Donald Trump’s circus act is a sinister distraction

The president vowed to drain the swamp but has handed the US to the highest bidders.

The circus act children love the most is the one that is meant to distract them. When the clown comes out, the kids have eyes for nothing else. Little do they notice the scenery changes in the background. Elephants may be replaced by trapeze artists. Flame eaters supplant the lions. But the children stay riveted on the clown in the spotlight. Donald Trump is the circus maestro of our age. Since the US president took office, he has upended America’s regulatory culture. Steve Bannon, his former chief strategist, described it as the “deconstruction of the administrative state”. Most of us are too entertained to pay close attention. Much as the media love to hate Mr Trump, he is the gift that keeps on giving. Traffic is booming. Advertising dollars keep flowing in. Lollipops are on me! Every now and then one notices blurry figures in the gloaming. One of them is Betsy DeVos, Mr Trump’s education secretary, and scourge of public education. Another is Mick Mulvaney, his budget director and acting head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. We were briefly entertained by Scott Pruitt, the disgraced former head of the Environmental Protection Agency — chiefly because he installed a $43,000 soundproof telephone booth for his office that he used once. Then there is Ryan Zinke, the secretary of the interior, and Ajit Pai, chair of the Federal Communications Commission. Together these figures are making a bonfire of federal regulations. Doubtless some of them deserve to be burnt. But those are unlikely to include the rule requiring for-profit colleges — the likes of Trump University — to show their graduates managed to land jobs that justified the steep debt they took on. Colleges that failed to comply would lose their share of $500m in annual subsidies, according to the old rule. Recommended Person in the News Michael Cohen, the president’s fixer who knew too much The man in charge of the department of education’s fraud investigations is a former dean of a for-profit college that paid $100m to settle a false marketing lawsuit. Ms DeVos, who inherited millions and married into billions, has reopened the taxpayer spigot for such colleges. It seems to run in the family. Her brother, Erik Prince, made his fortune as the founder of Blackwater, the mercenary outfit that was shut down after its employees killed civilians in Iraq. He is lobbying the White House to outsource US operations in Afghanistan to a 5,000 private army that would be headed by a corporate viceroy. Mr Trump is said to be open to the idea. Then there is the EPA’s move to scrap Barack Obama’s clean power plan, which prompted electricity companies to use clean energy, such as wind, solar and gas, rather than coal. The idea was to meet America’s pledge to reduce carbon emissions under the Paris accord from which Mr Trump walked away. His EPA is incinerating other rules, such as one that holds chemical companies liable for arsenic they leave in the ground. A few blocks away, in another building populated by unentertaining types, Mr Zinke’s interior department is shrinking protected areas of natural beauty. Great chunks of America’s national monuments are being opened to the drillers. Mr Zinke has also lifted the ban on importing hunting trophies — the giraffe, lion and other big game that hunters had to leave behind in Africa. This is the same man who last week blamed the worst fires in California’s history on the actions of “environmental terrorist groups”. Another rule worth keeping was one that protected consumers from payday lenders— the outfits that charge usurious rates to people who live on the margins. Mr Mulvaney wants to do away with that. The payday lenders association held this year’s annual conference at one of Mr Trump’s golf clubs in Florida. Described by one colleague as like a “mosquito in a nudist colony”, Mr Mulvaney is shrinking the best thing that arose from the ashes of the 2008 financial crisis. The CFPB is meant to protect vulnerable Americans from the kind of hoodwinking that led to the subprime mortgage crisis. I could go on. But readers’ eyes may glaze over. Who wants to hear about the end of the net neutrality rule, or breaches of the presidential emoluments clause, when we could discuss how many cheeseburgers Mr Trump eats every day? Why dwell on tax breaks for property developers when we could be analysing Melania Trump’s subliminal messaging? At some point the circus will move on. What will it leave in its wake? Mr Trump was elected on the vow of remembering the forgotten American. He also promised to drain the swamp. These were serious pledges that swayed many who might otherwise have been put off by Mr Trump’s character. In practice, he has handed the country to the highest bidders. The big picture is a looting of public goods. Students will find it harder to pay off debt. Financial outfits will find it easier to secrete punitive clauses into contracts. People’s health will be damaged by toxins and dirty air. He will leave Washington more corrupt, and forgotten Americans more disenchanted, than he found them. While Mr Trump keeps us all amused, his crew is turning the swamp into a primeval soup.

Source: Financial Times