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Trump's Cabinet Is Unlikely To Be Worth Its Weight In Gold

Why should the gilded few make decisions for the many?

04/01/2017 1:25 PM AEDT | Updated 04/01/2017 2:52 PM AEDT
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"Trump's campaign rhetoric repeatedly emphasised that the greater a given individual's wealth, the greater their aptitude to serve in public office and make intelligent decisions."

The appointment by president-elect Donald Trump of a disproportionate number of fellow billionaires to his provisional cabinet has shone a spotlight on the role of wealthy plutocrats in ostensibly democratic societies.

Topping the cabinet rich list is investor Wilbur Ross, Trump's 79-year-old nominee for Commerce Secretary, with a reported net worth of $2.9 billion. The former registered Democrat made his fortune acquiring and restructuring ailing companies in industries such as coal, steel and textiles. A graduate of Harvard and Yale Universities, Ross will be tasked with "getting tough on China", junking the Trans-Pacific Partnership and punishing US companies that shift their operations and jobs abroad.

Linda McMahon -- who co-founded World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) with her husband Vince McMahon -- is Trump's nominee for Small Business Administration. Together the couple are reportedly worth at least $1.35 billion.

How do the super-rich, some of whom have opposed the roll out of economic reforms designed to lift the living standards of the average worker and ensure a more equitable society, gel with Trump's electoral base?

Steven Mnuchin, a Yale University graduate, former doyen of Goldman Sachs and hedge fund manager worth an estimated $655 million, has been nominated by Trump as Treasury Secretary.

Rex Tillerson, a former ExxonMobil CEO with an estimated net worth of $365 million and no previous political experience, has been nominated by Trump as Secretary of State.

Betsy DeVos -- the daughter of billionaire Michigan industrialist Edgar Prince and daughter-in-law of billionaire Amway founder Richard DeVos -- is Trump's nominee for Education Secretary. Her current net worth is rumoured to be $130 million.

Andrew Puzder, worth an estimated $110 million, has been nominated by Trump as Labor Secretary. As the CEO of CKE Restaurants, which owns Hardee's and Carl's Jr burger chains, Puzder has formerly opposed efforts to raise the minimum wage and the Obama Administration's attempts to expand the number of employees entitled to overtime pay (currently blocked by a federal court judge).

There are other less wealthy cabinet nominees, such as Dr Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon with a reported net worth of $23 million. Carson has been earmarked to the head up the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Elaine Chao, who formerly served eight years as President George W. Bush's Labor Secretary, has been nominated by Trump as Transportation Secretary. Chao, who is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, is rumoured to be worth $25 million.

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Trump's nominee for Commerce Secretary, investor Wilbur Ross, is reportedly worth $2.9 billion.

Trump has won the election and is entitled to make these nominations, but are they truly democratic?

From one perspective, the nominations seem incongruent with the interests of the millions of hard-working voters who catapulted Trump into the White House. How do the super-rich, some of whom have opposed the roll out of economic reforms designed to lift the living standards of the average worker and ensure a more equitable society, gel with Trump's electoral base?

Part of the answer lies in Trump's ability to sell wealth as the ultimate determinant of merit. Put simply, Trump's campaign rhetoric repeatedly emphasised that the greater a given individual's wealth, the greater their aptitude to serve in public office and make intelligent decisions. In effect, Trump sold his business accomplishments as the ultimate electoral qualification, and many voters appear to have embraced his message.

To what extent though is Trump's argument credible? Business is no doubt a specialised skillset. It requires innate talent, leadership, capacity for hard work, competitive spirit, self-belief, prudent financial risk-taking and the ability to predict the trends, needs and direction of society. Business is also an indispensable driver of economic confidence, growth and employment.

But the business game can also have a dark side. Driven by self-interest, business leaders can become spirited advocates of lower wages, the abolition of hard-won penalty rates, and in extreme cases, the importation of foreign workers on sub-award wages. All at the same time as CEO and managerial remuneration increase.

In short, ensuring that billionaire business leaders, hedge fund managers and former CEOs are disproportionately represented in the executive branch of government runs the risk of a different political system emerging: plutocracy. Under this system, the gilded few make decisions for the many.

The risks of plutocracy are amplified in the context of celebrity culture. The intersection of celebrity and politics is nothing new. Arguably, the Kennedy dynasty was the first post-war manifestation. President Ronald Reagan was a charismatic film star. And then there was Arnold Schwarzenegger's stint as California's "governator".

The "Hollywoodisation" of politics can belie the seriousness and high stakes of political office.

Wealthy celebrities are interesting and entertaining no doubt. Donald Trump's former position on The Apprentice was, by all accounts, good viewing.

But drawing unduly upon the cult of celebrity to fill important political posts has its risks. The "Hollywoodisation" of politics can belie the seriousness and high stakes of political office. It may just be that television shows which revolve around reality voyeurism and schadenfreude moments are not the best political proving ground.

Donald Trump says "you're fired". Yes, it is entertaining. But does it translate into good executive government?

Fred Prouser / Reuters
"You're fired!"

Speaking to Vanity Fair, a former producer on The Apprentice, Bill Pruitt, claimed that Trump's image as a business mastermind was carefully stage-managed:

"The Apprentice was a scam put forth to the public in exchange for ratings. We were 'entertaining', and the story about Donald Trump and his stature fell into some bizarre public record as 'truth'."

Pruitt continued:

"We are masterful storytellers and we did our job well. What's shocking to me is how quickly and decisively the world bought it. Did we think this clown, this buffoon with the funny hair, would ever become a world leader? Not once. Ever."

A money worshipping celebrity culture is a fertile seedbed for Trump's self-aggrandising rhetoric. And it is sending a corrosive message to our youth. Those of us old enough to know better are also affected. The plain reality is that many of the most important and difficult roles in society deliver very poor remuneration and provide absolutely zero celebrity.

An intensive care nurse, for example, is routinely required to preside over the terminally ill and care for patients and their families in the most intimate and trusted way. It is noble, selfless work. But the pay of an intensive care nurse could hardly be considered generous.

What about law enforcement officers? They play an important role in upholding the rule of law, but are routinely disrespected and socially ostracised. Worse still, they are on the front line of dealing with society's most dangerous criminal elements. Their pay is anything but generous.

The same could be said about a variety of other job roles: the paramedic, the school educator, the early childhood worker, etc.

A disproportionate emphasis on billionaire status risks eroding the fabric of democracy and creating a more dysfunctional plutocracy.

These jobs and many others are vitally important but offer virtually no opportunity to generate stratospheric wealth.

Business leaders are an important element of economic and social development and should be included in democratic government. But a disproportionate emphasis on billionaire status risks eroding the fabric of democracy and creating a more dysfunctional plutocracy.

As Hillary Clinton noted in her concession speech, Donald Trump deserves "an open mind and the chance to lead". Unfortunately, Trump's billionaire plutocratic cabinet does little to bolster confidence.

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