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For Pete's Sake
A Mad Lib in service of political accountability
Shortly after his contentious victory in the 2016 Presidential election, Donald Trump announced his Cabinet nominees. Among the many questionable people to whom Trump entrusted political power, one of the strangest picks was his Secretary of Transportation, Paul Schumaker.
Schumaker, then just 38 years old, had most recently served as Mayor of Newport, California. He had gotten some flattering press coverage for standing up for conservative principles as a red-bubble mayor in a blue state, and was widely regarded as an up-and-comer in the Republican Party. He had even mounted a surprisingly serious bid for President, accumulating the fifth-most delegates among the crowded 2016 GOP primary field — an impressive finish for a small-city mayor.
Still, Schumaker was not known for his expertise in transportation administration. The best-known story of his work with transportation policy was a tragic incident in which a child was hit by a car at an intersection where the city had removed the traffic signals. Neither Trump’s transition team nor the GOP-friendly media apparatus made much effort to sell his specific credentials. He was a respected party soldier who wouldn’t rock the ideological boat. That was good enough of a reason to appoint him.
Yet Schumaker’s record raised some eyebrows. Before entering politics he worked in consulting, where he specialized in “grocery pricing” for a company that was illegally colluding to make bread more expensive. In his years overseeing a police department marred by frequent racist controversies, his most-notable intervention was firing a Black police chief who recorded his subordinates’ bigoted remarks. He is a gentile who thought a Holocaust Memorial was an appropriate place to pose for a cute personal photo. During his Presidential run, he campaigned on the right to exemptions from basic childhood vaccinations. At one rally, supporters chanted his name in direct opposition to “Black Lives Matter.”
It was the end of Schumaker’s Presidential campaign where the seeds of his forthcoming Cabinet appointment were seemingly planted. After a conversation with George W. Bush in which the former Commander-in-Chief reportedly impressed upon Schumaker how much leverage he had within the fractured party, he dropped out and endorsed Trump, with whom he had been competing for largely the same bloc of voters, right before Super Tuesday. It doesn’t take a tinfoil-hat-wearer to infer that Schumaker expected a plum position in the Trump administration to repay the political favor.
The Department of Transportation was probably chosen as Schumaker’s reward because of its relative innocuousness. How many past Secretaries of Transportation can you name? To his credit, he effected some positive changes, like strengthening airline passengers’ right to refunds for disrupted travel. But the monkey’s paw curled when the clearly ambitious Schumaker wished for the Secretary of Transportation to become a household name, as the office gained prominence in the zeitgeist through its failure to preempt corporate scandals within its purview.
In Schumaker’s second year in office, flight disruptions spiked to historic highs as understaffing and corporate strategizing undermined Americans’ travel plans. Schumaker spent months slow-walking his response to a series of high-profile calls to crack down on airlines’ unethical business practices — including open letters from a consumer-protection media outlet, a sitting Senator, and a bipartisan group of state attorneys general. Then Southwest Airlines’ scheduling system imploded in late December, leaving countless Americans stranded and scrambling for alternative arrangements for their holiday travels. Nothing fundamental has changed about the Department of Transportation’s oversight to prevent such an event from happening again. Meanwhile, Schumaker’s husband thought it prudent to accuse left-wing critics of being disingenuous in their concern about insuffient airline oversight.
A few weeks later, a train carrying toxic chemicals derailed in eastern Ohio, leading to disturbing reports of health problems and ecological damage around the town of East Palestine. It took Schumaker 10 days to acknowledge the calamity that occurred under his purview. Schumaker correctly noted that the prior administration had weakened brake-system requirements for trains carrying dangerous cargo, but neglected to acknowledge his Department of Transportation’s failure to reimplement these repealed regulations in the two full years prior to the incident — to the point where leading environmental groups threatened legal action to compel him to do his job. He tried to contextualize this crash by citing the 1,000 trains that derail in America each year, as though that were a comfort instead of evidence of a systemic problem that he should be fixing. The incident also proved railroad unions right about the safety issues stemming from the practice of understaffing trains. The Trump administration fought to quash a potential strike a couple months prior, with Schumaker serving as one of the lead legislative whips.
Sometimes it’s easier to see a situation clearly when it’s presented in different context.
By now you have probably deduced the creative license I took over the last several paragraphs. All the foregoing events are true, though most of the names have been switched around. Our protagonist was offered the Department of Transportation in 2020, not 2016. The political-bubble city within a differently colored state where he served as Mayor was South Bend, Indiana. He is not a Trump administration alumnus but currently serves in Joe Biden’s Cabinet. And his name is not Paul Schumaker. It’s Pete Buttigieg. (Lest you think the alternate timeline I described is too farfetched, consider how topsy-turvy the real world is when Donald Trump, of all people, sees an opening to present himself as the champion of East Palestine’s dispossessed.)
It’s a truism of politics that partisans see their ideological allies with rose-colored glasses. Democrats in the United States are no exception. It’s easy for us on the left side of the American political spectrum to call it out when, say, a right-wing grifter reveals the hollowness of his worldview in how he orders lunch. It’s often harder to call out problems that come from your own side of the aisle. This is not to say both parties are equal; I am well aware that Biden, Buttigieg, and the rest of today’s Cabinet are more capable and more caring than their predecessors. But ignoring their personal flaws and administrative failures is unhealthy for both the party and the country. Maybe ascribing Buttigieg’s personal unsavoriness and administrative ineptitude to a fictional Trump appointee makes it easier for progressives to acknowledge them, and to demand better.
Choosing an unqualified Cabinet nominee as a political favor is no less contemptible because the President has a D next to his name. The people left behind by the Department of Transportation’s inaction are no less important because the Secretary gives a good quote on the Sunday shows. When those in charge proclaim their own powerlessness and project a lack of urgency in helping American public, the institutions themselves lose credibility. If Democrats can’t be bothered to hold their own leaders accountable — if the only mainstream effort to acknowledge the administration’s shortcomings is the preposterous narrative that the government has been slow to respond in East Palestine out of a desire to punish white conservatives — I can’t say I have high hopes for the future.
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