The Cronyism Machine: On Trump’s Energy Politics

At times I think back to the days of George W. Bush’s wayward administration and find it hard to believe it ever happened. The nepotism was so flagrant, with each and every move so unabashedly self-serving. Don’t get me wrong, Obama’s presidency was not devoid of its own revolving doors and conflicts of interest; we all recall how the bailouts took place and who benefited – and it was plain to see how Hillary Clinton was deeply imbedded in this same network of individuals and institutions. But the cronyism exhibited by Bush and his political inner circle operated at such an absurdly high level that it appears, in hindsight, as almost a parody of American politics. I can’t think of a more cynical satire than a story of a bunch of corrupt bureaucrats throwing a war, privatizing vast swaths of the military machine, then letting close friends and families soak up lucrative government contracts – that is, when they weren’t leaving government en masse and heading straight into the private sector themselves!

None of this disappeared with Obama, of course. What occurred in the slight auto-adjustment from the neoconservative excess of the Bush administration was the making less visible of this grand and grotesque spectacle. Today, with the advent of the Trump administration, and the daily revelations of his incoming cabinet and its activities, the hyper-slick PR work of the Obama years has given way to the return of this spectacle. What really drove home the egregiousness of the Bush administration’s actions was the immense human tragedy – a war that continues to burn and spiral out of control even today – that was transformed effortlessly into a cash cow. Now, I’d like to take a look at another emerging exercise in cronyism (that for all intents and purposes stands to remove the revolving door between government and industry and replace it with an inviting archway) that takes place against another human – and nonhuman – tragedy: that of climate change.

But first, a little history. In the late 1960s, a network came together that consisted of rich business owners, social conservatives, nationalists and Republican Party-linked ideologues, the goal of which was two-fold: to re-orientate the party towards ends equitable for the moneyed elite through the creation of a “big tent” political force, and to transform traditionalist ‘family values’ into “American values”, to be used as a bulwark for what was seen as the victory of the 60s-era New Left. Described by Sara Diamond as a “political opportunity structure”, much of the financing for this operation came from a small handful of rich donors. This included the notorious Republican kingmakers, the Koch Brothers, as well as the Coors family, the Scaife family and the Bradley family – all of whom leveraged the resources at their disposal through philanthropies, front organizations, and think-tanks.

Organizational structure here was key: money would flow to think-tanks that would promote a particular ideological perspective, cultivate intellectuals adept in these ideologies, and present these intellectuals as experts for the media, academia, and for politicians. The think-tanks would also develop close connections to right-wing political figures, help craft legislation, act as networking tools and assist in brokering certain deals. This rapid spread of political influence would be matched by similar actions on the “grassroots” level, where “astroturfing” organizations would seize upon pre-existing discontent against the political system, and steer this discontent towards particular issues that would frame key political races and legislative actions.

During the Obama years, the increased political dialogue concerning climate change kicked this political opportunity structure into overdrive; incredible volumes of money from philanthropies like the Koch family foundations and corporations like ExxonMobil poured into innumerable organizations dedicated to climate change denial. Often this cash would flow through three or four different blandly-named front organizations, helping to obscure its source. To date, these “dark money” networks, as they have come to be called, are only partially mapped, and it is doubtful that it will ever be done in full, given the constant addition of new organizations in the network and the closure of old ones. That said, the key hubs are easy to identify; once the relations between them are accurately traced, one can begin to draw the map out further, and observe the way in which the political opportunity structure is currently at work.

With the recent circulation of the threatening memo to Department of Energy scientists over their connections to climate science – and the rising fear that climate science itself will be subjected to government censorship – tracing this opportunity structure is of utmost importance: it appears that the structure is about to pull off nothing short of coup in the parts of government that deal with climate science and climate-related issues.

Let’s take Trump’s pick for head of the Department of Energy (DOE): former Texas governor, presidential hopeful and Dancing with the Stars contestant, Rick Perry. Perry is not only listed on the board of directors of Energy Transfer Partners L.P. (the company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline) and a recipient of a hefty amount of Koch campaign contributions. He also maintains close connections to an organization called the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), the Texan member of the State Policy Network (SPN), an umbrella organization for so-called “free-market” (i.e., vulgar libertarian) think-tanks across the United States. SPN is a clearinghouse for right-wing philanthropies, drawing on the coffers of the Koch Brothers in particular – and the TPPF is no different in this regard, having received millions from not only the Koch family foundations, but Koch Industries itself.

It is unsurprising, then, that the TPPF is a major source of climate change denial, attacking both green energy research and climate science in general. Perry, likewise, been a vocal climate change skeptic – going as far to write in his 2010 book that the world was undergoing a long-term cooling trend. Many of his appointees to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality are also climate change skeptics, with one notable example being the commission’s chairman, Bryan Shaw, who has already been engaged in the kind of climate science censorship that scientists are fearing will become national policy.i Shaw’s activities are routinely praised on the TPPF website, which also features Perry himself under its list of experts (and go as far to providing a link to book him for talks and lectures).

