Part Six: The Looting of the Nation

Trump has served as the Pied Piper for the most radical GOP agenda on the economy, workers, and the poor.

Photo illustration: Elise Swain/The Intercept, Getty Images

Donald Trump has run the White House like his family business with one primary aim: to enrich his brand, his family, and his cronies. In part six of “American Mythology,” we examine how Trump and the GOP — at times with help from the Democrats — have opened the gates to the federal feeding trough for corporate greed and unaccountability. Throughout the 2016 campaign Trump claimed that, unlike Hillary Clinton, he was not beholden to corporate or special interests and that he would uplift the working class. Once in power, he appointed record numbers of Goldman Sachs veterans to his administration, passed sweeping tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, attacked organized labor, and chiseled away at an already abysmal health care system. Unprecedented inequality and stagnant wages have persisted. Fewer Americans currently have health insurance than when Trump was sworn into office. These sharp economic injustices have come into clear focus during the Covid-19 pandemic: Corporate robber barons like Jeff Bezos have increased their wealth by billions while 40 percent of Americans say they couldn’t withdraw $400 in the event of an unexpected emergency. In America, eight million more people have descended into poverty in recent months, as the wealth of billionaires grew by $845 billion.


Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted. 

I’m Jeremy Scahill coming to you from New York City and this is part six of an Intercepted special, “American Mythology: The Presidency of Donald Trump.”

Donald J. Trump: This is the most important election in the history of our country. And people have to get out and vote because what they want to do is crazy. We will never allow this country to become a socialist nation, and that’s what they’re trying to do.  

JS: During the 2016 election, Donald Trump regularly criticized Hillary Clinton for her relationship with Wall Street, and in particular, her paid speeches to the investment bank, Goldman Sachs.

DJT: I know the guys at Goldman Sachs. They have total, total, total control over him, just like they have total control over Hillary Clinton, they have total. But they have no control, they have no control over Donald Trump. I don’t want their money, I don’t need their money.

JS: While many progressives, including Clinton’s Democratic primary opponent Bernie Sanders also blasted her Wall Street ties, Trump’s attacks often utilized some unsavory tactics. He claimed, in one of his many antisemtic dog whistles, that Clinton’s past support of trade agreements like NAFTA and the TPP proved she was a “globalist.”

DJT: Hillary Clinton is merely a vessel for those global special interests trying to strip our country of its wealth, its jobs, its status as a sovereign nation. And we have been stripped, folks. We don’t make anything anymore. We don’t make anything. We’re gonna start making things. We’re not going to let countries like China devalue their currency and have trade deficits of $400 billion and $500 billion a year. We’re not going to let it happen. She’s a globalist who makes a living taking jobs from our country and giving them to foreign countries.

JS: Trump claimed that unlike Clinton he was not beholden to corporate or special interests, and that he’d wouldn’t abandon the working class.

DJT: You have one magnificent chance to deliver justice for every forgotten man, woman, and child in this nation. The arrogance of Washington D.C. will soon come face to face with the righteous verdict of the American voter. Believe me, it’s enough. 

JS: Fast forward to that gray day in January 2017, when Trump took the oath of office.

John Roberts: Preserve, protect, and defend —

DJT: Preserve, protect, and defend —

JR: The Constitution of the United States — 

DJT: The Constitution of the United States —

JR: So help me God. 

DJT: So help me God.

JR: Congratulations 

[Cheers, claps, trumpets]

JS: In his inaugural address, reportedly written by Steve Bannon, Trump described an economic hellscape that, for many Americans, was a reality.

DJT: Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation. … 

This American carnage stops right here, and stops right now. … 

America will start winning again, winning like never before. We will bring back our jobs. We will bring back our borders. We will bring back our wealth. And we will bring back our dreams. We will build new roads, and highways, and bridges, and airports, and tunnels, and railways all across our wonderful nation. We will get our people off of welfare and back to work — rebuilding our country with American hands and American labor.

JS: Claiming he would spur economic growth and bring back manufacturing jobs, Trump promised to end NAFTA, pull out of TPP, close trade deficits, pass a massive tax cut, and invest in the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. That is what he said. But my colleague Naomi Klein warned early on that in examining Trump’s business dealings, we would get a glimpse into what he might actually do with the U.S. economy.

Naomi Klein: What Donald Trump has done as a businessman. You know, how he has run his incredibly opaque company, the number of bankruptcies, the number of ripped off workers and contractors. I mean, he so consistently sacrifices his own investors, his — you know, his own partners, and just looks out for number one. 

