California Forum

Grifters and sadists rule the roost

Donald Trump’s Health and Human Services secretary was forced to resign under a cloud of corruption scandals in 2017. Trump’s Interior secretary and his Environmental Protection Agency administrator were forced to resign over financial scandals in 2018. In 2019, it’s entirely possible that Trump and several of his close family members will be indicted for their own set of financial scandals.

A former presidential adviser seems to have dabbled in insider trading when he dumped millions of dollars in steel stock just before Trump imposed steel tariffs. The acting attorney general slogs on despite allegations of unsavory business practices. Foreign entities routinely channel money to Trump hotels, seemingly hoping for a quid pro quo from the president.

Meanwhile, as of this writing, much of the federal government continues to be shut down, with 800,000 employees either furloughed or working without pay, advised by the administration only to contact their attorneys and financial advisers to sort out how to navigate their payless realities. And, if and when the shutdown is eventually ended, those workers will return to work at 2018 salary levels. Trump nixed a measly 2.1 percent cost-of-living pay raise for 2019 after invoking “emergency” powers and claiming federal finances were too precarious to support the increase.

Welcome to Trump’s America, where grifters in power line their pockets and ordinary workers are treated with absolute contempt.

Trump’s executive order rolling back the pay increase for federal workers used the nebulous rationale of an “economic emergency” to deny the raises. In fact, he announced his intent to roll back the raise immediately after a court ruling that protected unionized federal workers from being fired without cause. The pay freeze was clearly payback for the union victory.


This twinned culture of cronyism and graft on the one hand and of calculated, cruel antipathy on the other is entirely redolent of banana republic politics.

So, too, is the use of “national security” language and the creation of manufactured crises that justify domestic deployment of the military. Remember the Reichstag Fire, and the ways Hitler used that “crisis” to shred the remaining democratic checks on his power. Trump, who commandeered airtime to address the nation Tuesday night on the immigration “crisis,” has ordered the military to strengthen hundreds of miles of border fencing even absent congressional funding, and since Jan. 4 has repeatedly mused about the possibility of declaring a “national emergency” to entirely bypass congressional decision-making on border wall issues, although he stopped short of actually doing so on Tuesday night.

Sasha Abramsky.JPG
Sasha Abramsky

“We can call a national emergency. I haven’t done it. I may do it. I may do it. We can call a national emergency and build it very quickly. It’s another way of doing it,” Trump averred. He continued, “I never threaten anybody, but I am allowed to do it -- call a national emergency.”

The mere threat is bone-chilling. This is a man who believes in no limits to his power, who thinks of the constitution as a hindrance and the democratic process as an albatross.

It also has absolutely nothing to do with national security. Nothing about this administration’s recent actions can in any reasonable world be deemed to enhance the country’s security. Indeed, there’s arguably nothing more dangerous to national security than holding the federal government hostage to extremist politics and not paying scientists, security experts, public health workers, nutritional program employees, coast guards and other workers for weeks and months on end.

Unpaid government workers in post-Soviet states, Iraq and elsewhere have historically proven easy marks for smugglers, terrorist networks, cybercriminals and those seeking nuclear technology and materials. Unpaid public health workers, in an era of ebola and other epidemics, have precious little incentive to provide early warning monitoring for the spread of deadly diseases into the U.S. Lest anyone think this is just a hypothetical issue, there’s an ebola epidemic raging in the Congo at the moment; it has established a firm foothold not just in remote rural areas but in large cities that are easily connected, via jet travel, with the rest of Africa and beyond; and last week, Swedish authorities temporarily locked down a hospital after a possible ebola case there was identified (It turned out to be a false alarm).

Halting nutritional programs, which will happen at some point if this government shutdown drags on, will lead to mass hunger among America’s poor – in particular children who rely on programs such as SNAP and school lunches.

Unpaid regulators at environmental agencies won’t be able to adequately monitor the safety of water and air. Similarly, the safety and security of food systems could be compromised as the effects of the shutdown intensify.

If Trump genuinely cared about national security, he would open the government tomorrow. He certainly wouldn’t be making TSA agents, charged with securing air travel, work without pay. Nor would he have threatened the free press, denigrated most every government agency or hired a who’s who of crooks and grifters to staff the upper echelons of his administration.

This man is dangerous. Not just a little bit dangerous, but deadly dangerous. He’s risking the stability of the entire governing system of the United States in pursuit of his bizarre and pointless Great Wall. And he’s now made clear in his national emergency statements that he’s willing to entirely dispense with the democratic system of checks and balances in order to get his monstrous way.

We do, indeed, have a national emergency on our hands, but it has nothing to do with desperate asylum seekers on the southern border, and everything to do with the tyrant-in-the-making who currently occupies the White House.

Sasha Abramsky, who teaches at UC Davis, is a Sacramento writer whose latest book is “Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream.” He can be contacted at