Thursday, December 22, 2016

Invasion of the Agency Snatchers

“At first glance, everything looked the same. It wasn’t. Something evil had taken possession of the town.”

Those lines are from the opening voice-over in a great midcentury American movie, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Giant vegetable pods mysteriously arrive in a typical American town. Each takes over the identity of a local inhabitant, becoming an exact likeness except for the absence of emotion and of everything else that makes a person human. The town’s brave doctor tries to sound the alarm, but no one believes him, and it’s too late anyway. Trucks piled high with pods are rolling inexorably across the landscape.

The date was 1956. Many viewed the film as an allegory, although to what remains in dispute 60 years later. Some saw the soulless automatons that the pod people became as a reference to Communism. Others saw the target as McCarthyism. (The director, Don Siegel, denied any political message. “I think the world is populated by pods, and I wanted to show them,” he once explained.)

Personally, I see the Trump cabinet.

Stay with me and picture the first cabinet meeting. The white (almost all) men (almost all) sitting around the table will look like their predecessors, generations of them. But they won’t be the same as their predecessors, not at all. They will have been placed in their positions and handed the reins of power not to govern, but to destroy.

It’s not only Rick Perry, the former Texas governor whom President-elect Donald J. Trump has named to head the Department of Energy. Mr. Perry so disdained that department when he was running for the Republican presidential nomination in 2011 that he blanked on its name when listing the federal agencies he wanted to abolish. It’s also Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma state attorney general, who has devoted his adult life to fighting environmental regulation in partnership with his financial backers in the oil industry, named to head the Environmental Protection Agency.

It’s Tom Price, the congressman-doctor from Georgia who doesn’t believe the federal government has an affirmative role to play in health care, named as secretary of health and human services. Or another congressman, Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, a founder of the House Republicans’ Freedom Caucus who would rather shut down the government than pass a budget, named to be the White House budget director. It’s Wilbur Ross, named to head the Commerce Department after having made a fortune as an investor, buying and dismantling distressed industrial corporations. (Explain that to the voters who believed a Trump presidency would save their factory jobs.)

And it’s Ben Carson, at odds with the core mission of the Fair Housing Act insofar as he understands it, chosen as secretary of housing and urban development. And Betsy DeVos, named to head the Department of Education, for whom charter schools are the answer to the problems of public education.

Let’s not forget Senator Jeff Sessions, an Alabama good old boy, whose history of insensitive racial comments kept him from a Federal District Court seat in 1986, now picked to be attorney general. He’s Trent Lott without the charm. (You remember Trent Lott, the Mississippi senator who in 2002 lost his position as Senate majority leader for observing at the 100th birthday party for Strom Thurmond, the longtime Republican senator from South Carolina, that the country could have avoided “all these problems” if only Thurmond’s 1948 presidential bid for a segregationist third party had succeeded. In today’s America, that rhetorical gaffe might have propelled Senator Lott to the White House instead of out the door of the leadership suite.)

Then there is Andrew F. Puzder, the fast-food executive and opponent of raising the minimum wage, chosen as secretary of labor. He is a longtime anti-abortion activist who, as a lawyer defending people charged with blocking access to abortion clinics, has offered a “defense of necessity,” namely that abortion itself is a greater offense than a clinic blockage. I shouldn’t omit Rex Tillerson, chosen as secretary of state after a career spent at Exxon Mobil supporting fossil fuel and cultivating connections with Russia. (Am I the only one to notice that Mr. Tillerson and Darren Woods, named by Exxon Mobil to succeed him as its president, appear in their corporate headshots as eerily exact likenesses?) President-elect Trump’s selection of his bankruptcy lawyer, David M. Friedman, a shill for the Israeli right wing, to be ambassador to Israel is eyebrow raising, to say the least, in that Mr. Friedman’s outspoken support of West Bank settlements and opposition to a two-state solution is at odds with longstanding United States policy.

Maybe there really are giant pods waiting for the moment when simulacra of actual cabinet officers slip into the seats behind those big desks. A smart piece by Michael D. Shear in The Times earlier this week referred to most of the Trump nominees as “disrupters” who “aim to unnerve Washington.” Disrupters, destroyers — the scale of the degradation that will occur is so astonishing that no one word is adequate to encompass it. (Mr. Perry, the has-been politician, as secretary of energy may represent the most head-snapping degradation of all, given that it was not so long ago that President Obama placed a Nobel laureate physicist, Steven Chu, in that highly sensitive position.) A great phrase from Janet Malcolm’s “The Journalist and the Murderer” comes to mind: “the surrealism that is at the heart of journalism.” At such a time as this, words fail and only images remain. That’s why I can’t get the giant pods out of my mind.

by Linda Greenhouse, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Allied Artists/Getty Images