having none of it. "I have heard the number was $200 million. Does that sound in the ballpark?"
DeVos gulped. "Collectively over my entire family," the billionaire campaign donor replied, "that is possible."
"My question is, and I don't mean to be rude, but," Sanders inquired, "do you think that if your family had not made hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions to the Republican Party that you would be sitting here today?"
A sheepish DeVos replied that "I do think there would be that possibility." But she could not muster energy for an argument that even she knew was comic. No one, not even Betsy DeVos, could have imagined, not for a minute, not even by the most remote possibility, that Betsy DeVos would be anywhere near a Senate hearing room, let alone the cabinet table, if she had not bought her way into the room.
That fact should have disqualified DeVos, as similar details should have disqualified the new president's nominees for the secretary of the treasury position once held by Alexander Hamilton, for the secretary of labor position once held by Frances Perkins, for the position of ambassador of the United States to the Court of St. James that was held in the last century by the likes of Averell Harriman and Joseph Kennedy (and in preceding centuries, and with the designation as "minister" or "envoy," by future presidents John Adams, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren and James Buchanan). Unfortunately, neither DeVos nor her patrons were possessed of the sense of duty, or shame, necessary to derail the moneyed mandarins who were grasping for levers of power in the Trump interregnum. Sinecure after sinecure, position after position, was handed to this billionaire or that multimillionaire; those with fat wallets and fast pens were, again and again, assigned the power to define American policy by the man who had throughout his 2016 campaign dismissed recipients of big-money largesse as "puppets." In the first six weeks after his election, according to Politico, campaign donors accounted for "39 percent of the 119 people Trump reportedly considered for high-level government posts, and 38 percent of those he eventually picked." Trevor Potter, a lawyer who once advised Republican presidential nominee John McCain, suggested that Trump's penchant for picking major campaign donors for positions of major responsibility set up a disillusioning circumstance for "voters who voted for change and are going to end up with a plutocracy."
Unfortunately, aside from Bernie Sanders, members of the U.S. Senate often have trouble getting exercised about plutocracy. So it was that, on January 21, 2017, the Education Committee voted 12–11 to send the DeVos nomination to a full Senate where members of the Republican majority were prepared to rubberstamp another Trump nominee. There was no real system of checks and balances when it came to this president's picks, even when they were so manifestly inept and monumentally conflicted as Betsy DeVos. Despite the fact that many Republican senators positioned themselves as #NeverTrump men and women of principle during the bitter 2016 presidential race, those same senators fell in line behind nominees who had often donated not just to the Trump campaign but to the Republican Party that claimed their loyalty.
This is the nightmare scenario that James Madison feared when he envisioned the abandonment of the duties that extend from the swearing of an oath to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic" by "a number of citizens, whether amounting to a minority or majority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community."
Madison, the designer of the drafting project that yielded the Constitution and an essential author of the Bill of Rights, was the most uneasy of the founders. Strikingly conscious of his own failings and those of his contemporaries, the man who would serve as the fifth secretary of state and fourth president of the new United States warned that "the essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse." He concerned himself with the dangers of militarism, observing that "of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other." He worried about propaganda and how "all the means of seducing the minds" might be "added to those of subduing the force, of the people." He saw the threat of an imperial presidency, under which "the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied." Madison fretted about the "unequal distribution of property," about the mingling of religion and government to establish a state church ("in no instance have they been seen the guardians of the liberties of the people") and, as a Virginia plantation owner, about the original sin of the American experiment (admitting, albeit too quietly and too late, that slavery was "the great evil under which the nation labors").
No member of the founding circle understood the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of the American experiment so well as Madison. It was for that reason that he advocated so ardently for a system of checks and balances that might serve as the "great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers." Today, Madison's fear of factions is often seen as the overly idealistic affectation of a man from another time; as the resistance of a romantic to the inevitable development of American variations on the British Tories and Whigs. But Madison was no romantic and nor was he a rigid nonpartisan; in fact, he was the essential lieutenant to Thomas Jefferson in his fellow Virginian's wrangling with Alexander Hamilton and in Jefferson's 1800
- "John plays an extraordinarily important role... He is everywhere. He is an incredible writer. I try to write sometimes and I can't believe how fast he writes and how well he writes."—Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont
- "The great threat posed by Donald Trump's presidency does not begin or end with him. Trump's appointees have the power to privatize, to deregulate and to rip apart the American dream. They are already attacking our liberties, our social-safety net and our planet. With this deeply reported and profoundly honest book, John Nichols exposes them all. For citizens who seek to resist not just Trump but Trumpism, this is the essential book."—Thom Hartmann
- "This is the real story of the Trump administration -- not what Trump is tweeting but what his appointees are doing to undermine civil rights, economic security and the environment. John Nichols gets behind the scenes, finds the truth and reveals it all. If you want to go beyond the 'alternative facts,' the 'fake news' and the media spin, you must read this book."—Rev. Jesse Jackson
- "Nichols provides all rationally outraged Americans with factually insightful portraits of the corporatist managers of Trump's giant wrecking machine.... The unprecedented cruelty, greed, ignorance and abuses of power over the laws of the land are revealed in the pages of this fast-paced, well documented book. ... Nichols shows that the fate of our society's health and safety, justice and democracy, freedom and opportunity are being sacrificed on the anvil of giant corporatism -- unless 'we the people' stop them."—Ralph Nader
- "John Nichols always speaks truth to power. But in this book he shouts the truth we all need to hear."—Nina Turner, Our Revolution
- "The Trump horror show is overshadowing the gang of kleptocrats propping him up. They're waging a methodical war on the vast majority of Americans and on the planet we share. This is a crucial guide to get ready to stop them."—Naomi Klein, author of No Is Not Enough and This Changes Everything
- "In a timely volume, [Nichols] enlightens the labyrinthine corridors of governmental power...Written with typical flair and an erudite grasp of history, this is more than a handy reference work....He is to be thanked for offering citizens an accessible work to help guide us through these dark and dangerous times."—Real Change News
- "You may have thought you knew who's working for this president, but you'll discover what you know is only the tip of the iceberg."—The Capital Times
- On Sale
- Aug 29, 2017
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Bold Type Books