Populism with a price tag

January 23, 2017

The rhetoric was about the "forgotten man," but Trump's inauguration oozed donations from corporations who want Trump to remember them, writes Elizabeth Schulte.

"TODAY, WE are not merely transferring power from one administration to another, or from one party to another, but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the people."

Sure...if by "the people," you mean "the people" who own UPS, "the people" who run Verizon, "the people" who call the shots at ExxonMobil and stand to rake in obscene profits during a Trump presidency.

There was a lot of populist grandstanding in Donald Trump's inauguration speech, but the same corporate money game that takes place every inauguration weekend happened again during Trump's, too--even more so.

In the run-up to the November election, many corporate contributors held back from supporting Trump, because of differences with his policies, but also the conventional wisdom that Hillary Clinton would win easily. Come the inauguration, though, big business pulled out all the stops.

Corporate sponsors footed the bill for lavish parties all over Washington, D.C., last week. At the Garden State Inaugural Gala, donors could party with New Jersey lawmakers at a party built around the theme of classic boardwalk amusement games, and funded by drug companies Bristol-Myers Squibb, Novo Nordisk and Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals, along with insurance giant Prudential.

Donald Trump and the insufferable first family
Donald Trump and the insufferable first family

Texas' Black Tie & Boots Inaugural Ball at the Gaylord National Resort was paid for by Chevron, ExxonMobil, Koch Industries, Anadarko, Phillips 66, Valero and BP--and if you didn't get the theme in that list, the American Petroleum Institute, the lobby group for the oil industry, kicked in, too.

THIS KIND of legalized bribery--where corporations make enormous donations for inauguration weekend in exchange for access--was common enough under George W. Bush or Barack Obama, but Trump's big day went even further. As the New York Times reported:

No matter which party controls the White House, corporations and wealthy individuals open their checkbooks every four years, and administrations reward their donors with private events and other incentives.

But ethics experts say Mr. Trump's donors are being given greater access and facing fewer limits on donations than those in other recent inaugurations, despite his vow to "drain the swamp" of special interests in Washington.

"This is nothing short of selling access to the president, the vice president and the cabinet," said Craig Holman, a registered lobbyist for Public Citizen, a nonpartisan ethics group in Washington. "This is very unfettered, brazen selling of access. It certainly runs counter to any presidential candidate who was talking about draining the swamp."

The president-not-elect was so unpopular that he couldn't get decent entertainment to show up. A member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir resigned when she found out the choir was singing at the inaugural explaining that the performance would be an endorsement of "tyranny and fascism," and several Radio City Rockettes also declined the "honor" of performing.

But Trump did inspire Corporate America to show up.

Big donors could choose between five different packages offered by the Presidential Inaugural Committee, with big spenders committing more than a million dollars getting four tickets to an "intimate" dinner with Mike Pence and his wife, as well as a "leadership luncheon" with cabinet appointees and members of the congressional leadership. Donors also got private access to the Smithsonian museums and other national treasures.

In addition to three official inauguration balls--which included the robber baron-era themed Great Gatsby Presidential Inaugural Ball--there were special parties this year that weren't part of the typical black tie fare.

One was the "DeploraBall," held at the National Press Club--seriously?--which showcased "a new type of Republican Party" and its social media presence.

And a day before the inauguration, Trump attended a party thrown by right-wing British nationalist and former UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage.

Like Trump, Farage used fake populism and whipped up fear and racism against immigrants and Muslims in an attempt to divert people's anger away from the real causes of their economic insecurity. So it's telling that the celebration of mutual admiration was held at the five-star Hay-Adams Hotel, a few hundred yards from the White House, with fish and chips, champagne and an extra-enormous helping of nationalism.

Trump isn't putting power in the hands of the people--he's selling it to those who can afford it. Or as a certain billionaire businessman, last name Trump, once put it: "When you give, they do whatever the hell you want them to do."

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