Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

As a dedicated member of the plutocratic insurgency, it makes sense that Pruitt meshed with Trump's politics. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

As a dedicated member of the plutocratic insurgency, it makes sense that Pruitt meshed with Trump's politics. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Why Scott Pruitt Still Matters in the Trump Era

The fact that Pruitt’s personalized politics once established him as a top-shelf candidate to lead the EPA represents the banal expectation of cabinet-level corruption in the Trump era

Kai Olson-Sawyer

Scott Pruitt is gone. In place of the erstwhile EPA administrator sits former coal lobbyist and savvy deregulatory policy hand, Andrew Wheeler. Good luck, environment.

The world, such as it is, has moved on. It’s time now to turn away from that unpleasant episode as the Trump saga trudges through interminable bedlam. But, although Pruitt is gone, he can’t be forgotten. (Investigators certainly remember.) Tracing the course he charted helps clarify today’s politics and presages what oversight will uncover as the Democrats take over the House and hold the Trump administration accountable. In retrospect, he seemed destined to go under, yet the fact that it took so long and required such a torrent of venality to sweep him away even now remains astounding.

Tribalism, ideology, narcissism, corruption have been ascribed to Pruitt’s conduct in office, and all are rightly invoked.

That his behavior contradicts the “drain the swamp” slogan that contributed to the Trump presidency isn’t surprising. Pruitt was just one among many muck dwellers. This Trumpian kakistocracy has surfaced the likes of Paul Manafort, Tom Price, Ryan Zinke and Wilbur Ross. Tribalism, ideology, narcissism, corruption have been ascribed to Pruitt’s conduct in office, and all are rightly invoked. But instead of quickly sinking him, his political approach anchored him in the roiling swamp and provided a line to pull himself into office in the first place. Pruitt’s politics of the personal offers a critical lens with which to view his rise and resilience, and exemplifies the politics of Trump era-corruption even as the president practices it himself.

Deconstruction Junction

Pruitt wasn’t the first EPA administrator to be rocked by ethics scandals. During the early Reagan years, his initial administrator, Anne Gorsuch (Burford), soon fell into an ethical bog. As a predecessor, there are genuine similarities between Gorsuch and Pruitt. Both arrived as DC outsiders who were regarded as small-government ideologues and appointed to roll back environmental regulation, slash the agency’s budget, and ensure that business interests top the agenda. Gorsuch pursued the “deconstruction of the administrative state” decades before Stephen Bannon filmed Reagan hagiographies

Gorsuch knew exactly what she was doing. Gorsuch’s ethical failings were different in kind and involved a pitched battle between Reagan’s executive privilege and the legislative branch. At that time the Democratic majority in Congress performed real oversight. Gorsuch balked at their subpoenas even though it was not she, but her subordinates who were caught up in malfeasance that sent the Superfund chief to jail and led to the departure 21 staffers. As the investigation dragged on, Gorsuch’s intransigence led to contempt of Congress that dragged her down until she lost Reagan’s approval and resigned after two years on the job.

For Pruitt, his ethical shortcomings were as unprincipled as he was oblivious. When he uttered the dubious words, “I’m dumbfounded that that’s controversial,” they signaled the beginning of his end. These protestations came in an early Aprilinterview shortly after news of his sweetheart deal with a lobbyist for lease of a tony townhouse in a prime DC location trickled out.

Of course, Pruitt was responsible for his exit as the flood of scandals entered the absurd. It included his tab of $3.7 million in misused funds that included a $43,000 private phone booth and tactical pants, although the lion's share went to his extravagant (and unwarranted) travel and security detail. On it went, from granting outsized raises to favored aides through a Safe Drinking Water Act loophole, to the piddling and bizarre revelations that an EPA employee inquired about buying a used mattress from the Trump DC Hotel. Also, his exacting political and professional retribution. And scrubbing his schedule. And his wife’s job hunt. And the pens. And, yes, the lotion.

Even President Trump, always the brawler, couldn’t bear the pummeling Pruitt took. All indications are that Trump was disappointed to see his defiant ally and environmental wrecker ousted. Many EPA staff celebrated. None of these lapses even address the primary concern that the head of the Environmental Protection Agency degraded science and data reporting, demolished its internal organization, deregulated environmental rules on behalf of industry to boost their profits, and risked the health of communities, clean air, clean water and the overall environment. This was simply the Trump agenda, which will continue under acting administrator, Andrew Wheeler, or any other replacement.