If the TPPF receives funding and overall political orientation from the State Policy Network, much of its intellectual direction comes from the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, which routinely provides writers, journalists, and experts for the think-tank to host. A media-oriented ‘political watchdog’ organization, the Franklin Center, like the SPN, is a well-oiled cog in the vulgar libertarian machine. As another umbrella organization, it passes money from the right-wing donor network’s most usual suspects to smaller organizations in nearly every state, which in turn promote a fairly distinctive brand of political reporting. At the same time, the Franklin Center maintains ties to non-journalist organizations as well. One of these in particular is the Institute for Energy Research, an outfit founded by Charles Koch to disseminate climate change skepticism.

What makes the Institute for Energy Research of immediate interest here is its longtime president Thomas Pyle, who also is the founder and president of the organization’s “grassroots partner”, the American Energy Alliance. Pyle is currently none other than the head of Trump’s Department of Energy transition team, having recently replaced Mike McKenna – who was himself a former Koch Industries lobbyist. What this means is that the two most important people right where the DOE are concerned – the perspective head of the department and the head of the transition team – come from the same network and have consistently expressed views in line with this network. For anyone worried about the relationship between cronyism, market distortions and the greater entrenchment of monopolies, these developments should raise red flags – and for those seeking to navigate a way out from the worst that climate change has to offer, it should be equivalent to a fire alarm.

The icing on the cake comes, perhaps, when we look at Pyle’s list of suggestions for the Trump administration, published on the American Energy Alliance’s website with the title “Blueprint for America’s Comeback”.ii In an incredible display of double standards, the Blueprint looks for a withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords by arguing “President Obama’s unilateral executive actions cannot bind future administrations”, while urging that Trump use executive order to prevent further climate action. At the same time, Pyle suggests that restrictions on fracking and coal mining on federal land be repealed – moves that Kevin Carson has previously described as nothing less than a massive turn away from any semblance of free market policy. “At every step of the way,” he writes, “the state steps in to subsidize the operating costs of the fossil fuel industry, steal land for it to build pipelines on, and indemnify it against liability through regulatory preemption of tort law or even flat out statutory caps on liability for damage.”iii

Pyle’s ambitious program would entail not only the redirection of the DOE, but also that of the Department of Interior (DOI), which manages the bulk of federal land and plays a regulatory role for the activities that take place within it. It would follow, presumably, that Trump’s head of the DOI would reflect these same concerns – and enter Ryan Zinke, ex-Navy Seal-turned-congressional representative from Montana. Indeed, Zinke has quite the track-record where federal land is concerned, having supported multiple proposals to privatize land and turn it over to energy interests. To make the matters even cozier, Zinke himself was a recipient of Koch Brothers campaign funding, and tapped activists from the Koch-funded Americans Majority Montana to help coordinate his 2014 congressional campaign. Here, too, the political opportunity structure can be seen at work.

Finally, let’s consider Douglas Domenech, Trump’s appointee as head of the DOI. Domenech, former DOI chief of staff under George W. Bush, brings us nearly full circle: he is currently director of the TPPF’s “Fueling Freedom Project”, the goal of which is to “[e]xplain the forgotten moral case for fossil fuels – how civilization has been transformed and the human condition improved through the development of this energy resource”. That sentence alone screams for a thorough philosophical-cum-historical analysis of the way that upgrading technologies, be they the movement from marking scratches on a rock to more sophisticated ways of tracking time or the movement from horses to engines with horsepower, hav been center to the development of civilization (if anything, intentionally restraining newer, safer, and more efficient forms of technology to match equivalent leaps in other areas of development is the more ‘immoral’ move!). While such a thing is beyond the scope here, Domenech’s intimate connection to the political opportunity structure speaks volumes about the future of energy in Trump’s America.

Strange Bedfellows

The animosity between the political opportunity structure and Trump during the initial campaign season was no big secret, with the Koch brothers dumping money into all candidates other than Trump and running anti-Trump ads, while Trump himself denounced the brothers and their front groups. Standing at a distance, their overall positions do appear as diverging sharply: the various institutions involved in the political opportunity structure have been major supporters of free trade deals and reject economic protectionism. They have also quite often financed pro-amnesty and pro-immigration groups. Trump’s position, influenced as it is by Steve Bannon, is one of economic populism, entailing (ostensibly, at least) the rejection of free trade deals, the return of protectionism in the form of exit taxes and tariffs, and a hardline stance on immigration.

What appears at first glance as a case of strange bedfellows looks a lot less strange the closer one gets. While there is no smoothing out the pretenses of economic populism exhibited by the incoming administration with the classically neoliberal outlook of the Koch Brothers and their ilk, we can note that the Trump-Bannon line on climate change (namely, the suggestion that it is a messy tangle of bad science and sinister conspiracy) fits snuggly with the climate change denial cranked out by the opportunity structure’s ideological assembly line. It is without a doubt that the latter influenced the former – and it goes without saying that the network certainly primed a good portion of the population to be open to Trump and Bannon’s climate lunacy.

