Donald Trump is a monster—a confessed sexual predator, a toxic bigot, an unstable narcissist, a pathological liar, a con artist who built a business empire on plunder and fraud, a coward who thinks he’s a shark, a moron who thinks he’s a genius. For a person of such low character to occupy the presidency, wielding both its enumerated powers and its subtler, more symbolic ones, will be tremendously damaging to the country and to the world. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that the greater part of the damage done by the incoming administration will have little or nothing to do with Trump himself.
Back in July, the New York Times famously reported that his campaign’s pitch to potential VP nominees was to offer them the chance to become “the most powerful vice president in history” who would be put “in charge of foreign and domestic policy” while Trump remained a celebrity figurehead. Much of what has been reported in the last few days has been consistent with this. Trump “was shocked when he won the election,” says the Times, may not live in the White House full-time, and is intent on “continuing to hold…large rallies” because of “the instant gratification and adulation that the cheering crowds provide.” Politico adds that Trump has barely had any contact with his own transition staff and that “sources in and around the Trump transition team said there was no evidence that the president-elect had even reviewed any of the binders of policy and personnel proposals produced by the team.”
Meanwhile, that transition team is aggressively putting the lie to a foundational promise of Trump’s campaign—that he was an insurgent outsider who would “drain the swamp” and rid the federal government of corruption and special interests. As the Times, Politico, the Washington Post, the AP, and others have reported, the fledgling Trump administration is dominated by the lobbyists, donors, influence peddlers, insiders and career politicians that Trump spent his whole campaign railing against. More than 4,000 political appointments will be made by a transition staff that consists almost entirely of representatives of corporate interests matched with the relevant departments and agencies—a food industry lobbyist staffing the Department of Agriculture, a mining industry lobbyist the Department of the Interior, a notorious oil and gas industry shill the EPA, and so on.
And that’s just the executive branch, over which Trump theoretically has a degree of control. The GOP-controlled Congress will have enormous power to reshape the tax code, Social Security, health care, education, welfare, immigration, policing, and who knows what else. Congressional Republicans and the lobbyists and donors who control them are already salivating over an agenda of privatization, radical deregulation, and crippling tax cuts; Trump’s obvious disinterest in governing will only embolden them.
All in all, with a firmer grasp on the levers of the federal government than they’ve had in several generations, conservatives are poised to inaugurate an oligarchic kleptocracy the likes of which this country hasn’t seen since the late 19th century, if ever—and the reality TV star that got them here is poised to be little more than a bystander to it all.
It would be stupid to suggest that journalists or anyone else should stop paying attention to Donald Trump. There’s no doubt that his third-rate temperament will make him an exceptionally dangerous commander-in-chief, and his normalizing of racist and misogynist hatred deserves relentless, uncompromising condemnation. But since he almost certainly won’t play any meaningful personal role in shaping policy in the next four years, there’s real risk in a media environment in which Trump’s bombast and celebrity is allowed to suck up oxygen at the expense of scrutiny of the far-right ghouls and corporate power brokers who are actually running the show. And unfortunately, the media’s track record throughout the campaign—during which CBS CEO Les Moonves remarked that Trump’s candidacy “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS”—doesn’t inspire confidence that this won’t be the case.