On Thursday, President Trump announced that he would nominate labor lawyer Eugene Scalia, son of the former Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, to replace Alexander Acosta as Labor secretary. Until Scalia can be confirmed, Acosta’s deputy, Patrick Pizzella, will serve on an acting basis, working to turn the functions of the agency over to the business lobby. Pizzella is a familiar kind of right-wing apparatchik, but he does have a unique biographical attribute that links him to a now-forgotten period of Republican politics.
Pizzella worked with lobbyist Jack Abramoff. That this is now a relatively unimportant detail on his résumé is a fascinating development if one recalls the importance such links would have held to conservatives just a dozen years ago.
For the first four and a half years of his presidency, George W. Bush developed a cult following on the right comparable to the standing enjoyed by Donald Trump today. Bush signed two tax cuts, appointed scores of conservative judges, slashed regulations, launched two putatively successful wars, and infuriated liberals with his anti-intellectual machismo. Bush’s popular support began spiraling downward in his second term.
Conservatives did not want to blame his ardent campaigning for a failed initiative to privatize Social Security, nor to concede that Bush’s tax cuts and deregulation had failed to yield the promised prosperity. Conservatism never fails, Rick Perlstein archly observed at the time; it is only failed. And so, to insulate their ideology from any blame, they instead cast Bush as a heretic. It was his alleged failure to uphold conservative principles that did him in. Bush’s ideological heresies, which the right had largely ignored before, now suddenly loomed large.
The shorthand that conservatives used to drive home this new message was “corruption.” Bush and his party had sold out true conservatism, especially by spending too much money, out of greed. A series of high-profile corruption cases drove this home. Abramoff’s was the most notorious and became a shorthand for the broader outbreak of sleaze in Dubya’s Washington, but scandals took down several other high-profile Republicans: Bob Ney, Mark Foley, Ralph Reed, Grover Norquist, Tom DeLay.
Richard Viguerie’s book Conservatives Betrayed blamed both “illegal corruption” (by Abramoff et al.) and “Legal corruption (in the form of pork-barrel spending) for tempting Republicans away from the Reaganite path. Matthew Continetti’s The K Street Gang argued that Republicans “succumbed to temptations of power” and “ended up as a racket.”
It is almost impossible to overstate how much weight conservatives placed on corruption as their diagnosis of failure. This conviction led straight to their Obama-era posture as a “reformed” party of pure fiscal conservatism. The solution was simple: If Republicans redoubled their commitment to anti-statist purity, they would at once renounce the temptations of spending and corruption. The identity Paul Ryan inhabited on his way to grasping the intellectual leadership of his party had been formed in advance by the corruption critique.
Many of the once-disgraced figures from that era have found their way back to Republican respectability. Reed and Norquist, former Abramoff cronies, are organizing evangelicals and wealthy capitalists to support the Trump agenda. Abramoff is out of prison, whipping up donations as a lobbyist against the Green New Deal. And now the acting secretary of Labor is a former partner in his most notorious scheme.
The scandal, which has been recounted by Franklin Foer and Noah Lanard, was carried out by Abramoff and Pizzella on behalf of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory. The islands built sweatshops that enjoyed an exemption from the minimum wage and other U.S. labor laws, and held their workers in debt peonage and prison-like conditions, but could still label their products “Made in the USA.” Abramoff and Pizzella ferried in members of Congress to take guided tours of the islands, used contacts in the right-wing think-tank world, and sometimes undisclosed payoffs, to maintain favored status for the island’s factories.
Not only has Pizzella’s role in this episode failed to stop him from rising to the position of acting Labor secretary, he is now known as a true defender of the Reaganite faith. “Pat will be great — he is a movement conservative,” Marc Short, Mike Pence’s chief of staff, told the New York Times.
Pizzella may not lead the agency for long, and by Trump-era standards, of course, his offenses barely register as scandals at all. The Trump administration is shot through with corruption, from petty grifts like Cabinet members abusing their expense accounts to legislation written by and for lobbyists. The president himself is taking payoffs from corporate lobbyists and foreign governments through his Washington hotel and other properties.
The party’s whole post-Bush backlash against corruption and deficit spending, and the notion that those values are antithetical to conservatism, has been forgotten. (“Nobody is a fiscal conservative anymore,” Rush Limbaugh casually declared. “All this talk about concern for the deficit and the budget has been bogus for as long as it’s been around.”) Having fulfilled its use by giving Republicans a reason to absolve their ideology of any role in Bush’s failure, they discarded it.
There was a time when conservatives spoke of little else besides corruption and the lessons they had learned from it. Now they never speak of it at all, while their grifter president and his family soak the government for every dollar they can wring from it.