When there are problems, and there are very often problems with Trump developments, whether — if it’s not on time; if it’s — if people aren’t able to — these are often revenue properties. If they feel that they’ve been lied to, whatever happens — and there have been several collapses — Trump is not responsible, right? The liabilities are held by these business partners to whom he’s just leased his name. So, if the U.S. government is run anything like the Trump organization: Expect to be looted.

JS: The looting began on day one. Trump appointed Gary Cohn, the president of Goldman Sachs, to be his chief economic adviser. Contrary to Trump’s beratement of Clinton during the primary about the bank, there were more Goldman Sachs alumni working for Donald Trump than any other previous administration. 

DJT: This is the president of Goldman Sachs. Smart. Having him represent us, he went from massive to paydays, to peanuts, to little tiny — I’m waiting for them to accuse him of wanting that little amount of money. But these are people that are great brilliant business minds and that’s what we need. That’s what we have to have so the world doesn’t take advantage of us. We can’t have the world taking advantage of us anymore.

JS: Reporter Gary Rivlin also described Trump’s early moves that not only didn’t benefit ordinary people, they enriched the very players he accused Hillary Clinton of cozying up to.

Gary Rivlin: You know, they talk about a different approach to infrastructure, the $1 trillion dollar infrastructure plan, it’s kind of left, right, middle. Everyone understands that we need to be dealing with our infrastructure problem in this country, but the Goldman Sachs plan, the plan that Gary Cohn gave President-elect Donald Trump when he was just Goldman Sachs’s president meeting with Donald Trump, before he was named to the White House, he said, “You know, why don’t we put up a little bit of money, in this case a couple hundred billion dollars of government money, and the rest will be private financing from Wall Street firms.” And guess what firm is among the three or four largest in the public infrastructure business? Goldman Sachs. 

Goldman Sachs is huge in IPOs. When Gary Cohn was president of Goldman Sachs, he was lobbying to loosen the initial public offering laws. Well, six months into the administration, the SEC has loosened the IPO rules, which is worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Goldman Sachs alone. And so here was a president who said, “I’m going to represent you, little guy, because it’s the big firms like Goldman Sachs that are draining the economy, that are enriching themselves at your expense.” And in the position as, to head his economic policy team, is a guy who, down the line, you look at every policy, is trying to perpetuate the Goldman Sachs’s of the world. The Wall Street firms draining the economy at the expense of the little guy.

If you voted for Trump because, “Wow! Someone’s going to finally fight for the little guy.” And it’s not just like the president of Goldman Sachs is the chief economic advisor, but one of the main villains in the subprime meltdown, is now your guy? To help turn around the economy? I actually think one of the reasons Donald Trump won is because there are a lot of Tea Party people on the right, who are really angry at Wall Street for what happened in 2008. So taking one of those main villains and putting him to top your economic team, I think it really infuriates people.

DJT:  And I love all people: rich or poor. But in those particular positions, I just don’t want a poor person. Does that make sense? Does that sense? [laughter and applause] If you insist, I’ll do it. But I like it better this way. Right?

JS: Indeed. Here is former Goldman Sachs executive turned whistleblower Nomi Prins:

Nomi Prins: If tax cuts go through for companies, it will help those people who are already stashing money, not to bring it back, and to basically enrich themselves. It will help, you know, people with wealthy estates preserve it for their families. And, the point is, those are the people that are actually affecting the tax code and are in the offices and are in the dinners and are in the meetings and are at the golf courses with the individuals who are trying to push on to everybody else the idea that their plans will be beneficial to them.

JS: Despite Donald Trump’s promotion of himself as a billionaire and business genius, he was never really accepted into the club of New York’s financial elite. As filmmaker Michael Moore observed, Trump was sort of seen as an ostentatious and tacky wannabe.

Michael Moore: Trump was always treated very poorly by the uber-rich of New York City. Wall Street didn’t like him. The big banks didn’t like him and he always felt slighted by them. They treated him as if he was like the trailer trash of millionaires, from Queens, still talked like he was from Queens, you know, the whole thing. And they certainly were not that excited about him running. 

They immediately figured out how he could be a useful tool for them, for capitalism. And that’s why not only has there not been a peep out of them since he gave them their tax cut and it’s done all the other things in terms of gutting EPA regulations, and things that we don’t even know about that happen on a daily basis in each federal government department. Because you just could never keep up with it. If you actually knew what was going on every day.

