Not that it should surprise anyone, but President-elect Donald Trump is off to a disquieting start, one that offers little comfort — other than a few cheap words, “And I mean everyone,” in his YouTube infomercial this week — that he truly aims to unite the entire country.
Let’s look at his appointments to date.
Steve Bannon as chief strategist and senior counselor: For those of you who recall the despicable, no-holds-barred politics of the late Andrew Breitbart — he called Ted Kennedy “a special pile of human excrement” within hours of the Massachusetts senator’s death — Bannon is the man credited with making Breitbart.com even crazier in the years after its founder’s sudden 2012 demise.
Though Trump assured the New York Times this week that if he “thought” Bannon was “alt-right, I wouldn’t even think about hiring him,” in fact alt-right is a label his new top aide proudly embraces. “We’re the platform for the alt-right,” he boasted to Mother Jones about Breitbart.com during this summer’s Republican Convention. Nor is Bannon shy about acknowledging he’s a “nationalist,” though he insists his nationalism has nothing to do with racist “white nationalism,” even if its adherents are enamored with what he’s done with Breitbart.com and could do in the White House. An exultant gathering of alt-right activists in Washington this past weekend closed with Nazi salutes and shouts of “Heil the people! Heil victory.”
Bannon, of course, is not necessarily responsible for what his admirers might think or do, but it is difficult to separate Breitbart.
Back in 2011, Bannon himself wrote a telling defense of conservative women: “There are some unintended consequences of the women’s liberation movement. That, in fact, the women that would lead this country would be pro-family, they would have husbands, they would love their children. They wouldn’t be a bunch of dykes that came from the Seven Sisters schools up in New England. That drives the left insane, and that’s why they hate these women.”
This doesn’t mean, however, that Bannon has no use for gays; in fact, Breitbart has happily promoted the alt-right gay circus freak Milo Yiannopoulos, famous for riffing on Jewish caricatures such as “Shlomo Shekelburg,” arguing that Trump is blacker than Barack Obama, declaring his birthday World Patriarchy Day, and showing up at a Los Angeles demonstration against sexual violence wielding a “Rape Culture” picket sign.
Beyond Bannon’s odious beliefs and associations, it’s also worth looking at his view of what kind of government the US should strive for. On that point, he looked back on the Russian Revolution and said, “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal, too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.” This is the man who will be the chief strategic thinker in a White House led by a braggart plutocrat with no government experience?
Sadly, Trump’s other early appointments offer no more reassurance than does Bannon’s.
Jeff Sessions at attorney general: Here, Trump has put forward an Alabama Republican senator with the distinction of having been rejected for a federal judgeship by a GOP-controlled Senate committee. The allegations raised at that time involved Sessions, as a US attorney, calling a subordinate in his office “boy” and warning him to watch how he spoke to “white folks,” having agreed with the statement that a white attorney was “a disgrace to his race” for litigating voting rights cases, and joking that the Ku Klux Klan would be fine but for its members’ use of marijuana.
Sessions denied some — though not all — of those charges at the time, and some of his Senate colleagues today insist all that is old news and he is not a racist. His harsh opposition to both voting rights protections and immigrants’ rights, however, raises timely questions regarding his current qualifications to lead the agency charged with protecting the civil rights and liberties of all Americans.
Sessions’ record on LGBT rights is abysmal; he has consistently received a zero rating from the Human Rights Campaign — with the exception of one two-year session when he earned a 15 percent for voting in favor of an Obama nominee to the federal court in Manhattan. During the George W. Bush years, Sessions recommended the nomination of William H. Pryor, Jr. to the federal bench in Alabama, an appointment Lambda Legal termed the “most demonstrably anti-gay” pick it could recall. (Pryor now heads Trump’s list of potential Supreme Court choices.) Sessions is a strident critic of marriage equality, and, in warning against “very dangerous… secularization,” he now embraces a radically far-reaching religious exemption law that could undermine any efforts at comprehensive nondiscrimination protections for the LGBT community.
[Editor's note: The day after this was written, Trump named Betsy DeVos, a former Republican state chair in Michigan whose husband is an heir to the Amway fortune, as his secretary of education. Known for her advocacy for school vouchers, DeVos and her husband, Dick, gave $200,000 to the successful 2004 push to ban same-sex marriage in Michigan, which they led according to rawstory.com. That story reported that a foundation run by Dick DeVos' parents gave $540,000 to the anti-gay Focus on the Family and that they separately gave $100,000 to the effort to ban same-sex marriage in Florida. Betsy DeVos' mother gather $450,000 to Focus on the Family, according to rawstory.]
And, finally, there is retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn as national security advisor. Once considered a leading military figure of his generation, Flynn was relieved of his command of the Defense Intelligence Agency by Obama after widespread concerns about his chaotic management style. His indifference to the accuracy of information he acted on led subordinates to joke about what they called “Flynn facts.” And after his discharge, he became not only a strident critic of the president he served but also a nearly unhinged Islamophobe, having famously tweeted, “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL: please forward this to others.”
Whatever qualifications might once have recommended Flynn, his chief calling card for Trump is that he hates Obama — something the president-elect looks for in other military advisors, as well. Which is probably not surprising coming from a policy know-nothing who first established his political viability questioning what country Barack Obama was born in.
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