President Donald Trump and his team like to say he runs a meritocracy, appointing only the most qualified people to the White House staff and top Cabinet positions.
That is to say he hired his campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, the first female presidential campaign manager in history, because she was the best for the job. Conway, who was named counselor to the president, along with others in Trump’s inner circle, maintains this message fully.
Debbie Walsh, director of Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics, doesn’t buy it. “It’s a tired excuse,” she said. “People tend to pick people that look like them.”
In Trump’s line of succession to the presidency — the most high-powered and influential positions in government — the meritocracy has resulted in an extremely white and male team.
Of the 18 people in line to the presidency, 15 are white men, two of which, speaker of the House and president pro tempore of the Senate, are not appointed by the president. Two are women: Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, who is Chinese-American, and Betsy DeVos, who has been tapped for Secretary of Education. Not in the line of succession, Trump has also proposed Linda McMahon to head the Small Business Administration, Gov. Nikki Haley, who is Indian-American, as the US ambassador to the United Nations, and Seema Verma, also Indian-American, to run the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
This isn’t a particularly extraordinary revelation in Washington, DC — the White House, Senate, and House of Representatives have never represented the gender, racial, and ethnic makeup of the country. But the lack of gender, ethnic, and racial diversity in Trump’s top Cabinet positions is one that has struck ire with many in recent weeks, especially after a campaign season that saw identity politics play such a substantial role.
How Trump’s Cabinet breaks down compared with past presidencies
It’s no secret that national politics is a boys’ club — and a particularly white one.
The 114th Congress was the most diverse in history, according to a Pew Research Study, but was still sorely behind rising minority rates in the country. White representatives account for 83 percent of the 114th session of Congress, however minorities make up around 37 percent of the US population.
Even Barack Obama, the first African-American president, had “room for improvement,” Walsh said. Obama, who ran the most diverse government in history overall, had mostly male aides, and was criticized in particular for a heavily male White House senior staff. (He did put two women on the Supreme Court and appoint the first woman Fed chair.)
“If you say I want to have a Cabinet that looks like America, but if only 30 percent of your Cabinet is female, that is not a Cabinet that looks like America,” Walsh pointed out.
Trump seems to be continuing this trend — indeed, likely worsening it.
Obama’s line of succession to the presidency, while still primarily white and male, was notably more evenly distributed in his first term, with Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House and Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, than Trump’s is shaping out to be.
Here is a comparison between Trump’s proposed top Cabinet positions and Obama’s Cabinets at the start of each term, in order of presidential succession:
In the running history of American politics, Bill Clinton’s second term had the most equal gender distribution with women filling 41 percent of Cabinet and Cabinet-level positions. Again his immediate line of succession in gender, racial and ethnic make up was not vastly different from Obama’s or George W. Bush’s.
Currently, no woman has ever held positions as secretary of Treasury, defense, or veterans affairs. Under Trump, all three of those appointments have gone to white men.
The debate over diversity in office has turned into one about identity politics
The gender and racial makeup of Trump’s top appointments have caused outrage with many on the left, particularly after a presidential campaign that spurred such vigorous debate over the existence identity politics. We’ve all seen the tweets and Facebook posts.
It’s a logical reaction to a Trump presidency for many — as my colleague German Lopez explained, much of this debate on the white American identity shaped Trump’s win:
All his dog whistles about making America great again (by perhaps reverting to a time when white people held a much stronger grip of government), political correctness, immigrants, Muslims, and “the African Americans”may have helped prime white people into voting for the racially regressive candidate.
Beyond race, there’s also the not-so-small matter of the 15 sexual assault allegations made against Trump in the final weeks of the election and the hot mic recording of Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women (“locker room talk,” he says).
Messaging from the Trump administration has largely been to call the criticism of his mostly white male Cabinet a gross overreaction from the left — and to downplay the push for political correctness.
But when promoting a diverse staff and Cabinet, Walsh said it should not be considered “because it politically correct, but because people understand that it matters.”
It’s about the value of diversity in informing the president’s decision-making, she said.
“We know that it is women’s lived experience that have an impact on their perspective. By not having women at the table that lived experience is not part of the discussion — it is not something that gets factored in by the chief executive. If you value that kind of diversity, that brings about better policy.”
Trump, during his presidential victory speech, said he wants to be the president for all American people. If representation in government is a core tenet of that message, then his appointments and staff picks will go to show how dedicated he is to serving all Americans.