Our country's privileged few used to exert their control through political surrogates. Now, thanks to Donald Trump, they're taking a more hands-on approach.
If it weren't for his appeals to hate, it would be easy to understand why so many voters were taken in by Trump. It's not just that the middle class is dying, or that wages have flatlined and inequality has soared. It's that there is real fear behind those numbers.
Millions of Americans, of all races, genders, religions, and national origin, are living in economic fear and distress. Two-thirds of us would have trouble meeting a $1,000 emergency.
That kind of economy is a breeding ground for grift. Studies like those conducted by Boston College's Center for Retirement Research confirm what professional con artists have always known: people in financial distress are easier marks.
And make no mistake about it: Donald Trump is a con artist. Trump voters have been taken in by a grift so shameless he might as well have pretended to be calling from the IRS.
Trump was always a Trojan horse for the 0.01 percent. And now he's forming a government of, by, and for the very elites he campaigned against.
Rule of the Ultra-Elite
We already live in the most unjust and unequal economy in modern American history. A new report from Deutsche Bank shows that the top 0.1 percent of Americans now holds as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. In other words, if the United States were 1,000 people in a room, just one of them would be as wealthy as 900 of the others.
That particular statistic hasn't been this bad since the 1930s.
Trump's administration is already the wealthiest in history. Its members are heavily drawn from the tiny group of 16,000 people in this country who own as much wealth as 80 percent of the population -- some 256,000,000 Americans. His cabinet picks include two confirmed billionaires (so far - he's not done yet). They come from an even more elite group: the 536 Americans whose combined wealth exceeds $2.6 trillion.
For context, the median wealth of an American adult is roughly $34,316.
It's not just their wealth that distinguishes Trump's team from the vast majority of Americans. It's their class exclusivity. Trump has largely drawn from people who, like him, were born into wealth and privilege. This insularity, combined with the heartlessness of the policies they espouse, makes it even less likely that they will empathize with -- or even understand -- the problems of ordinary people.
Most of them have never experienced hard times. And judging from their policy positions, they can be counted on to have about as much empathy for working people as Leona Helmsley's dog.
By the way: that dog, who was rich enough to join Trump's cabinet, was named "Trouble."
Goldman Sachs Bait-and-Switch
Here's Trump last February, speaking about his primary opponent Ted Cruz:
"I know the guys at Goldman Sachs. They have total, total control over (Cruz). Just like they have total control over Hillary Clinton."
Here's a Trump campaign ad showing images of Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, as the narrator speaks of
"a global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities."
And here's a headline from last week: "Goldman Sachs poised for return to power in Trump White House."
Goldman made a good foil for Trump. The firm committed serial fraud, and nobody went to jail. Bill and Hillary Clinton's dealings with the firm, including Hillary's highly-paid private speeches, were a major campaign weakness. It was made worse by pictures like this one, of Hillary Clinton laughing and hugging Goldman COO Gary Cohn.
Trump made the most of that weakness. Democrats were vulnerable to Goldman-themed, anti-elitist attacks, and Trump was more than happy to use the firm as an example of everything that's wrong with our political and financial system.
What a difference a few weeks make. Key Trump picks from Goldman Sachs include Steve Mnuchin, Trump's pick for Treasury Secretary; his political czar, Steve Bannon; his transition advisor Anthony Scaramucci; and even Cohn, who is seen as a possible top hire.
Predators on Parade
Mnuchin was a mortgage predator whose used his California bank, OneWest, to enrich himself through foreclosure fraud. A report from the California Reinvestment Coalition showed that the outfit he ran, OneWest, preyed on vulnerable seniors and became a specialist in the "foreclosure of widows." His bank reportedly foreclosed on a 90-year-old woman over a 27-cent error.
There's no delicate way to say this: That's monstrous.
Will Mnuchin exploit the federal government for his personal benefit? He already has. The California Reinvestment Coalition estimated that OneWest was collecting $2.4 billion in federal funds, aka corporate welfare, despite its history of fraudulent foreclosures and predatory lending. (More information here.)
Then there's Wilbur Ross, Trump's reputed choice for Commerce Secretary. He was born into comfort, and became a billionaire through a series of predatory investments. Ross, whose art collection is valued at $150 million, specialized in purchasing distressed companies so that he could fire their employees and sell off their assets.
"We have actually been bankers," Mnuchin said this week of himself and Ross. They have actually been predators, too. Mnuchin says he wants to cut back on the Dodd-Frank bill, a measure that took some first steps toward reining in Wall Street's greed and recklessness. Assuming he succeeds - a good bet, since Republicans hold both houses of Congress - he and his fellow bankers will soon have a freer hand to rip off customers and endanger the economy.
During the campaign, Trump called hedge funders "guys that shift paper around and get lucky." They're about to get even luckier.
Wealth and Human Disservices
Tom Price, Trump's choice for Secretary of Health and Human Services, is 'only' worth a reported $13.6 million, making him a virtual plebeian in the Fabergé-egg Trump cabinet. But he's gone to bat for the aristocracy. Not content to attack the Affordable Care Act, Price is also intent on privatizing Medicare. That's a good deal for the ultrawealthy, who will pay less in taxes, but a disaster for everyone else.
Betsy DeVos, Trump's billionaire pick for Education Secretary, is unremittingly hostile to public education as we know it. As Jeff Bryant explains, her political extremism is matched only by her determination to continue the policies of a small but determined group of education privatizers that educator Diane Ravitch calls "the Billionaire Boys' Club."
As the daughter-in-law of Amway founder Richard DeVos, Betsy DeVos belongs to a family whose net worth is more than $5 billion. But it couldn't have been a difficult adjustment, since she's also the daughter of a wealthy Michigan industrialist.
Ben Carson, who will lead Housing and Urban Development, grew up outside the typical Trump appointee's bubble of wealth and privilege. But with a reported net worth of $26 million, Carson can afford the price of admission. What's more, his willingness to blur the line between a presidential campaign and personal enrichment proves that he'll fit right in.
Carson's department was created to address historical biases and injustices in housing. These injustices can warp communities, and the nation, for generations to come. And affordable housing is a human right. But when it comes to architecture, Carson's greatest claim to fame is his belief that the Egyptian pyramids were used to store grain. There's no sign that he understands HUD's intended purpose, either.
The Ruthless Few
And now we learn that the CEO of Exxon Mobil is being considered for Secretary of State. It's becoming clear that Trump plans to give direct control of the government to the people who have indirectly ruled us for decades, thanks to an over-financialized economy and a government whose policies are guided by the desires of oligarchs.
Trump used vulnerable swing-state voters to take the government for the 0.01 percent, and he did it coldly as Steve Mnuchin used a 27-cent mistake to take that woman's house. Voters who were eager to trust him forgot that most fundamental of psychological principles: Grifters gotta grift.
Environmentalist Bill McKibben recently quoted author Jonathan Schell as saying, "Nonviolence is a means by which the active many can overcome the ruthless few."
Let's hope so, because the ruthless few are about to assume command.