Jonathan Swan of Axios created a firestorm of anxiety and panic over the weekend with an in-depth article on a plan by Trump’s loyalists to dismantle the administrative infrastructure of the federal government if Trump is re-elected. The article is here: Axios, Inside Trump '25: How former president could gut federal bureaucracy in second term. Swan’s article is well-sourced, well-researched, and well-written. Unlike many authors who warn of catastrophe, Swan makes his point by sticking to the facts. He raises an issue that will remain with us through 2024 and beyond—so we should take it seriously. So, let’s take a look at the latest Trump plot against the rule of law.
Before we do, it is worth noting that there are several easy solutions to this threat to the vital infrastructure of the federal government. First, Democrats can retain the White House in 2024. Second, Congress can pass legislation to prevent a return to the “spoils and patronage” system that pre-dated the modern civil service. Third—the least preferred option—Democrats can preemptively leverage some of the weaknesses in the civil service statutes to impede a complete takeover by Trump loyalists if he wins in 2024.
At your leisure, I urge you to read Swan’s description of Trump’s plan. Details matter. But, in essence, Trump issued an executive order in November 2020 mandating federal agencies to list thousands of career civil service employees as holding “confidential policy-making positions.” Those employees would be placed on something known as Schedule F—meaning that they could be fired and replaced by the president at will. In the most extreme version of this plot, Trump would replace 50,000 career civil service employees. One of Biden’s first acts was to repeal Trump’s executive order, but Trump plans to resurrect Schedule F if reelected.
Think that’s bad news? It gets worse. Trump would replace highly experienced career civil servants with candidates who possess only two qualifications: (a) They hate government and (b) are loyal to Trump above all else. They will be sent as destroyers and dismantlers; they are not “policy wonks” promoting a conservative agenda through the administrative state; they are people who view the administrative state as the enemy. As described by Swan, Trump is looking for
people harboring angst — who felt they had been personally wronged by "the system." The bigger the chip on their shoulder, the better. And if someone felt mugged, that was even better, as it would help drive their desire to break up the system.
Trump’s plan to destroy the administrative state is being facilitated by private conservative organizations that are making lists of likely candidates today—so they will be “ready” when and if Trump is re-elected. As noted above, a key qualification for a place on the list of new hires is a grievance against the government.
Of course, everyone in America has a tale of how “big government” made their lives more difficult in a particular instance. But America is the largest, most stable economy in the world because it is (relatively) corruption-free and has a vast infrastructure of rules-based protections that make running a business and raising a family predictable and safe. Next time you regale your friends with your epic struggle with an IRS agent or an unresponsive government employee, remember that we do not suffer under a system in which every government employee up the chain (city, state, and federal) expects a bribe. Bribery for access to government services is the norm in much of the world. (Please note: I am referring to government bribery, not bribery in business.)
But the GOP has weaponized the individual grievances of people who don’t like to be told how to run their businesses, where to dump their toxic waste, what disclosures to make to the investing public, or what pesticides might cause cancer ten years in the future. In a world with no rules, businesses can maximize profits at the expense of consumers, the investing public, the environment, families, children, and the elderly. What could go wrong?
Trump’s plan would essentially return the civil service to the days when presidents awarded civil service jobs as patronage—effectively using the promise of federal employment to solicit bribes for political support. Civil service reform began in 1883 and has been a work in process ever since. I will allow historians and policy experts to explain the complicated and controversial history of the civil service, but I say with confidence that no one (other than Trump) wants to go back to the so-called “Gilded Age” when most political campaigns were funded by people seeking employment in the federal government.
After 24 hours of reflection on Swan’s article, I have a few thoughts intended to spark conversation and action among readers. Here they are:
First, it doesn’t matter whether Trump wins in 2024. If any Republican candidate wins in 2024 or thereafter, they will adopt and implement Trump’s plan to destroy the administrative state. Republicans are not merely anti-democracy; they have become anti-government—except when it comes to imposing religious and social values on people who are not white, straight, and wealthy. Destroying the federal government is a permanent plank in the Republican platform henceforth.
Second, Congress can and should put a stop to Trump’s plan by amending the relevant statutes to prevent the re-classification of government employees by executive order. That is the heart and soul of Trump’s plot. We may need to persuade Manchin and Sinema to override the filibuster to do so.
Third, although Trump (or DeSantis, Pompeo, Cruz etc.) can do tremendous damage with such a plan, let’s try to keep some perspective. In its most extreme form, Trump would replace 50,000 out of 2 million federal employees. Because those 50,000 positions would be policy-making slots, much damage can be done. But let’s recognize that appointing 50,000 people is a near impossibility. The FBI would need to do background checks on each and every appointee. That would take years.
Fourth, the making and amending of federal rules is a slow and cumbersome process—by design. If Trump hires a bunch of inexperienced loyalists who know nothing about the Administrative Procedures Act, it will be a while before they can have an impact. Will they eventually? Absolutely. But amending (or repealing) a federal rule is not like flipping a light switch.
Finally, Democrats currently control the levers of government. If it appears that Trump may win and resurrect his “Schedule F” executive order (rescinded by Biden), should Democrats waste two years worrying about a slow-moving iceberg heading our way and not take any countermeasures? NO! What those steps might be are beyond the scope of this newsletter, but I hope someone in the Democratic Party is giving deep thought to this topic.
