Out with the Old, In with the — Older

David Finkel

Posted December 15, 2020

Photo: Hilary Swift for The New York Times

The Trump regime exits amidst a flood of garbage lawsuits and a frenzy of last-minute sadistic federal executions, ecocidal border wall construction and oil-drilling auctions for priceless wildlife reserves, sporadic but menacing mob threats on election officials — and deliberate sabotage of the economy as tens of millions of people in the United States face prospects of hunger, eviction and pauperization.

“Help is on the way,” promise Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as the incoming administration takes shape. And what a shape it is — a reunion of the corporate neoliberal faces of the Barack Obama presidency, with a touch more “diversity” but minus the hope-and-change aura that surrounded Obama’s ascendance.

This was entirely predictable, of course, as are the open attacks by the Biden-Obama-Pelosi-Schumer national Democratic leadership against the “progressive wing” of the party which energized so many millions of voters during the election season. That was then, this is now — time to drop all those hopes of Medicare for All or a Green New Deal, let alone, heaven forbid, even talking about defunding police.

It’s a case of out with the old and in with the older — not meaning the ages of Trump and Biden, but the politics and personnel going and coming.

Activist critics of the Pentagon-industrial-complex revolving door claimed one symbolic victory when Michele Flournoy, a hawkish figure whose work in the Pentagon goes back to the 1990s under Bill Clinton and advises military contractors through the WestExec firm, was passed over for the Secretary of Defense appointment. (It’s a position she’s long coveted and had been expected to get in a Hillary Clinton administration.)

CodePink led the campaign exposing Flournoy’s record, pointing out that she “pushed for the bombing of Iraq” and the entire “failed interventionism of the post-9/11 area that has devastated lives across the Middle East, North Africa and western Asia.”

If this righteous protest helped derail one egregious selection, there’s many more where she comes from. Secretary-of-State-designate Anthony Blinken, like Flournoy, is a founder of the WestExec consulting outfit, and a raft of other appointees inhabit that nest too. For the dreary details, see Biden Appointees’ Ties to Consulting and Investment Firms Pose Ethics Test, The New York Times, November 28, 2020.

Lloyd Austin III, the retired general designated to be the first African-American Secretary of Defense (presuming he receives the necessary Congressional waiver over being out of military service for fewer than the required statutory seven years), also comes from the dense corporate consulting ecosphere.

Tom Vilsack will return to his Obama-era tenure as Secretary of Agriculture, continuing his long career as a sponsor of the interests of corporate agribusiness. His role in the cowardly firing of Shirley Sherrod from her position as Director of Rural Development in 2010, after she was falsely targeted by a Breitbart attack video, is but shouldn’t be long forgotten. (In case you don’t remember, Ms. Sherrod was getting ready to haul Andrew Breitbart into court for defamation, but he evaded the lawsuit by the tactic of dropping dead.)

There were hopes that Marcia Fudge, an African-American congresswoman from Ohio, might be selected for the Agriculture post, which could have been a big improvement. Instead Biden nominated her for Housing and Urban Development, the spot that Ben Carson has occupied in near-total radio silence for the entire four years of Trump rule.

The return of a type like Vilsack is particularly disgusting, but nothing in the overall pattern of appointments should be surprising. Pending the outcome of the January 5 Senate runoff elections in Georgia and the general mood of Senate Republicans, we don’t know how much obstruction Biden’s cabinet selections might face, or if a handful of Democratic Senators might raise objections. But why wouldn’t we expect Biden to choose people he’s known and worked with for decades, and who share his view of “government that works” as neoliberal corporate rule with a human and mildly regulatory face? Any genuinely progressive figures who might get appointed would simply be window dressing and trapped in the right-of-center maze.

Some environmentalists are encouraged by Biden’s pledge to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord and the appointment of John Kerry (come on now — you were expecting maybe Bill McKibben?) as his envoy for fighting climate change. What remains to be seen, however, is what regulations Biden might be prepared to seriously fight for in the face of the fossil-fuel industry — to say nothing of the desperately necessary radical restructuring embodied by the Green New Deal, which he has explicitly rejected.

The biggest questions, of course, don’t have to do with inside-the-Beltway issues of Cabinet personnel, but the enormity of the crises facing the society and the world. COVID deaths in the United States have reached 300,000 and will top half a million before vaccinations are widespread. Without truly massive relief and stimulus programs, which Republicans will almost surely roadblock, deep economic stagnation or collapse is entirely possible. Climate change and dangers of war — which by themselves require another whole discussion — are escalating.

On top of all this, it would be a big mistake to dismiss the political poison and land mines that Trump leaves behind. The rightwing-stuffed and pro-corporate-elite Supreme Court wasn’t about to stupidly shatter its legitimacy by overthrowing the November election, but what it might do to the Affordable Care Act, Roe v. Wade and future voter-suppression state tactics are big unknowns. The damage done to workers’ rights by SCOTUS rulings in recent years will no doubt be compounded.

Trump’s botched post-election efforts at a sort-of-coup through courts and state legislatures predictably fell apart, but they’ve left a toxic legacy: If 45+% of the country voted for Trump and 70+% of his voters think it was “stolen,” that means more than 30 percent of the U.S. population lives in a kind of reality-free parallel ideological universe where facts simply don’t matter.

That has ominous implications going forward, not only for politics but for facing the horrific next period of the pandemic, among other things. Much of the Republican Party has devolved into a party of militant white supremacy, the glue holding together the web of bribery, brainwashing, conspiracy theory and deceit that Trump has perpetrated — which cannot be undone any time soon, if ever.

Under the pressure of multiple looming calamities and possible all-out Republican obstruction, the Biden administration might take more activist and aggressive actions than his instincts, his politics and his record would predict. But that would not result from pressure from “progressive” Democrats, whose numbers have grown, especially in local arenas, but who’ve been pushed to the margins nationally. And in any case, don’t hold your breath. Continual movement-building and mobilization, even amidst the coronavirus, will be required to make any progress toward the changes we desperately need.