Trump’s Shell Government

Historian Jonathan Judd finds echoes of a not-too-distant past in the White House's political program.

Jonathan Judd Aug 8, 2017

The current Republican administration is taking dramatic steps to carve out the federal government — the continuation and advancement of a legacy laid down by Bush Jr. during his two terms as president.

Intent on privatizing every aspect of government possible so that it could be boiled down to a dysfunctional and short-circuiting network of corporate contractors, Bush Jr. allowed key aspects of U.S. military and intelligence to be contracted out at an egregious rate of corporate profit. Journalist Naomi Klein called it “shell government,” the political equivalent of the shell corporation.

Trump’s continuation of Bush’s shell government program is evident in his strategic inability to staff a myriad of positions in his administration and in his filling top positions with corporate elites to oversee the systematic dismantling of department after department put under their charge. There are 11,000 fewer federal employees since Trump took office. By comparison, the workforce grew by 60,000 under Obama. Meanwhile, the White House has refused to disclose members of its so-called deregulation teams. From what ProPublica and the New York Times have been able to patch together many have deep financial ties to the industries they are unfettering from the law. 

“[T]he role of government is merely to raise the money necessary to launch the new war market, then buy the best products that emerge out of that creative cauldron,” Klein wrote in The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, describing the Bush doctrine. When the Department of Homeland Security arose out of the rubble of fear and paranoia spread by the 9/11 attacks, the entire structure of the department was built under this hollow shell premise, creating a “burgeoning homeland security industry” that thoroughly engorged itself on security state funds. Some of the first nouveau riche investors of the disaster-capitalism-complex cut their teeth in the brave new marketplace of the Bush years.

On a domestic level, Bush and members of his administration ran a nationwide campaign to privatize social security. A true band of Friedmanite, free-market ideologues, they were ready to surrender the country’s social safety net to the highest bidder until they met the heavy backlash of democratic power when the populace soundly rejected their scheme.

With Trump, however, there is much history yet to be written. Under his presidency, Republican-led congressional and senatorial powers are running the course, attempting to privatize Medicaid. On the state level, Republican Gov. Terry Branstad of Iowa is ahead of the Republican pack. He signed legislation privatizing Medicaid in his state on April 1, 2016, spawning a humanitarian and fiscal catastrophe. Low-income, disabled and housebound patients have lost their coverage, as The Des Moines Register noted in a recent editorial:

[I]nsurers refuse to explain why claims are denied and providers are not paid. They will not talk about the specifics of financial reports with the media, and by extension the public . . .

Iowa is being taken for a ride by experienced, for-profit insurers that will continue to try to milk every penny they can from government the way they have done in other states.

Trump himself is no stranger to the shell corporation. In fact, he has championed this postmodern business model more aggressively than most in the past decades. The Trump brand is a kind of hollow shell, lacking attachment to property, employees and material ownership. Trump simply sells branding rights to developers who construct and often manage the properties that bear the president’s name. Now, Trump is carrying over and advancing the shell model in his White House.

From the outset, hiring directly from a swampy pool of lobbyists and corporatist elites, the Trump administration has set a new standard for corruption and conflicts of interest. His appointees are hollowing out key offices, bureaus and departments in startlingly innovative ways. Whether it is the Foreclosure King, Steve Mnuchin, lying under oath about his criminal conduct in the real estate market — an individual who is now to be trusted with the office of Treasury Secretary — or Betsy Devos with her underqualified resume and startling ideological bent, these are figures put into place for the purpose of gutting the government. Ask the citizens of Detroit or New Orleans how experiments in the privatization of education are faring.

Sec. of State Rex Tillerson is the epitome of the advancing illusion of a shell government structure bought and sold for the profit of what Klein has called the “corporatist state.” Tillerson’s appointment places the former CEO of ExxonMobil in direct engagement with the mechanisms of state power that once stood in his way as an agent of global capital. News last month that Exxon violated sanctions against American dealings with Russia during Tillerson’s tenure at the helm of the company is as clear an indicator as any that the fox is running the hen house. He already appears to be hollowing out the department from its core.

Tillerson has proposed a 31 percent cut to the department’s budget and an 8 percent reduction in staff. He has failed to fill or even nominate anyone for the department’s 38 highest-ranking jobs, “leaving many critical departments without direction while working with a few personal aides reviewing many of the ways the department has operated for decades rather than developing a coherent foreign policy,” the New York Times reports. This runs perfectly in parallel with the Trump administration overall, leaving hundreds of positions unfilled so that the vital core of government begins to fall into disrepair and dissolution.

The apparatus of government in the hands of Trump and his cronies is an all-too-powerful weapon to be wielded in the interests of corporate elites. They would have the country’s wealth stratified into a totalizing hierarchy of greed and corruption. With fewer hands on deck, power is ceded to an oligarchic few, this is the nature of the shell government structure. None of this is new. It is merely the neoconservative ideal of a truncated and defunct government that serves simply to police borders and protect private property taken to its extreme but logical conclusion.


Photo: President Trump shares the stage with his Polish counterpart, Andrzej Duda, July 6. Credit: White House/Shealah Craighead.

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