“What’s Good For Me”

Pruitt was undeniably a conservative movement stalwart, but his political approach is more deeply embedded in his personal experience and personal networks than a mere true-believer. From his early days in Oklahoma politics onwards, Pruitt consistently made an effort to act the part of big shot while ingratiating himself into the web of wealthy business magnates and fossil fuel oligarchs like the Koch Brothers and Joseph Craft who bankrolled the infrastructure behind the environmental deregulatory push. And even if Pruitt reached the same conclusions on Cooperative Federalism or the primacy of fossil fuels to the economy that a staff member from the climate change-denying Heartland Institute, there was always something in it for him. The people and companies whose interests tied closely to his own came first, from which his ideological worldview became manifest. Post-government Pruitt seems in keeping, as he was rumored to be in discussion for a job in a “personal capacity” under Craft, his billionaire coal executive friend.

What led Pruitt to exploit every opportunity to drink up at the venal well? “Mr. Pruitt thinks he’s the president of the United States. He’s big on image,” noted one EPA staffer. No satrap he, Pruitt felt he was due the respect granted the president. His inflated sense of status meant that he expected the trappings that accrue to the highest office, such as custom coins, fancy pens and first-class travel. The fact that an EPA administrator’s role is to serve the public and protect their health and wellbeing rarely figured into Pruitt’s duties.

Pruitt’s approach is striking in part because its inversion of a theory formulated in the famous “The Personal is Political” essay, written in 1969 by the feminist activist, Carol Hanisch. In the process of connecting with allies, she wrote that:

[T]he reason I participate in these meetings is not to solve any personal problem. One of the first things we discover in these groups is that personal problems are political problems. There are no personal solutions at this time. There is only collective action for a collective solution.

Hanisch recognized that daily experiences and challenges were not a sideshow, but were crucial components that built collective understanding within the movement, in this case for women’s equality. Coherent policy was created when myriad strands of people’s personal experience were woven together by a representative group or leader to make a finished piece, ready for consideration by the larger body.

That privileged access often meant Pruitt delivered industry-desired policy on everything from watering down toxic chemical assessments to pushing irrational “Secret Science” rules to killing the Clean Water Rule that curbs polluting farm runoff.

Pruitt flipped this notion and took preordained policy goals and hitched them to his political aspirations. He privileged his narrow outlook and fixed ideas as pat solutions to inherently broad and society-wide problems. The people, companies or associations that occupied those privileged positions got a close listen while those outside his ambit remained outside. That privileged access often meant Pruitt delivered industry-desired policy on everything from watering down toxic chemical assessments to pushing irrational “Secret Science” rules to killing the Clean Water Rule that curbs polluting farm runoff.

What’s more, he believed that his personal welfare and growth were a common good whose benefits extended to everyone. If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. The “what’s good for me, is good for thee” mantra is witnessed daily with President Trump. In that mindset, the people’s interests were served when Pruitt caught an on-time dinner at his favorite posh spot, while his security caravan’s sirens cut a path through DC traffic. Likewise, the Trump presumes that the people’s interests are served when he golfs at Mar-a-Lago and pockets profitable reimbursements from the government. Or so claims the so-called workaholic.

On the other hand, when questioned about official acts and policies, as happened in a testy April Congressional hearing, Pruitt took the expected criticism as a personal affront and called them “lies” and “half-truths.” Trump sees policy in the same light. Upon announcement of the first round of proposed Chinese tariffs on US goods, Trump characterized the reprisal in purely personal terms by saying China wanted to “hit the farmers because they think that hits me,” downplaying the millions of farmers, farm workers and food company workers entangled in an international trade dispute. Although Trump and Xi may no longer be friends, the bright spot in Trump's personalized statecraft is his tumultuous love affair with Kim Jong Un.

While impossible to know precisely, it is worth mentioning that Pruitt's politics must in some way have reflected his psychology. Such examples as abuse of power, projection and grandiosity hint at Dark Triad personality traits lurking within Pruitt (as well as the president). His behavior displayed simmering subclinical attributes such as narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism (i.e., manipulation). For a leader like Pruitt, his psychological makeup can influence his attitude and actions, with negative consequences seeping into supervisory relationships and into decisions themselves. Interestingly, his downfall arose largely from the disloyalty sown in his inner circle after he threw subordinates under the bus, evidencing further malign leadership characteristics.