Aside from this, it can also be argued that the economic populism can be advantageous to the energy interests connected to the opportunity structure. In Trump’s populist “Contract with the American Voter”, a plan to “lift the restrictions on the production of $50 trillion dollars’ worth of job-producing American energy reserves, including shale, oil, natural gas and clean coal” is featured alongside the commitment to “lift the Obama-Clinton roadblocks and allow vital energy infrastructure projects, like the Keystone Pipeline, to move forward.” These policies would presumably form part of his proposed “American Energy and Infrastructure Act”, which would proceed through public-private partnerships and tax incentives structured to “to spur $1 trillion in infrastructure investment over ten years.” Or, as Bannon breathlessly described it: “Shipyards, iron works, get them all jacked up. We’re just going to throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks. It will be as exciting as the 1930s, greater than the Reagan revolution — conservatives, plus populists, in an economic nationalist movement.”iv

Trump and Bannon’s economic populism is classic Hamiltonianism on steroids, a return to the so-called “American School of Economics” that saw the role of the government as the force that builds up and protects industry. It is the promotion of the private in support of the public – and one of the crudest and most blatant forms of corporate cronyism. If such as plan was to go through, it would be a contracting bonanza. Already top-heavy corporations would stand to have their coffers expanded, all under the rubric of saving the American working class from the devastation that has been rained down up them since, well, the end of the 1960s. From this perspective, it’s not difficult at all to see why the political opportunity structure would to quick carry out an about-face and hop onboard the Trump train. Entangling a jobs program, infrastructure revitalization, and energy independence poses to fulfill two long-desired goal: pushing back against the acceptance of climate change and maximizing access to domestic natural energy reserves.

Plus, it is doubtful that the establishment Republicans and the Democrats will break so easily with the deeply entrenched Washington Consensus when it comes to economics. It would be quite a feat for the Trump administration to fully replace neoliberalism with ‘economic nationalism’; while some things will undoubtedly change, we can probably assume business as usual in the trade regime (aside from the occasional, bizarre maneuvers like that of the Carrier deal). And with more outsourcing and automation heading for the industrial manufacturing workers, it is likely that a large infrastructure and energy deal will be bandied as the solution – lest the Trump administration cast away any semblance of populism.

This scenario ushers in a multi-tiered crisis. The first tier, in total validation of market anarchist critiques of the state, is the potential takeover of entire government departments by corporate interests, the effect of which will be to further serve and enrich their monopoly powers. The second tier is the rapidly closing window in which we will have any effect on climate change. Pushing through pipelines and opening up new spaces for mining and extracting dirty energy sources will be tantamount to pouring fuel on a globally atmospheric fire.

The first tier is intimately bound to the second-tier in more ways than just the simple, singular instances of cronyism. It is not hard to see that fossil fuels are already obsolete, and that renewable energy sources are the way of the future – yet fossil fuels remain as the norm at the expense of this future precisely because of the state. Fuel subsidies, both direct and indirect, keeps the cost of dirty energy artificially low, skewing incentives by making them a cost-effective alternative to renewable energy sources, which currently stands as more expensive and in need of further research and development. The US government has tried to remedy this by dumping money into green, renewable energy research (precisely what is being attacked currently in the Department of Energy), yet they stand as one of the world’s biggest subsidizers of fossil fuels – topping out at over $20 billion provided to producers annually.

Thus the US government has been trying to throw money at a problem it bears a lot of the blame for, and in doing so helped create these current conditions, where energy conglomerates stand to enrich themselves further through a massive expansion direct and indirect subsidies.

In light of these circumstances, it is very likely that the cycle of resistance that is characterized first by the anti-XL protests and now by the anti-DAPL pipeline protests will continue and expand. It is already one of the primary revolts against despotic power playing out in our time, but in its current stage it may very well pale in comparison to what will happen if Trump tries to force through pipelines from his seat in the oval office (or in Trump Towers, or wherever else he will be). But let’s not just hunker down for defensive struggles. We need to think offensively, too. The cronyism machine that was the Bush administration caught everybody off guard, as the social networks and opportunity structures that stood behind it had been largely unacknowledged to that point – yet today we have that vital historically hindsight, and more capacities for obtaining, analyzing, and charting relations than we did then. Let’s unveil the opportunity structure in full, probe its strong points and its weaknesses. Too long have we faced down just the facades of corporations; we need to strike back at think-tanks and other institutions where the ideologies themselves are manufactured. Let’s jam up these networks. If we don’t, we have much to lose. In the short run, we are pilfered again by corporations. In the long run, we lose out on the ability to divert away from climate catastrophe.

i Tim Murphy “Rick Perry’s War on Science” Mother Jones December 16th, 2016

ii “A Blueprint for America’s Comeback” American Energy Alliance, December 2nd, 2016

iii Kevin Carson “Fracking: Poster Child for the Corporate Welfare State” Center for a Stateless Society, July 24th, 2014

iv Daniella Diaz “Steve Bannon: ‘Darkness is Good’” CNN November 18th, 2016

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