Steve Mnuchin may be the perfect elite avatar for our modern era. Not because he’s particularly unique; in fact, as Rebecca Burns and David Dyen make clear in Fat Cat: The Steve Mnuchin Story, almost the only exceptional thing about him is how unexceptional he is.
It’s Mnuchin’s ordinariness — the bland, smirking, technocratic style of rapaciousness he embodies — that marks him as a perfect representative of the world we now live in. In some grubby, bygone era, when a warlord wanted to rob you, he’d charge through your village, point weapons in your face, and take what he wanted; now, you just come home to find someone changing your locks and a foreclosure notice from OneWest sitting on the doormat.
Burns and Dayen (full disclosure: Rebecca is a friend) trace Mnuchin’s rise and rise through the worlds of finance and politics, spinning off Elizabeth Warren’s 2016 zinger that Mnuchin was “the Forrest Gump of the financial crisis.” Like Gump, Mnuchin seems to have been everywhere in the preceding decade, rising unforeseeably to ever-higher heights.
Except, unlike Forrest Gump — who thanks to his determination, bravery, and essential goodness overcame his disabilities to excel at everything he did and better the lives of those around him — Mnuchin, with his enormous class advantage, ascended in spite of stunning ignorance and constant failure, turning every car crash into a cause for promotion, and all to continue making people’s lives shittier.
Mnuchin’s career is best defined, to quote the authors, as “a series of train wrecks . . . from which he has always managed to jump clear.” From his early years in college, where as publisher of the Yale Daily News he imposed austerity on the paper to jack up its profits, to his current stint as the head of Trump’s Treasury, where he helped design perhaps the most nakedly plutocratic tax bill thus far in American history, Mnuchin has specialized in fattening his and his friends’ wallets while ruining as many lives as possible.
In between these stints, Mnuchin was at the forefront of innovating the securities derivatives that would later help tank the global economy, and ran what’s been described as a “foreclosure machine” at OneWest. The authors cover the latter episode in particular depth, telling the excruciating stories of ordinary Americans who had their homes stolen from them in broad daylight by Mnuchin’s bank, including one Trump voter who was aghast to hear that the candidate who had assured her and other millions of other Americans he was their “voice” had just tapped the man who had snatched her home to help steer the economy. This was Mnuchin’s reward for years of criminality in the financial sector, a prize he secured, fittingly, by committing yet another crime and perjuring himself during his confirmation hearings.
Reading through the litany of crimes and other misdeeds spelled out in the book, you might justifiably wonder how and why Mnuchin was not only allowed to get away with it, but promoted. The easy, and comforting answer, is Trump. The more uncomfortable, but truer, answer is a political system that has long conspired to facilitate Mnuchin’s particular brand of looting, a conclusion never stated outright in the book, but one impossible not to take away from its pages.
Mnuchin’s early efforts at financial innovation were enabled by a 1984 law, passed shortly before he joined Goldman Sachs, that fueled its advance. His eventual nomination by Trump might never have happened had then-California attorney general Kamala Harris not mysteriously ignored the advice of her own staff to prosecute Mnuchin for his crimes in 2013. And his lies under oath might have torpedoed his nomination were it not for the fact that Congress has, over the past decade or so, stopped treating elite perjury as the crime it is.
As it happened, Mnuchin was allowed to join the Trump administration and wreak havoc. You can read the dispiriting details in Burns and Dayen’s book, whose ending hints at the possible consequences in the form of yet another financial crash. The possible fallout from such a meltdown is ominously foreshadowed in the book’s prologue, which outlines the saga of Trump-loving attempted mail bomber Cesar Sayoc, a kind of literary Ouroboros that reflects the perpetual cycle of lopsided boom and cataclysmic bust we’re currently trapped in.
It would be tempting to presume all this could’ve been stopped had Mnuchin’s rise up the financial and political ladder been arrested at some point. The trouble is, despite his ubiquity and undoubted skill at ass-kissing, Mnuchin is just one of a broad array of interchangeable plutocratic figures who would or could serve as a similarly loyal vehicle for shunting more and more wealth further upward and away from the working public. We’ve seen his kind before in the Tim Geithners, Larry Summers, and Robert Rubins of the world, not to mention many other names from the current Trump cabinet.
What makes Mnuchin a perfect representative of our current era is the level of outright criminality that defines so much of his career. He thus joins the ranks of this new era of elites — presidents, judges, intelligence officials, and more — who have gone beyond mere morally questionable yet technically legal behavior, or even covert illegality, and instead now openly flout the law in service of a goal that looks more and more to be about simply grabbing as much wealth as possible in the face of impending economic and ecological collapse.
Steve Mnuchin is an odious man, as Burns and Dayen amply document. The trouble is, if he didn’t exist, there would be a thousand other boring, bespectacled, white-collar plunderers ready to take his place, with the same results. The goal of public policy should be not just to stop them from taking power, but to create the kind of society that would prevent them from even having the inclination to indulge the greed to which the human condition is so sadly susceptible in the first place. Otherwise, we’re not just going to end up with a lot more Steve Mnuchins — we’ll be dealing with a lot more Cesar Sayocs, too.