Two weeks ago, you got rid of the department at the EPA that’s responsible for the environmental health of children. Fired the woman, got rid of the people. That’s it. Gone. Hardly anything on it in the news. You have no idea how many millions of acres of land he gave away today to the oil and gas companies. This happens every single day and he is doing the work now of Wall Street and the big banks in corporate America and they are the main beneficiaries of what he’s doing to dismantle from inside the federal government.

JS: In November of 2017, Trump signed into law the innocuously-named Tax Cut and Jobs Act, which was the largest tax overhaul in over three decades. It cut the corporate tax rate from 35 to 21 percent. While Republicans claimed that this $1.9 trillion cut would “pay for itself,” the Congressional Research Service found that it had “a relatively small (if any) first-year effect on the economy”.

Mitch McConnell: I love the tax bill. I think the tax bill had an important impact on the economy.

DJT: It’s the largest — I always say the most massive, but it’s the largest tax cut in the history of our country, and reform, but tax cut, really something special. When you think you haven’t heard this expression but: We are making America great again. You haven’t heard that, have you? 

JS: Unsurprisingly, these tax cuts are projected to worsen economic inequality, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Job and wage growth have plateaued. When some cuts expire in 2025, the poorest Americans will see an increase in their taxes. Meanwhile, 91 of the top Fortune 500 companies paid $0 in corporate income tax in 2018.

This growing inequality ultimately undermines democracy, says economist and former Bernie Sanders adviser, Stephanie Kelton.

Stephanie Kelton: Income but also wealth inequality in this country is at dangerously high, and essentially, historically high levels. And that this is not just bad for the way our economy functions, it’s extremely dangerous when it comes to the way our democracy functions. Even though it’s a progressive tax system, that is you pay a higher share of taxes as your income increases. Even though we have a progressive income tax system, it’s not nearly progressive enough and we ought to be doing more to correct those imbalances that allow the people at the very top to become so extraordinarily rich that those riches then hinder the working of the economy and undermine the functioning of our democracy.

JS: While 8 million more people have slipped into poverty during this pandemic, the wealth of billionaires grew by $845 billion dollars. 

DJT: Under my leadership prosperity will surge. What we’ve done in the last three and a half years has been incredible. Nobody has ever done what we’ve done. There’s no administration that’s accomplished what we’ve accomplished in the first three and a half years. Not even close.  

JS: Donald Trump has presided over the worst job losses in U.S. history. A 50-year low in unemployment has vaporized. Only about half of the 22 million jobs lost because of coronavirus have returned. As of September, nearly 3.8 million people have been classified as permanently unemployed. About 26 million people are collecting unemployment. Trump’s trusty advisors at Fox and Friends have told Trump focus on the pre-pandemic economy. 

Steve Doocy: Essentially the best message is President Trump built a great economy then Covid screwed things up and President Trump is better at reubuilding than Joe Biden. That’s the message they would like to see. 

JS: But here’s the thing, countries that were better able to control their outbreaks have not suffered as much economic pain, according to analysis by the Financial Times. Unprecedented inequality and stagnant wages have persisted. Fewer Americans currently have health insurance than when Trump first became president. 

These sharp economic injustices have come into clear focus during the Coronavirus pandemic as corporate robber barons like Jeff Bezoses have become much wealthier while 40 percent of Americans couldn’t withdraw $400 right now if they had to. Filmmaker, author, and organizer Astra Taylor underscores the consequences of a government captured by minority interests. 

Astra Taylor: I mean, it’s interesting because you can have a conversation that’s like this is going to be difficult given the American political system and the number of veto points and the way that it’s structured and the way that money is a form of political speech, and the fact that we essentially have a system, an electoral system where bribery is legalized in terms of campaign contributions, right? You could say, there are lots of obstacles in the way of this. That’s not how they’re framing this. So I mean, I think there probably is something deeper. There’s a threat to their authority, right, and to the system that helped them rise to power and stay in power.

Thinking about democracy writ large, I mean, there’s a bigger thing they’re afraid of though because what this means, to have universal health care is to decommodify this huge industry, and it’s to connect decommodification with democratization. 

Maybe there are huge areas of social life that should not be not just subjected to the market extremes but actually taken off the market completely, right? And that’s very threatening to the status quo because once you start decommodifying one area, well why not others? 