The Networked Man

Much like Trump, Pruitt was described as an outsider. That may be true in reference to the Beltway crowd, but in reality Pruitt was one of the most deeply connected conservative movement insiders. It was his politics of the personal that placed on the inside.

Pruitt came up through Oklahoma politics as an ALEC adherent, the group funded by the libertarian Koch Brothers and steeped in small-government, anti-regulation ideology. He was connected to the oil, gas and coal industries, each with their own competing lobby shops. He was backed by Chamber of Commerce and pro-business country club Republicans. He is an evangelical Christian deeply tied to religious right networks and their socially conservative values. He chaired the Republican Attorneys General Association and the Rule of Law Defense Fund as Oklahoma attorney general while aggressively leading or joining 14 lawsuits against the Obama administration’s EPA. He had close connections with Leonard Leo, the powerful leader of the legally conservative Federalist Society. In 2014, Pruitt’s Rule of Law Defense Fund accepted a $145,000 donation from a Leo-directed project to promote federalism.

From the upscale to the socially conservative sections of the Republican coalition, Pruitt was more than a consensus EPA pick, he was the only man for the job.

But there is never one man. In his foundational three-volume analysis on the Information Age, Manuel Castells observes that society today is constructed along personal and group-based networks, which are enabled by the internet and digital technologies. These network connections and interactions have become transformational by creating what he refers to as a “Me-centered society.” That Me-centeredness situates networks as the primary organizational unit, which steers social behavior towards individuation, or greater autonomy, and lessens ties to more traditional forms of community. Castells writes that,

there is a shift toward the reconstruction of social relationships, including strong cultural and personal ties that could be considered a form of community, on the basis of individual interests, values, and projects. The process of individuation is not just a matter of cultural evolution, it is materially produced by the new forms of organizing economic activities, and social and political life.

Under Pruitt, the EPA reorganization advanced the environmental agenda for Trump and the rest of the conservative movement writ large. Yet along with the values of deregulation and the project of environmental federalism that energizes the powerful conservative networks, Pruitt’s individual interests merged into the central node of EPA restructuring.

Embedded in these intersecting social and political networks, Pruitt’s availability attracted the interest of wealthy players and industry representatives who nurtured him throughout his career. His cultivation satisfied the policy preferences of his various caretakers that grew in part from his ambition and desire for power. No wonder transfer of this EPA menace was so lauded by many conservatives because he was raised within the bounds of their overlapping networks. So what if Pruitt nibbled up a few pricey pens or exclusive tickets as he carried out his governmental duties? After all, they groomed him to devour the EPA. A voracious appetite was a small tradeoff for such feats.

As described in their book, Networked, Rainie and Wellman explain how people like Pruitt who have larger networks plug more people into a variety of settings and offer more information and social links. So when “ties connect different social networks, their interconnections help to integrate these different milieus in an overall society, providing a social glue that can hold a society together.” In his way, Pruitt was the glue that held together the exclusive society that prizes regulatory rollback and unfettered business expansion over stewardship of the natural environment.

The Personal Side of Plutocratic Politics

The society that Pruitt abetted has assembled its political structures for decades. Within this rarefied, wealthy set, the politics of personal interests and networks are unifying features and a fungible coin of the realm. The project of building this society is carried out in “The Twin Insurgency,” as presented by Nils Gilman in his American Interest article of the same name. From the bottom up, criminal enterprises sweat to grab power and wealth in dark corners of global economy, while from the heights, the elites design a system whereby they benefit in their separation from typical governmental policy and control. Although the Trump campaign and administration have flexed both arms of this twin insurgency, Pruitt’s particular appeal was his commitment to the plutocratic insurgency side, in which globalized elites seek to disengage from traditional national obligations and responsibilities. From libertarian activists to tax-haven lawyers to currency speculators to mineral-extraction magnates, the new global super-rich and their hired help are waging a broad-based campaign to limit the reach and capacity of government tax-collectors and regulators, or to manipulate these functions as a tool in their own cut-throat business competition.

