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Trump’s Big Agenda

Reagan started it. Bush expanded it. Now conservatives are poised to privatize everything in sight.

Illustration by Hanna Barczyk

On the campaign trail, Donald Trump famously portrayed himself as a populist. His campaign ads took aim at sinister elites governing the United States, and his ability to target the frustrations and fears of Rust Belt communities helped propel him into the presidency. But many of those same positions—especially his criticism of free trade—put him squarely at odds with decades of conservative orthodoxy. The Koch brothers, for their part, refused to support Trump, freezing him out of their donor network and declining to share voter data with him. Charles Koch blasted Trump’s call for a Muslim registry as “reminiscent of Nazi Germany,” and said that choosing between Trump and Hillary Clinton was like choosing between “cancer or a heart attack.”

Now, of course, the Kochs and most of the GOP establishment have come around to Trump’s side, at least for the moment. Or, perhaps more accurately, Trump has come around to theirs. At the center of his ever-shifting agenda, Trump has placed a single, overarching goal that he shares with the oil billionaires from Wichita: turning as much of the government as possible over to the private sector.

The push for privatization—long a conservative dream—is most evident in Trump’s cabinet picks. Tom Price, his choice for secretary of health and human services, wants to replace Medicare with a system of private health accounts that would hand over millions of taxpayer dollars to private insurance companies. Betsy DeVos, his nominee for secretary of education, is a leading advocate for charter schools, which are designed to channel much-needed resources away from public education and into private enterprises. Trump has expressed interest in turning the Department of Veterans Affairs into a “nonprofit corporation”—an idea that emerges directly from Concerned Veterans for America, a group backed by the Kochs—while Ben Carson, his choice to head up the Department of Housing and Urban Development, has spoken of simply dismantling federal health care for veterans entirely. Even Trump’s proposals for modernizing the nation’s infrastructure are centered not on carefully coordinated federal efforts, but on giving tax breaks to for-profit companies to erect new bridges and repair the nation’s roads.

At the heart of the conservative faith in privatization is the idea that the public sector is inherently cumbersome and inefficient. The public good, the thinking goes, can best be served not by inflexible government bureaucrats, but by enlightened businessmen who function as “trustees for the poor,” as the philanthropic steelmaker Andrew Carnegie once put it. This worldview has its roots deep in the conservative movement that took shape in the United States after World War II. The growth of the federal state during the New Deal was met by strong resistance from business leaders, who feared the rise of the only centralized authority powerful enough to counter their own interests at the national level. They organized vigorously against both labor unions and the welfare state, funding think tanks that were incubators for free-market ideas. The American Liberty League, for example, a business organization financed by the du Pont brothers (of the DuPont Chemical Company), argued that the New Deal was “a vast organism spreading its tentacles across the business and private life” of America, and that the state should stop providing economic assistance to the destitute, leaving such efforts to the Red Cross.

In the decades that followed, many corporate executives grudgingly came to accept Keynesian economics and the larger role for the state it implied, and they tolerated bargaining with labor unions that represented their workers. But some business conservatives never stopped working to upend the New Deal, to restore what they saw as the proper balance between the private and public sectors. In 1955, economist Milton Friedman wrote an essay arguing that the state should turn public schools over to “private enterprises operated for profit.” Providing parents with taxpayer-funded vouchers to pay for private schools, he said, would help reverse the “trend toward collectivism.” In the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, white conservatives in the South loved the idea of school reform. As Jesse Helms put it in 1957, when he was still the head of the North Carolina Bankers Association, “We are far from convinced that public schools are the only way to make education available to our people.”

In the 1970s, the idea of privatization became closely linked to hostility toward public-sector unions, which conservatives viewed as a “covetous” bureaucracy that would give labor too much power. The Carter administration flirted with the notion, but privatization gained a true champion in Washington under Reagan, whose Commission on Privatization pushed to allow for-profit interests to operate everything from low-income housing and air traffic control to prisons, Amtrak, and the Post Office.

There’s little evidence that privatization actually improves government services. Privately run fire departments have been a disaster, for-profit prisons are rife with cost overruns and human rights abuses, and charter schools don’t consistently outperform their public counterparts. But since the 1970s, the push to hand public funds over to private companies has gained traction well beyond the far right. Strapped for cash, many liberal cities have sought out public-private partnerships and other arrangements that outsource such basic government responsibilities as maintaining parks, cleaning city streets, enforcing parking regulations, dispatching ambulances, and educating school kids. As Donald Cohen, a leading critic of privatization, has pointed out, liberals at the national level also embraced privatization as a way to “reinvent” the Democratic Party. Under Bill Clinton, the federal government began handing out contracts to for-profit prisons, allowed private companies to determine who was eligible for welfare benefits, and even toyed with the idea of investing Social Security in the stock market.

The election of George W. Bush advanced the agenda further. Early in his presidency, Bush suggested that about 850,000 federal jobs—almost half the federal workforce—should be outsourced to the private sector. He enjoyed his biggest success, surprisingly, in the armed forces. During the Iraq War, private military contractors actually outnumbered U.S. troops, and companies like KBR, a subsidiary of Dick Cheney’s old firm Halliburton, raked in billions of dollars in federal contracts providing services that were once the province of the U.S. military. Obama continued the trend, allowing for-profit companies to run immigrant detention centers, and doing little to stem the spread of private charter schools.

Yet what makes Trump’s version of privatization different is not just its ambition, but the ideology of business superiority that guides it. If the new president and his cabinet picks have their way, some of the biggest and most central functions of the federal government—education, housing, infrastructure, health care for veterans and the elderly—could wind up being managed by for-profit corporations. Trump’s own businesses, after all, have benefited from public subsidies, including the tax breaks that New York doled out to for-profit developers as part of its effort to woo investors after the city’s fiscal crisis in 1975.

Deep down, Trump favors turning state functions over to private firms because he shares with Andrew Carnegie an underlying belief that corporate leaders alone have the right, the power, and the obligation to make decisions for society. Their financial success, in his mind, is all the proof that’s necessary. “I have made billions of dollars in business making deals,” he declared at the Republican National Convention. “Now I’m going to make our country rich again!”

Now that Trump and his inner circle of conservative businessmen are in charge of the state they have long despised, they are poised to rule it as they do their own companies: uncontested by—and unaccountable to—those who will be most deeply affected by their decisions.