JS: Despite the brazen economic disparities in the U.S., the obscene profits being reaped by the richest corporations and people, and the avalanches of so-called stimulus cash rained down on the already wealthy, Trump continually reassured the American public to just look at the stock market as proof of our collective prosperity. 

DJT: The stock market is hitting an all-time high record, for another, and think of this, 86 times since Election Day. 86 times it hit a record. 86 times. And we’re going to keep it going. 

JS: Only roughly half of American’s own stock, while the richest 1 percent own 50 percent of stocks. Again former Goldman Sachs executive Nomi Prins:

NP: Trump connects everything to the stock market because it is the one thing that you can objectively look at that has a number that has gone up. You can’t do that with wages. You can’t do that with job quality. You can’t do that job longevity. You can’t do that with your health coverage. You can’t do that with lots of other things that most people count on for their day-to-day lives and to make the day to day payments and money that they need to survive them. But what the stock market shows is not, not the expectation that there was going to be a tax cut. What the stock — which is what he’s saying, what the stock market shows is that for all of this period, and it happened during Obama as well, and yes it’s continued under Trump, there’s been a situation where companies have been able to receive very cheap money, because our rates are close to zero and they have been since the financial crisis, in order to subsidize the money that was lacking at the time for the banking system, that money has gone to banks, banks have bought back their own shares, banks pay themselves dividends on their own shares that they bought. That pumps the stock market up. That’s a significant set of buyers for their own stock which enriches the top level of the firms, and it also pushes the stock market up. And then they also get dividends on their own stock.

So all of that is more why the stock market has continued to rise throughout Obama’s administration as well as with Trump in there now. Because nothing has been done to effectively change that.

JS: Proponents of the 2017 tax cut promised that companies would have more money to invest in workers and capital improvements that would, in turn, spark greater economic activity. Instead the corporate tax cut went mainly to stock buybacks, rewarding shareholders and investors. Recent data from the Census Bureau suggests that the pre-pandemic economy under Trump was growing above two percent annually, but disproportionately benefitting wealthier Americans. The data also reveals that even before the global pandemic inequality reached its highest level in 50 years. But, as journalist Chris Hedges points out, it’s a trend that has been moving in that direction for decades. 

Chris Hedges: The fundamental engines of oligarchic global corporate power are advanced by both parties and one attempts to present that in a kind of multicultural, inclusive way. The other is, you know, it kind of embraced by troglodytes. But there’s no way within the American political system you can in any way tame or challenge the war machine or Goldman Sachs or ExxonMobil.

And this is now where we’ve ended up, in the greatest income inequality in American history, the seizure of power by, and they’re not even traditional capitalist, they don’t make anything. They’re all speculators — global speculators. That’s what Goldman Sachs does. They’ve seized control of our economy and most economies. 

The breakdown that we experience has been bipartisan. Clinton was, of course, the poster child for this. Clinton understood that if he did corporate bidding, he would get corporate money. And of course, by the 1990s, fundraising parity with the Republicans was equal. And when Barack Obama first ran 2008, he got more.

So, we’ve got to look at the structural issues. I mean, I find Trump as repugnant and repulsive as everyone else. But our problem is not embodied in the personality of Donald Trump.

JS: Coronavirus laid bare the precariousness of the lives of so many people in the U.S. When the first known person in this country died from the disease on February 29th of this year, nearly 60 percent of Americans had less than a thousand dollars in savings. Half of Americans over 55 had zero retirement savings. Medical debt contributes to millions of bankruptcies every year. One in four Americans were defaulting on their student loans.

A month after the first known U.S. Coronavirus death, Donald Trump signed into law the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, better known as CARES.

DJT: Now I’m gonna sign this. And it’s a great honor. $6.2 trillion. I’ve never signed anything with a “T” on it. I don’t know if I can handle this one, Mitch. We can’t chicken out at this point. I don’t think so.

JS: It was the largest economic stimulus in U.S. History.

DJT: We also have a lot of money set aside for big businesses, you know, the big, powerful companies that were powerful four weeks ago. We have to save some of these great companies.

JS: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was the only Democrat to say publicly she voted against the bill, which was done via voice vote. Speaking on the House floor, she described how the GOP used poor and working people as hostages to free hundreds of billions of dollars for the richest corporations.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: What did the Senate majority fight for? One of the largest corporate bailouts with as few strings as possible in American history. Shameful. The greed of that fight is wrong for crumbs for our families. And the option that we have is to either let them suffer with nothing or to allow this greed and billions of dollars which will be leveraged into trillions of dollars to contribute to the largest income inequality gap in our future. There should be shame about what was fought for in this bill and the choices that we have to make. 

