On the “Keepin’ It 1600” podcast a few days ago, journalist Ana Marie Cox made an observation that captured the ongoing spectacle of President-elect Donald Trump appointing right-wing zealots and unqualified hacks to staff his Cabinet and his administration. In discussing Trump’s naming Ben Carson as secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Cox said of the president-elect, “He’s too lazy to have an ideology himself, so he just kind of lets other people think it up for him.”
In Cox’s formulation, Trump has surrounded himself with people who are happy to do the work of having an ideology for him: people like former Breitbart News impresario Steve Bannon, his chief adviser, or his theocratic Vice President-elect Mike Pence, or his designated chief of staff, Reince Priebus, a bowl of vanilla pudding who would probably drop dead of an aneurysm if he had to consider whether a political move or legislative policy is good for anyone outside the GOP’s millionaire donor class.
These advisers have happily stepped into this ideological vacuum. Which, combined with Trump’s natural laziness, is why we are now seeing the appointments of officials who will likely push exactly the opposite of policy goals that Trump talked about during the campaign (and still talks about at the victory kundgebungen he keeps staging).
A prime example is Thursday’s announcement of the nomination of Andrew Puzder as labor secretary. Puzder is the multimillionaire CEO of CKE Restaurants, which owns and operates the fast food chains Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. In this position, Puzder has opposed large minimum wage hikes, presumably because he doesn’t want to make less than 300 times the salary of the average burger flipper in one of his restaurants.
Another big Pudzer contribution to the business of business of late has been his hyping of automation in the fast food industry. This would eliminate even the low-paid workers he already does not want to give raises to.
If Donald Trump had any ideological consistency, he might wonder how appointing a labor secretary who wants to replace most of his workers with self-service kiosks squares with his campaign commitment to bring jobs back to America. Even in the manufacturing sector that Trump turned into an ideological cudgel to beat his business-friendly opponents with over the course of the GOP primary campaign, automation of jobs is a bigger threat than the offshoring to foreign countries he has complained about.
In other words, Trump just appointed a labor secretary who stands for precisely the opposite of the employment policies of his supposed new boss. He didn't pick Puzder in order to have a principled opposing viewpoint in his Cabinet. He did it because Puzder is a huge GOP fundraiser who co-chaired Trump’s California finance committee and who, with his wife, contributed $150,000 to Trump’s campaign.
Or, more accurately, he probably picked Puzder for the same reasons he picked Carson: Because he was there and had done something nice for Donald Trump. Puzder has zero experience working in government and will probably be the least qualified labor secretary since Raymond Donovan took the same job in the Reagan administration. That didn't matter. As was the case with Trump's tapping of Carson, the neurosurgeon who by his own admission is not qualified to run a major government department, the president-elect is too lazy to put the work into finding someone with the skill set to do the job.
In a happy coincidence, Puzder’s far-right ideology lines up with that of some of Trump’s advisers, who can steer Trump into appointing a business-friendly leader likely to leave the Department of Labor a smoking ruin. Or into appointing an Environmental Protection Agency administrator who would just as soon dismantle the EPA as lead it. Or an education secretary, also a big Trump donor, who hates the public schools that have been a bedrock of the nation’s educational system for 200 years.
The possibility that Trump will pay little attention to the details of his administration has long been sitting out in the open, going back to the speculation after his campaign announcement in June 2015 that his whole presidential run was a publicity stunt. This past July, news reports claimed that the Republican candidate’s son had reached out to the campaign of vanquished rival John Kasich to offer the Ohio governor the vice presidential spot on the GOP ticket. Trump’s running mate, a Kasich adviser was told, would be “the most powerful vice president in history,” in charge of domestic and foreign policy while Trump himself would be in charge of “making America great again.”
Donald Trump’s only ideology is Donald Trump. Which is why he refuses to liquidate his assets and place his investments in a blind trust, as every other president of the modern era has done. It is why he is likely to keep a financial stake in his business empire even after he officially hands it over to his sons to run.
In a normal presidential administration, people like Carson and Puzder would be handed nice ambassadorships to unimportant countries whose relationships to America they would be hard-pressed to screw up. In Trump’s administration, they are given extraordinary power to screw up their own country, simply by dint of having stroked the gaping canyon of neediness that is Donald Trump. The tragedy lies in how many people will suffer and how much terrible change the country will endure in service to that ego.