C. Wright Mills saw it coming.

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Trump's Cabinet Gives New Meaning to 'Power Elite'

Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, is a contributor to the Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter at @smihm.
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Donald Trump’s choice of Rex Tillerson, the chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil, as secretary of state is but the latest evidence of the president-elect’s inclination to choose well-connected insiders to serve in his cabinet.

Despite Trump’s populist tirades against the power elite both in Washington and New York during the campaign, the combined fortunes of his cabinet nominees dwarf their counterparts in recent administrations -- and he hasn’t filled all the posts. If Congress approves his choices, his cabinet would be the most affluent in U.S. history.

But focusing on wealth alone misses something bigger, and arguably more important. Trump is in fact assembling an administration made up of the sorts of people whom sociologist C. Wright Mills famously called the “power elite” in a classic work published 60 years ago. 

“The Power Elite” came out midway through the Eisenhower administration. While the Columbia University sociologist acknowledged that elites had always played an outsize role in the governance of the U.S., he argued that the postwar era had given rise to a new class.

These people, Mills argued, now controlled three formerly separate domains: the economy, the political order, and the military. Economic power, he said, had gradually become centralized in a few hundred enormous corporations. Political power, once distributed and dispersed among the states, had been centralized in the executive branch and among a handful of political operatives. And the military, which had been a diminutive institution in the 19th century, had become the largest, best-funded part of the federal government, despite the budget cuts enacted after the end of the Korean War.

The sociologist went much further: These elites no longer viewed one another with distrust. Instead, corporate leaders, military leaders, and political leaders now moved in concert.

They had “come to see that these several interests could be realized more easily if they worked together, in informal as well as in more formal ways, and accordingly they have done so,” he wrote. Thus, Mills concluded, “there is no longer, on the one hand, an economy, and on the other hand, a political order containing a military establishment unimportant to politics and to money-making.” Instead, there was a “triangle of power” made up of an “interlocking directorate” of elites.

This all sounded a bit conspiratorial, but Mills pointed out that the members of the power elite drawn from corporations, the executive branch and the military had started to cross over into one another’s realms: the “top positions,” Mills argued, “are increasingly interchangeable.” Mills went on to describe how the people who the people who would staff these positions tended to be “political outsiders,” by which he meant that they had not served in local politics or even in Congress. They were elites with little interest or experience in the business of making laws.

When Mills published his book in 1956, the executive branch conformed to his gloomy vision. Eisenhower, a decorated general, had become the president; the former president of General Motors became Eisenhower’s secretary of defense; several other prominent businessmen held important posts in his cabinet. The power elite in the Eisenhower administration moved effortlessly between the different centers of institutional power, even when they had little nominal experience for the jobs they were given.

Few in Eisenhower’s administration had worked in Congress; fewer still had any formal political experience, including Eisenhower himself. “This administration,” wrote Mills, “is largely an inner circle of political outsiders who have taken over the key executive posts of administrative command; it is composed by members and agents of the corporate rich and of the high military in an uneasy alliance with selected professional party politicians seated primarily in the Congress.”

Many critics savaged the book, claiming that the Eisenhower administration was an anomaly and that the power elite, however defined, could not be viewed in such monolithic terms. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. famously quipped: “I look forward to the time when Mr. Mills hands back his prophet’s robes and settles down to being a sociologist again.”

But subsequent presidential administrations seemed to corroborate some of the arguments advanced by Mills. The revolving door between Goldman Sachs and the Treasury Department that has been a hallmark of several presidential administrations conforms closely to his model. So, too, did many of the appointments in the administration of George W. Bush. Moreover, scholars such as G. William Domhoff have conducted extensive empirical research confirming the arguments of “The Power Elite.” 

But Trump and the administration he’s assembling is the ultimate incarnation of the power elite. He ran as an outsider and he has uneasy relationship with career politicians. He is appointing corporate leaders to major cabinet positions, and pace Mills, has chosen military men to serve in positions typically reserved for civilians. Few of these individuals have any experience in the business of making laws, either in state legislatures or in Congress. They are disproportionately “political outsiders,” much as Mills described, with Trump the outsider in chief.

But there’s more. One of the key points that Mills made about the emergent power elite was that its ranks had proven permeable to another, modern persona: the celebrity. 

Celebrities “are The Names that need no further identification,” Mills wrote. “Whatever they do has publicity value.” Mills famously asserted that the professional celebrity and the “star system” had evolved to the point where “a man who can knock a small white ball into a series of holes in the ground with more efficiency and skill than anyone else thereby gains social access to the President of the United States.”

Still, Mills was skeptical that professional celebrities could share the stage with business, military, and political elites, much less control them. And yet, he wondered, “will not those Americans who are celebrated come to coincide more clearly with those who are the most powerful among them?”

Sound familiar?

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Stephen Mihm at smihm1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net