Friday, 9 December 2016

Is Trump pulling a Juncker with his cabinet picks?

While EU chief Jean-Claude Juncker's strategy was designed as a trap for national European capitals, it's hard to gauge whether there's any method to Trump's madness.

Last night on The Daily Show, host Trevor Noah came up with a theory behind the extreme hard-right cabinet appointments of Donald Trump.
"You know, sometimes I think Trump is trolling us, people,” he said. “It’s like the ultimate troll! Because you realize, every single person he’s picked for his cabinet wants to destroy the thing that they’ve been put in charge of."
Trump has appointed a man who hates the Environmental Protection Agency (and is even currently suing it) to run that same agency. He's appointed a fast food executive opposed to workers rights and the minimum wage as labor secretary. He's appointed a conspiracy-peddling alarmist as national security adviser. The list goes on.

The picks even inspired a New York satirical article saying Trump has selected Mexican drug lord El Chapo to head the US Drug Enforcement Agency.


Hearing Noah's trolling description, I was reminded of another strategy pursued by a world leader two years ago.

It was a time of another huge election that had brought a populist surge - the European election of 2014. That vote brought a far-right and populist wave into the European Parliament giving the populist nationalists almost 1/3 representation. UKIP became the largest British party in the Parliament, and the Front National became the largest French party in the Parliament. Big wins also came for far-right and populist parties in Denmark, Sweden and Italy.

Still, the centrist parties maintained their control over the parliament and the election yielded the selection of Jean-Claude Juncker, the center-right former prime minister of Luxembourg, as President of the European Commission (the EU's executive).

Juncker calls European bluffs

Juncker believed the populist revolt was partly to blame on the phenomenon of national EU governments always blaming the EU for unpopular measures and taking credit for popular ones. He said he was sick of national capitals carping on the sidelines about what the EU was doing, as if they had nothing to do with it. In reality, every EU country has a vote on EU policies.

So he decided to make the complainers put their money where their mouths were. When it came time to dole out EU commission portfolios to each member state (essentially the same thing as cabinet appointments), he decided to give each subject to the country doing the most complaining about that subject.

And so, he put the commissioner from the UK in charge of financial services, which the Brits are always complaining is hindered by byzantine EU rules. He put the commissioner from privacy-obsessed digital resistor Germany in charge of the digital agenda. 

He put the commissioner from Greece, which had been railing against the EU for not helping with the migration surge, in charge of migration. The commissioner from Socialist France, which is always complaining about the Anglo-Saxon free-market policies of the EU, was put in charge of economic and financial affairs. 

In short, he looked at the people doing the most complaining about a given issue and said, "You think you'd do it better? Here, have at it."

The goal, as we pointed out in my old publication European Voice at the time, was to make it harder for these countries to criticize EU action in these fields - because their own man was in charge of it. It would be harder to blame some distant anonymous bureaucrat if that person was one of their own compatriots.

Maybe, just maybe, this is the method to Trump's madness when handing out his cabinet appointments?

Put up or shut up

I acknowledge this is a stretch. Trump doesn't seem to have much of a master plan in forming his cabinet other than rewarding loyalty and showing good faith on delivering his most extreme campaign promises. But even though the intent isn't the same, perhaps the effect could be.

People who are opposed to environmental regulation will be thrilled with the news that Scott Pruitt has been nominated to head the EPA. He is one of their own, a fellow traveler who is so opposed to federal environmental legislation that he is suing the very agency he is about to take over. He will surely get in there and start dismantling the whole agency, as promised in the Republican party platform adopted at July's convention.

Or will he?

It may be that once Mr Pruitt is "on the inside pissing out rather than on the outside pissing in", as we say in my country, he'll find that dismantling environmental regulation isn't quite as easy as he imagined. 

The EPA was set up in 1970 by, of all people, Republican President Richard Nixon. It brought what had been different regulations from various agencies under one umbrella, and put the EPA in charge of monitoring the results of that legislation. It was a very practical move that increased the efficiency of such legislation. 

But many Republicans from the hard right came to view the EPA as stimulating an endless stream of ever-tighter environmental red tape. People have come to believe that these environmental regulations are not actually achieving anything and are only strangling businesses and economic development. In other words, these regulations kill jobs.

But what happens when Mr Pruitt gets in there and looks at the books? Will he realizes that the vast majority of these regulations are in fact serving a purpose, and would be enormously complicated to undo? After all, people need clean water and clean air. To think that the power to regulate this can be passed to states, resulting in a patchwork of different levels of environmental protection on things which respect no man-made border, is foolish.

He will find it impossible to make the full scope of dramatic changes he has been calling for from outside the agency.

If Mr Pruitt realizes this, then perhaps he is the one best-equipped to explain to his fellow green-tape-sceptics why most of these regulations are necessary. In the same way that these EU commissioners have had to explain the reasoning behind EU decisions in these sensitive areas to their national capitals and their home population, so will Pruitt have to explain to the anti-EPA people why these regulations are needed. 

It's not a perfect analogy of course, but something I thought of as I watched Noah's description of these cabinet picks. It's put up shut up time, folks. You think you would do such a better job running the show? You think it's so easy?

Have at it.

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