JS: The poorest Americans were essentially expected to survive on $1,200 for six months during the pandemic. Congress and Trump also allowed the enhanced unemployment payment of $600 to expire in July, slashing aid during the pandemic to about $330 a week. 

Of the $350 bil­lion earmarked for small busi­ness­es in the Paycheck Protection Program, 70 percent of it went to large corporations, including Boeing whose stock is owned by at least 15 mem­bers of Con­gress (or their spous­es). Most notably, the airline companies that received a $25 billion bail out, have recently announced that they are laying off tens of thousands of workers.

HuffPost senior reporter Zach Carter specializes in U.S. economic policy: 

Zach Carter: The trick is, when you look at what they’ve done in the overall coronavirus bailout package, they have been extremely, extremely generous with the wealthiest people in the world. The feature provision of the major piece of legislation that has already passed is $4.5 trillion to large corporations with almost no strings attached. That is money that goes straight to shareholders and executives. That is money that is going to the richest people in the world. And there’s really no kind of guardrails that Congress put on that funding to make sure that it’s used responsibly. So on the one hand, they talk a lot about means testing, making sure that ordinary people — you know, we don’t have too many lucky duckies who are making like $70,000 a year accidentally getting a $1,200 check. But the richest people in the world, if they get a multimillion-dollar dividend payout, that’s just fine.

Astra Taylor:  There’s broad majoritarian support for progressive social policy. This is what the people — the Demos — want. And we’ve entered a phase where that is sort of undeniable, if you just look at the numbers. 

JS: But as Astra Taylor explains, it doesn’t have to be this way. 

AT: The problem is actually that we’re living in the age of minoritarian politics, minoritarian control. You see that very strongly with the GOP and the fact that they want a politics of hierarchy, basically a return to aristocracy, right? They’re willing to gerrymander and disenfranchise voters — they absolutely don’t want people to go out and vote. But we see it with the Democrats as well, right? We see that they want to tell their constituencies, sorry, you can’t have these things that are not only popular, but actually pretty commonplace in other industrial democracies.

People’s complaints are pretty universal: it’s like corruption, massive inequality, the lack of workers rights, a lack of concern for the environment, just a lack of basic dignity. 

And to go back to democracy. This is the motor of democracy. This is what, democracy is not just procedures and elections, it is this moment where people come together as a kind of politicized philosophical public and are like what kind of world do we want to live in?

JS: From the very beginning, Donald Trump’s entire schtick about standing up for the downtrodden, the hard workers, the ordinary people of this country was a scam. One nonstop four-year grift. Trump has used his political career and his time as president to enrich himself and his cronies. But more than that, he has served as a Pied Piper for the most extreme anti-worker, anti-poor agendas of the Republican Party. And he dug deep into the well of the most vile aspects of U.S. politics and history to win power. It was this weaponizing of hate that allowed Trump and his allies to manufacture the state of grave danger that so many poor and working people now find themselves in in this country. The extreme economic injustices of the past four years were produced on the rhetoric of white nationalism, xenophobia, racism, sexism. 

But simply voting Trump out of office will not wipe any of this away. Many of these factors, while intensified during this administration, have persisted through both Democratic and Republican administrations. Both parties are beholden to corporate interests, even if one is more brazen and successful at producing dividends for the ultra-rich. The hard truth we must all face is that the political and economic system Trump has exploited and utilized will continue on in perpetuity unless the people of this country bravely muster the collective will to challenge its very existence.

This has been part six of an Intercepted limited documentary series, American Mythology: The Presidency of Donald Trump. Over the past week, we’ve been releasing an episode each weekday focusing on a different aspect of the Trump presidency and digging into the history and context of the actions of this administration. Make sure to tune tomorrow to part seven of this series, where we’re going to be taking an in-depth look at Donald Trump’s policies on the climate.

American Mythology: The Presidency of Donald Trump is an Intercepted limited documentary series. You can follow us on Twitter @Intercepted and on Instagram @InterceptedPodcast. Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our lead producer is Jack D’Isidoro. Our producer is Laura Flynn. Elise Swain is our associate producer and graphic designer. Betsy Reed is editor in chief of The Intercept. Rick Kwan mixed the show. Transcription for this program is done by Lucie Kroening. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky. Make sure to tell your friends and even your foes about this series and tune in tomorrow for episode seven. Until then, I’m Jeremy Scahill.


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