One of the first cabinet appointments made by President-elect Donald Trump was of Steve Bannon as his “chief strategist and senior counselor.” Bannon is the former executive chairman of Breitbart News, a leading white nationalist website known for spreading fake “news” and for pushing racist, Islamophobic, misogynistic, and anti-Semitic tropes. Bannon’s selection drew widespread condemnation from Democratic members of Congress as well as civil rights, reproductive rights, and immigrant rights groups.
Retiring Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) called Bannon a “champion of racial division.” The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which monitors hate groups, noted Bannon’s “long history of bigotry” and his role in making Breitbart the media arm of the racist “alt-right” movement. And several organizations, including MoveOn.org and BoldProgressives, launched “Stop Bannon” campaigns. Leaders of white nationalist groups in the United States, on the other hand, rejoiced at Bannon’s ascension. In fact, I suspect every time Trump and his surrogates have said, “this isn’t a campaign, it’s a movement,” it’s a call-out to the very white nationalists celebrating Trump’s win.
This should be no surprise: Bannon may be the most blatant example of Trump’s true intentions, but he is by far the rule. Trump’s campaign was relentlessly and unapologetically rooted in racist, misogynistic, anti-Semitic, and anti-immigrant statements, themes, and proposals, and his cabinet reflects the same. As the saying goes, when someone tells you who they are, believe them.
Indeed, rather than creating a Team of Rivals—in which, as documented by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, Abraham Lincoln filled his cabinet with former rivals who came together and worked toward the greater good—Trump’s cabinet is shaping up to be a “Team of Racists” hellbent on further dividing the United States, a strategy that would inevitably help him to further consolidate power during his first term by sowing fear and conflict. Virtually all those already appointed, nominated, or floated for cabinet positions in the new administration are white men with deeply troubling histories of making statements, promoting policies, or enforcing laws promoting systemic racism. Based on the people and the politics they espouse, Trump’s selections must be read as a promise of an administration that will, in the end, increase the violence toward, marginalization of, and attacks on Muslims, immigrants, women, LGBTQ people, and people of color.
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Among the selections to date are Alabama GOP Sen. Jeff Sessions for attorney general of the United States. Sessions has fought against legal immigration into the United States and has voted against virtually every immigration bill introduced in Congress in the past two decades. He opposes a path to citizenship for those who entered the country without documentation or prior approval. According to the Washington Post, Session opposes “guest worker programs for immigrants in the country illegally and visa programs for foreign workers in science, math and high-tech. In 2007, Sessions got a bill passed essentially banning for 10 years federal contractors who hire [undocumented] immigrants.”
“No Senator has fought harder against the hopes and aspirations of Latinos, immigrants, and people of color than Sen. Sessions,” said Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, an Illinois Democrat, in a statement last week.
The SPLC reports that Sessions is closely affiliated with anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant extremist groups who have cultivated him to be their voice in Congress. The center notes that “John Tanton, founder of the modern-day nativist movement, highlighted the need for such a congressional champion as a key goal in strategy memos he drafted in the 1980s. ‘Think how much different our prospects would be if someone espousing our ideas had the chairmanship!’ Tanton wrote.”
The center further reports that Sessions is closely associated with and attends meetings held by the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), the mission of which is to severely limit immigration into the United States:
Its leaders have longstanding ties to white supremacist groups and eugenicists and have made many racist statements. Its advertisements have been rejected because of racist content. Dan Stein, FAIR’s current president, told Tanton [FAIR’s founder] in 1994 that those who supported the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which abolished the racist national origins quotas that favored immigrants of European descent, wanted to “retaliate against Anglo-Saxon dominance” and that this “revengism” against whites had created a policy that is causing “chaos and will continue to create chaos.”
Sessions is a longtime critic and opponent of civil rights, and while he voted to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act in 2006, he also praised the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision gutting the law in 2013. He has called the NAACP and American Civil Liberties Union “Communist-inspired” and “un-American.” He was denied a federal judgeship in the mid-1980s because of his racist views and actions.
“Jeff Sessions has a decades-long record—from his early days as a prosecutor to his present role as a senator—of opposing civil rights and equality,” Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, told USA Today in a statement. “It is unimaginable that he could be entrusted to serve as the chief law enforcement officer for this nation’s civil rights laws.”
Another appointee is retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn as national security advisor, a position very close to the president. Flynn has been widely described as an “extreme Islamophobe” who believes that Islam is a political ideology, not a religion. The New York Times reports that, like Trump, Flynn “exhibit[s] a loose relationship with facts: General Flynn, for instance, has said that Shariah, or Islamic law, is spreading in the United States (it is not). His dubious assertions are so common that when he ran the Defense Intelligence Agency, subordinates came up with a name for the phenomenon: They called them ‘Flynn facts.'” Flynn is a proponent of preventing Muslims from entering the United States and registering those who are here. Flynn is also believed to have financial and other ties to Russia and Turkey, indicating serious conflicts of interests.
A third selection is Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS) for director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Pompeo, who is supported by the Koch brothers, has numerous times made racist and anti-Muslim remarks. In his 2010 election campaign, he tweeted an article referring to his opponent, Indian-American Raj Goyle, as an “evil” “turban topper.” After apologizing for that, a campaign supporter put up billboards exhorting people to “Vote American. Vote Pompeo,” and “True Americans Vote Pompeo,” implying, of course, that Goyle, who is indeed American, was not. According to the Guardian, in 2013, “Pompeo was widely criticised by Democrats and the Council on American-Islamic Relations for saying that Muslim clerics who did not properly chastise Islamic terrorists were ‘complicit’ in terror attacks.”
The list of names for other positions is long and changes daily. But other possible contenders for positions include former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.
Giuliani is well known for failed policies such as “stop-and-frisk,” which is based on racial profiling, and for his clams that Black Lives Matter fostered violence against police. In the early ’90s, he actually egged on a riot by white police officers protesting demands that they be held more accountable for their actions against people of color. And among many other things, he’s alternately defended and denied Trump’s birther crusade and claimed that President Obama does not love America.
Kris Kobach is, among other things, an immigration hard-liner who is associated with nativist groups and helped Arizona Republicans write the infamous “Show Me Your Papers” law, SB 1070, later tossed out by the courts. He is virulently anti-choice and has advocated strongly for a Muslim registry. He also has pushed hard for laws restricting voter rights.
As the saying goes, you know a person by the company they keep. And Trump is surrounding himself with racists many layers deep.
So it’s time for all of us—the media, pundits, Democratic legislators, and the public—to stop waiting for the “pivot.” It ain’t coming and if we don’t realize that now, we are all at fault for the unraveling of democracy in the United States.
CORRECTION: This piece has been updated to clarify Rep. Gutiérrez’s correct state.