“Looking forward to working with you as the new UK government develops its trade policy priorities, including in high value areas that we discussed such as defence.” – Liam Fox, UK Secretary of State for International Trade
It took corporate America a while to warm to Donald Trump. Some of his positions, especially on trade, horrified business leaders. Many of them favoured Ted Cruz or Scott Walker. But once he had secured the nomination, the big money began to recognise an unprecedented opportunity.
Trump was prepared not only to promote the cause of corporations in government, but to turn government into a kind of corporation, staffed and run by executives and lobbyists. His incoherence was not a liability but an opening: his agenda could be shaped. And the dark money network that some American corporations had already developed was perfectly positioned to shape it.
Dark money is the term used in the US for the undisclosed funding of organisations involved in political advocacy. Few people would see a tobacco company as a credible source on public health, or a coal company as a neutral commentator on climate change. To advance their political interests, such companies must pay others to speak on their behalf.
Soon after the Second World War, some of America’s richest people began setting up a network of thinktanks to promote their interests. These purport to offer dispassionate opinions on public affairs. But they are more like corporate lobbyists, working on behalf of those who founded and fund them. These are the organisations now running much of the Trump administration.
We have no hope of understanding what is coming until we understand how the dark money network operates.
ALEC is perhaps the most controversial of the corporate-funded thinktanks in the US. It specialises in bringing together corporate lobbyists with state and federal legislators to develop “model bills”. The legislators and their families enjoy lavish hospitality from the group, then take the model bills home with them, to promote as if they were their own initiatives.
ALEC has claimed that over 1000 of its bills are introduced by legislators every year, and one in five of them becomes law. It has been heavily funded by tobacco companies, the oil company Exxon, drug companies and Charles and David Koch: the billionaires who founded the first Tea Party organisations, Pfizer, that funded Gabby Bertin’s post at The Atlantic Bridge, sits on ALEC’s corporate board. Some of the most contentious legislation in recent years, such as state bills lowering the minimum wage, bills granting corporations immunity from prosecution and the “ag-gag” laws, forbidding people to investigate factory farming practices, were developed by ALEC.
Jim DeMint resigned his seat in the Senate to become president of the Heritage Foundation, which is probably, after ALEC, the second most controversial thinktank in America. It was founded with a large grant from Joseph Coors, heir to the Coors brewing empire, then built up with money from the banking and oil billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife. Like ALEC, it has been richly funded by the Koch Brothers. Heritage, under DeMint’s presidency, drove the attempt to ensure that Congress refused to pass the federal budget, temporarily shutting down the government.
The Heritage Foundation is now at the heuart of Trump’s administration. Its board members, fellows and staff comprise a large part of his transition team.
Trump’s extraordinary plan to cut federal spending by $10.5 trillion was drafted by the Heritage Foundation, which called it a “Blueprint for a New Administration”. Russ Vought and John Gray, who moved onto Trump’s team from Heritage, are now turning this blueprint into his first budget.
It will, if passed, inflict devastating cuts on healthcare, social security, legal aid, financial regulation and environmental protections, eliminate programmes to prevent violence against women, to defend civil rights and fund the arts, and will privatise the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Trump, as you follow this story, begins to look less like a president and more like an intermediary: implementing an agenda that has been handed down to him.