These plutocrats need assistance from others, not the least government officials, to craft accommodating policy in order to wall themselves off from what they view as onerous regulation, high taxes and social accountability.

These plutocrats need assistance from others, not the least government officials, to craft accommodating policy in order to wall themselves off from what they view as onerous regulation, high taxes and social accountability. In this way Pruitt is a revealing case study of how a public official can personalize his political goals to nakedly serve his own interests by advancing the narrow interests of the plutocratic class.

As a dedicated member of the plutocratic insurgency, it makes sense that Pruitt meshed with Trump's politics. Not only did the two share the goal of unshackling the wealthy from what they feel is the undue burden of taxes and regulation, but they also used their personal desires and close networks to reap the riches. In addition to all his apparent nationalism, racism and xenophobia, Trump’s greed and his incessant search for self-aggrandizement are at his core.

Trump's prominence was equally dependent on the rolodexes maintained by his father, Fred Trump, and Roy Cohn as it was on the dispensation of wealth. After all, Trump built lavish buildings and lush golf courses with the aid and enlargement of his father's money and networks, which lent the acquiescence of supine public officials. That Fred Trump undergirded Donald Trump’s success was the most salient (if-anticipated) note of the recent New York Times investigation into Trump tax schemes. As the current patriarch, Trump runs a family business whose wealth was built largely on relationships and relational dealings, often at other people's expense. He is that same person operating in the same manner in the world’s highest office. The recent Khashoggi outrage demonstrates the near-impossibility of disentangling Trump’s proclivities from administration policy objectives, which leads to moral ambiguity and people’s distrust of their government. Such family-to-family transactions mark the Trump-Saudi relationship and help illuminate the Trump penchant to pick underlings that adhere to these nepotistic norms.

What does this all mean for Scott Pruitt in the broad sweep of history? Maybe not much. Maybe he was just first among many equals in Trump era venality. Maybe he was just another swamp monster to clean up, as indicated by the quick purge of senior Pruitt aides by chief of staff, John Kelly. Maybe he was just a minor bump in road as the EPA under Wheeler continues apace with the rollback of environmental protections and debasement of science. The fact that Pruitt’s personalized politics once established him as a top-shelf candidate to lead the EPA also represents the banal expectation of cabinet-level corruption in the Trump era. His memory will be alive as the Democrats take over to the House in 2019 and investigate other scandal-ridden cabinet members, like Zinke, Ross and now Whitaker. But his lasting legacy might be exposing the grubby politics that makes him – and Trump – tick, which further reveals the plutocratic project undertaken by the entire administration.

Put plainly, public office is for private gain. Or, in today’s parlance, make the whole world a swamp and build a luxury tower to the sky.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Kai Olson-Sawyer

Kai Olson-Sawyer is a writer and research and policy analyst at an environmental nonprofit. His work has been published in a number of outlets, including Alternet, National Geographic online, Civil Eats, Grist and The Hill.

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

Despite Housing Crisis, Mississippi May Return Up to Millions in Federal Rent Aid to DC

"For them to suggest people like me aren't working? It's a slap in the face," said one woman affected by the end of the pandemic assistance program. "It's very insulting and degrading."

Brett Wilkins ·

80% of US Voters Across Party Lines Support Expanding Social Security

"With Republicans threatening to cut benefits—and worse, eliminate the program entirely—Dems need to make clear they're fighting to protect and expand benefits."

Jessica Corbett ·

Rich Nations Again Accused of Vaccine Hoarding as UK OKs Moderna Omicron Booster

"While countries like the U.K. buy updated vaccines for their fourth doses, people in low- and middle-income countries are fighting today's variants with yesterday's vaccines."

Brett Wilkins ·

With Trumpian Claims of Cheating, Starbucks Demands Halt to Union Elections

"Unfortunately, it's now in vogue for the losers of some elections nationwide to attempt to reverse elections by any means they think are necessary," said Starbucks Workers United.

Jake Johnson ·

Richest Country on Earth to One of Its Poorest: We're Keeping the Money We Stole From You

A foreign affairs columnist called the move by the Biden administration a "shortsighted, morally unconscionable, and potentially calamitous decision for a country on the cusp of universal poverty."

Julia Conley ·

Common Dreams Logo