During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump seemed to demonstrate little interest in the tenets of movement conservatism. He vowed that he wouldn’t cut Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid and said little about shrinking the size of government. He positioned himself as a champion of the American working man against powerful bankers and corporations. He rarely discussed social issues, except to repeat assurances that he was pro-life and pro-gun.
Yet several of the president-elect’s most recent Cabinet picks are in no way, shape, or form outsider populists. And they aren’t from the squishy Northeastern moderate wing of the GOP either — they’re all staunch conservatives. Indeed, they have such sterling conservative credentials that they would have been just as plausible Cabinet choices for a President Ted Cruz or Mike Pence — which in turn may suggest that Trump has little intention of governing as an outsider populist.
Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos has been a charter member of the moneyed conservative movement for decades. Her father-in-law is billionaire Amway co-founder Richard DeVos, who’s donated millions to conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation. Betsy herself is closely tied to religious right groups like the Christian Coalition and has campaigned for school vouchers in Michigan — a cause beloved by free market, anti-union, and religious conservatives — for more than a decade. The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer has more background on her here.
Trump’s reported transportation secretary pick, Elaine Chao, served eight full years as George W. Bush’s labor secretary, and her tenure there was marked by lax enforcement of labor standards, a lack of interest in new rules to protect worker safety, and a strong defense of business’s interests rather than those of unions. The department killed Clinton-era rules meant to protect workers from repetitive-stress injuries and replaced them with mere “voluntary guidelines,” blocked a wage increase set to go into effect for legal immigrant farmworkers in the H-2A program, and demanded stricter expense disclosures from unions, as the Lexington Herald-Leader rounded up. A 2008 Government Accountability Office report rebuked Chao’s Labor Department for failing to adequately investigate complaints of worker abuses. And of course, she is no outsider — her husband, Mitch McConnell, is Senate Majority Leader.
Health and Human Services Secretary-designate Tom Price has some particularly notable apparent policy differences with the president-elect: Price, a member of Congress from Georgia, is a big supporter of enormous changes to entitlement programs, including turning Medicare into a voucher program and Medicaid into a fully block-granted program, as David Dayen writes. And Price said in 2015 that he wants to make big changes to Social Security too. His appointment can certainly be interpreted as signaling that Trump will in fact cooperate with House Speaker Paul Ryan’s agenda of overhauling entitlements.
Together with other picks, like Attorney General-designate Jeff Sessions — an extremely conservative Alabama senator (though he does happen to share Trump’s free trade skepticism) — the Trump Cabinet is shaping up to be a very conservative group indeed so far.
Now, it remains unclear how much authority these Cabinet secretaries will have to actually determine policy in the new administration — President Obama’s Cabinet famously became a sort of backwater, with major policy initiatives largely being run out of the White House. But from a policy perspective, movement conservatives should be over the moon about all these choices. The Trump administration is delivering them just the people they’d want.