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It’s Joe Biden’s Swamp Now

So far, Joe Biden’s transition has hired liberally from Wall Street and corporate America, chosen appointees who have made multiple trips through the revolving door, and recruited fans of fossil fuels in the middle of a climate crisis. It’s little different than what we saw under Donald Trump.

Joe Biden delivers a speech at the William Hicks Anderson Community Center on July 28, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. Mark Makela / Getty

With Joe Biden now weeks into the transition for his presidency, it’s time to play a game. That game is called, “What Would People Say If This Was a Trump Pick?”

For instance, what would people say if Donald Trump’s pick to head the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) was a figure who not only floated cutting entitlements, but has hoovered up millions from Wall Street and virtually every malign corporate interest you can imagine? What if she was someone who once privately suggested the United States solve its debt issues by having Libya hand over its oil for the privilege of being destroyed by its military? What if, in addition to all this, she was also a union-buster who outed a sexual harassment victim and punched an employee for asking Hillary Clinton a question about the Iraq War?

Or what if, for secretary of state, director of national intelligence, and lower ranking positions helping staff his administration, Biden had nominated people who had parlayed the experience and relationships they’d gained serving while in government into lucrative private-sector jobs opening doors for military contractors and multinationals, sometimes with that very same government?

What if his likely pick for secretary of defense was a partner at those same firms, and just this year had advocated for the Pentagon to team up with “companies that are part of the traditional defense industrial base and non-traditional partners,” and “create more substantial recurring revenue opportunities for these companies”? What if one of those firms had recently filed an SEC document boasting that its “deeply connected partner group of former U.S. defense and government officials” would “ensure exposure to a significant number of proprietary opportunities?”

What would happen if, after running a campaign where he cast the election as a choice between Scranton and Park Avenue and where he repeatedly told workers they, not Wall Street, built the country, Trump quickly turned Wall Street and corporate America into a recruitment pool? Venture capital executive, director of a financial firm, a pharma and insurance lobbyist: Wouldn’t such picks for his White House staff make a mockery of this campaign? And what if another possible Wall Street hire was not only colleagues with one of the men most responsible for the 2008 financial crash, but had covered up the police murder of a black teenager while he was mayor of one of the largest US cities?

Or how about if, as a “climate czar,” he had appointed someone who enthusiastically supported the expansion of US fossil fuel exploitation? Or, as a top economic adviser, a fossil-fuel supporting finance executive who headed “sustainable investing” at a firm while it was dubbed the “world’s largest investor in deforestation”? Or, as his climate movement liaison, an official with a poor environmental record who’s one of the top recipients of fossil fuel donations? What if he was planning to reappoint as energy secretary someone who not just opposes the Green New Deal, but who sits on the board of one of the country’s worst fossil fuel polluters? Wouldn’t it all make a mockery of the campaign he just ran, insisting he’ll listen to science?

Of course, Trump didn’t run that campaign. Joe Biden did. In fact, all of the above describes individuals Biden has either already appointed and nominated for various posts or is considering doing so.

We don’t have to try hard to imagine how Trump’s picks might have been received if they had these pedigrees, because we already lived through it. Trump’s pick of the entitlement-hating Mick Mulvaney as OMB director was roundly noted as contradicting his campaign promises to protect such programs. After lamenting “Trump’s cabinet of horrors” and warning that “Earth has reason to worry,” the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has had only words of praise for Biden’s picks. Newspapers warned of an “unprecedented amount of influence from the fossil fuel industry in Trump’s cabinet,” and experts spoke of a “frightening moment” with “how the reins of the federal government are being handed over to the fossil fuel industry.” After assailing Trump’s “cabinet of fossil fools,” with their “enormous conflicts of interest,” the Sierra Club is now “applauding” Biden’s appointment of John Kerry and offering to do the incoming administration’s PR.

It’s impossible to catalogue all of the many, many instances of establishment news outlets and even entertainment shows quite rightly hammering Trump for the hypocrisy of filling his administration with plutocrats and “swamp creatures” after a campaign nominally hostile to them. The press compiled their combined wealth and many conflicts of interest. The Associated Press memorably tracked down one Trump voter heartbroken by Trump’s appointment of the man who stole her home. “I have no faith in our government anymore at all,” she said. “They all promise you the world at the end of a stick and take it away once they get in.”

“Trump’s critics have said that the picks represent a departure from his anti-Wall Street rhetoric during the campaign, and that they are out of touch with the working-class Americans whom he vowed to champion during the campaign,” wrote the Boston Globe, in a sentence that could be, word for word, repurposed for the incoming Biden administration, except for the fact that no such critics exist in respectable circles this time around.

It’s particularly ironic now to read this January 2017 report on Trump’s cabinet from the Center for American Progress, the corporate-funded Democratic think tank that has provided Biden’s pick for OMB director. In between pointing out the threat money in politics poses to US democracy and the deleterious “effect of having elected officials dependent on and aligned with the wealthiest few,” it asserted that the “government cannot have the foxes guarding the hen house.”

“When people move between working in government service and private business and special interest lobbying, often repeatedly, it raises great risks that the interests of business will remain paramount and given priority consideration in government decisions,” the report warned.

Meanwhile, Trump’s cabinet picks inspired a series of rolling, nationwide protests, particularly aimed at, though not limited to, their environmental and climate records. At one point, people donned swamp creature masks and encamped outside Goldman Sachs.

It remains to be seen if Biden’s picks, with their own conflicts of interest and terrible records, will face the same intensity of popular pressure. In an encouraging sign, climate groups protested at the Democratic National Committee headquarters two weeks ago, objecting to Biden’s fossil fuel–infused appointments.

But one thing’s for sure: whatever urgency and outrage once existed in establishment and Democrat-aligned circles on this issue when it was Trump in question has dissipated. While the New York Times, as one notable exception, has continued scrutinizing the backgrounds of Biden’s appointees, mainstream media coverage of Biden’s transition has almost entirely jettisoned the oppositional approach it took under Trump during this same period, and has overwhelmingly been obsessed instead with the demographic diversity of Biden’s team.

It’s a clever sleight of hand. With Biden’s team defined by similar kinds of conflicts of interest, corporate influence, and concerning histories to the ones that defined Trump’s, the whole spectacle undermines the Trump-as-historical-aberration narrative the press has run with for the last four years, as well as Biden’s “return to normal” campaign message that much of the media has adopted as its own. Narrow as it is, the diversity of Biden’s appointees gives the press something to contrast with Trump’s, as it appears increasingly clear that the much-ballyhooed hopes for a Rooseveltian Biden presidency that breaks from what came before were hollow PR.

Just as we’ve seen on the immigration front, we’re quickly finding out what the four-year-long portrayal of Trump as a unique, unprecedented horror really means: that any president, before or after, will be excused by the press and parts of the liberal establishment for doing substantially the same awful and corrupt things Trump did, as long as they’re not actually Trump himself.

“I just wish that I had not voted,” Teena Colebrook, the disenchanted Trump voter, told the AP after finding out Trump had picked Steve Mnuchin for treasury secretary. And that’s exactly why the coverage of Biden is focused on feel-good bromides instead of scrutiny. There’s an election coming up, after all, and Trump is going to run again. The stakes are just too high to let people get disillusioned with the system again. Better to keep them away from the truth.