We could consider Elaine Chao’s decision to serve as the Transportation Secretary within the Cheetoh Administration as a noble one. There was an earnest debate within Washington circles over whether esteemed public servants such as Chao should hold their noses, work for Trump, and fight like hell for their country in a time of need. Or, would accepting the call further degrade Americans’ sense of what the bare minimum standards should be for the President? The consensus seemed to say that service was honorable, even if Trump was deplorable.
The potential importance of Trump’s Transportation Secretary was impossible to underestimate. During his campaign, Trump had hobbled together an image of himself as a real estate tycoon who would be our Builder-in-Chief, and he promised to unleash an avalanche of federal money to the tune of $1 trillion, sufficient to gut renovate the entire country (and possibly include The Fantastic Wall of Mexico). At the center of this gigantic program would be Chao’s agency, the Department of Transportation. She potentially would command one of the largest public works spending sprees in human history, and in the process become a power broker of the sort even Robert Moses only dreamed of.
Trump’s presidency, of course, has been subsumed by scandal after scandal. The Great Renovation has been largely shelved amidst political civil war. Any hope that Chao and her lieutenants were working feverishly behind the scenes to deliver America into the 21st century were dashed when, after months of growing questions, she presented a 6-page report requesting only $200 billion out of an original promise of $1 trillion. Moreover, the $200 billion would mostly be federally backed loans to private and state projects, rather than direct spending under Chao’s watch. The report failed to specify any specific infrastructure projects — nothing was mentioned about high-speed rail, airports, bridges and tunnels, or even road repair. Chao signaled an agenda to defund, deregulate, and privatize her own agency.
But regret over what could have been — an Asian American woman presiding over the physical modernization of 21st century America — regresses to doubt over there being any promise in the first place, if we take a closer look at Chao herself, the circumstances of her appointment, and the only role it seems she is able to play.
I regret that I have but one wife to give for my nation’s infrastructure.
That’s how Chao’s husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky), presented her to the Senate for her confirmation hearing. He was summoning the famous last words of Nathan Hale before the Revolutionary War hero was hanged by the British. But McConnell was not surrendering his neck to the enemy, but his loyal wife to Donald Trump. Unlike the heated hearings of other more ideologically motivated nominees, Chao sailed through her hearing in a rare show of bipartisan winks, smiles, and a distinctly retro brand of sexism. The barely arousable octogenarian Senator Jim Inhofe (R-Ok) said to her:
I keep thinking — last night, I was with you and your family, your daddy — how excited your daddy is right now thinking about the things that are going on, and that he is responsible for you and your performing and your cute little nieces… As you well know, I’ve got 20 kids and grandkids. You’ve got some more work to do, but that’s alright.
Non-white Democratic men did not make things any less weird. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.):
I have a great deal of respect for you, although now I have some frustration now with Mitch McConnell, being a young, single member of the Senate… He has never taken me aside to tell me how to marry out of my league.
There was little doubt about the dripping, pile-on sexism of the hearing, and the only question is was it made better or worse by Chao’s enthusiastic participation in it.
I’m going to lock in the majority leader’s support tonight over dinner.
The overwhelming sense of Chao’s political career is that of a minority female facilitator of the powerful conservative men who surround her. Her career began at The Heritage Foundation, the far-right conservative think tank. Chao was introduced to McConnell by his friend, the flamboyantly conservative lobbyist Stuart Bloch — himself married to a Chinese American woman who took a mentorship role to Chao — and who described Chao enthusiastically as a “tiger wife.” One gets the sense that Bloch’s enthusiasm for Asian wives is the same kind of progressivism detected in his early enthusiasm for Lexus as actually a pretty damn good car.
When McConnell’s re-election bid in 2014 was put in danger by the surprising effectiveness of his Democratic opponent’s accusations of him being unfriendly to women’s issues — hardly a stretch — Chao, who rarely seeks the media spotlight, took to Kentucky’s airwaves to attest to McConnell’s love of women at home, and then to deftly counterattack the “far left” for making racist accusations that she represents the interests of Chinese workers rather than American. For a party that detests liberal identity politics, Chao put on a masterclass in how to use personal identity for political gain. McConnell went on to win in a landslide, with the New York Times remarking on his conspicuous reliance on his Asian wife to counter the Democratic challenger.
But such subtle tactics exploiting the sensitivities of public speech in America around gender and race have become entirely obsolete in the era of the President she now serves. While Chao could deftly navigate the more genteel currents of liberal political correctness, her total lack of awareness about the actual racial dynamics in America — and not the cheap and threadbare rhetoric of liberal elite empowerment — became embarrassingly apparent when she appeared next to Trump in mid-August, formally for the purpose of presenting her infrastructure investment plan. The real purpose of the presser was, of course, to have Trump clarify his position on the white power demonstration in Charlottesville, where he inflicted a special kind of torture on Chao and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, each who stood diligently to either side of Trump as he doubled down on his defense of neo-Nazis. Mnuchin seemed to understand that the end was near, but Chao’s smile never wavered.
After Trump’s verbal bowel movement was completed, the conference was handed over to Chao to present her vision on the most important and least interesting issue on the White House agenda. In a clumsy attempt to address the accusations that a 6-page document meant nobody was doing any real work on the matter, she came armed with a hallucinatory flowchart, over a dozen feet in length, which she presented in scroll form to the world as if Jack Kerouac had been transcribing.
Before she began to speak in her role as the Transportation Secretary, a reporter asked her a question relating to her role as McConnell’s Tiger Wife. Trump had squarely laid the blame for failing to repeal Obamacare on McConnell, and she was asked to share her feelings about this. It was an unfair question, one she should have waved away as irrelevant. But Chao doesn’t take the issue of male loyalty lightly, and she grinned with anticipation as she delivered her prepared answer:
I stand by my man. Both of them.
A meaningless answer, perhaps, but also illuminating of who Elaine Chao really is. Going back to the Washington debate of whether people should serve Trump, the justification was that to co-operate with power is to keep the door open to moderating and even progressive influence. But Chao has advanced no agenda other than the one dictated to her by powerful conservative men starting from her Heritage Foundation days: win office in order to dismantle your own government. Smile through the most vile press conference in memory. Support your men, all of them.
One of the reasons for our national malaise is that the economy simply is not working for the benefit of working Americans. Econometric indicators like stock and real estate prices, as well as unemployment figures, are either being inflated through monetary policy or are not accurate to actual lived realities. Wage growth is glacial, and rising real estate prices are actually hurting Americans by pricing them out of job-dense metro areas. What has transformed both the country and its society for the better are large federal programs of sustained socialized spending on infrastructure projects of national importance. These programs are what created the modern middle class, and it’s indisputable that the US has more than enough pressing infrastructure needs, unmobilized capital, and motivated workers to get started immediately.
Secretary Chao and her Department of Transportation are the key to getting this moving. Trump fashions himself a world class builder, but is dogged by personal failings around gender and race. What better time for Chao to put an end to the project of amassing power, and to begin flexing her considerable influence for a higher purpose? Why stand by your men when all your men are doing is defending Nazis and stripping away health insurance? Why let your Chinese heritage stand for disadvantage and alienation, as she so often does, but rather embrace it for what it has actually come to stand for: an ascendant Asia that is transforming itself through infrastructure at a pace never experienced by Americans.
Madam Secretary, where is your agency?