As always, the solution is the same: It is up to us to create and sustain a sense of urgency. One party in America stands for the rule of law, another party sees the rule of law as the problem. Swan’s article is a timely reminder that Donald Trump and the Republican Party are ongoing threats to democracy—and that we are the vanguard of democracy’s defense.
Has Murdoch abandoned Trump?
One day after last week’s January 6th hearing, two newspapers controlled by Rupert Murdoch issued editorials declaring Trump unfit to be president again. The New York Post declared “Trump has proven himself unworthy to be this country’s chief executive again,” and the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board said, “Character is revealed in a crisis, and Mr. Pence passed his Jan. 6 trial. Mr. Trump utterly failed his.”
Add to the above coincidence the fact that Fox News gave a platform on Sunday for Liz Cheney to lay out the case against Trump. See Rolling Stone, Liz Cheney Debunks Fox News Jan. 6 Lies on Fox News.
It is no coincidence that three major media outlets controlled by Murdoch turned on Trump in a three-day span. While this coincidence drops the charade that the WSJ Editorial Board is independent of Murdoch, let’s not focus on the humiliation of the WSJ. The more important point is that even Murdoch is tiring of Trump—thanks to the January 6th Committee!
A reader comment about Joe Biden’s favorability ratings.
A reader posted this note over the weekend:
Yes, President Biden’s favorability ratings are at “historic lows” . . . but only if "historic" refers only to the time between Biden's election and now. As to the history of presidential approval ratings before Biden's election, see these two sites: Ballotpedia, Comparison of Opinion Polling during the Trump and Biden Administration, and Wikipedia, United States presidential approval rating.
As the reader notes, you have to go all the way back to John Kennedy to find a president who did not have lower approval rating (at some point in their presidency) than Joe Biden’s lowest rating. To prove this for yourself, go to the Wikipedia article to the chart titled, “Historical Gallup polling comparison” and sort by the column “Lowest Approval Rating” in descending order.
Are Joe Biden’s approval ratings low? Yes. Is that a problem? Yes. Did Trump have a lower approval rating than Biden at some point in his presidency? Yes, as did Obama, W. Bush, Clinton, H.W. Bush, Reagan, Carter, Ford, Nixon, and Johnson. So, when you hear a reporter say that Biden’s approval ratings are at “historic lows,” they are repeating what they have read on Twitter—which is what passes for journalism in many quarters today.
Charlie Sykes, Morning Shots / Bulwark Plus.
Charlie Sykes, Jonathan Last, and others at The Bulwark are current (?) and former Republicans dedicated to ensuring Trump is never re-elected—sometimes referred to as “Never Trumpers,” an appellation that I think sells them short. I subscribe to Charlie Sykes’ newsletter, Morning Shots. I thought this edition was particularly good: They Keep Telling Us Who They Are. Apart from the whip-smart reporting, Charlie and others at The Bulwark keep track of their former colleagues in the GOP in a way I cannot.
If you are a Republican, former Republican, or someone interested in keeping an eye on the GOP (and don’t mind occasionally being taken to task for shortcomings in the Democratic Party), check out Charlie’s newsletter. Note: Charlie sometimes resorts to salty language, an editorial choice that readers of this newsletter have told me to avoid.
Read this article: Jane Coaston, Opinion | Try to Resist the Call of the Doomers - The New York Times.
Apart from the other excellent points made in the article, the author considers the relative merits of “doomsaying” vs. “optimism” as a way of motivating people. She writes:
If you want people to do something, they need to be motivated — and impending doom doesn’t seem to do it. Yes, it seems like it would be the equivalent of setting someone’s couch on fire to get them to move, but doomerism seems to have the same effect as depression, bringing about a loss of interest in taking action.
It makes sense. If you believe that your fate is sealed by climate change or the Supreme Court or the Republican Party, well, why would you do anything about it? [D]oomerism causes people to be “led down a path of disengagement.”
I wish I had said that! We cannot motivate people if our only message is that “the end of democracy is upon us.” Yes, we are in perilous times and the fate of democracy hangs in the balance—as it does for every generation. We must be realistic and steely-eyed about the challenges we face, but we have a surfeit of Cassandras who excel at spotting the challenges we face. That is the easy part. Identifying solutions and motivating people to pursue those solutions is the hard part—especially when people criticize you for maintaining your optimism. Ignore them. Do the hard work of defending democracy. Somebody has to. It may as well be us!
Due to limited and weak internet, I have not included a recorded version of the newsletter, nor have I used my regular grammar and spell-checking software (to conserve bandwidth). Please forgive the higher-than-normal incidence of errors.
Thanks to all who have sent notes of concern about our cabin in light of the fire in Yosemite National Park. We are currently 175 miles from the fire, although we are getting intermittent smoke from that fire.
Talk to you tomorrow!
As I read Robert's article about the Republican Plan, my mind kept shouting Bannon. That was Bannon's goal. That's why Bannon is so happy even facing jail time. That's why Bannon kept going back to DT as his useful idiot. In a sense, this makes Bannon the most dangerous man in the world even with Putin still in the picture. Putin is failing. Bannon believes he is about to see his dream fulfilled of destroying government. Not just in the United States but around the world. Personally, I think he is underestimating the People of America. Perhaps we non-Republicans are about to become the Greatest Generation of the 21st century. I believe the younger generations are about to take the baton and show us all how its done. And the older generations, like my own, can add the knowledge and encouragement that we are exceptional and will win against this form of fascism. Saving the world quite literally. We also need to keep an eye and ear on Orbán, Hungary's far-right Prime Minister, who is a role model for Republicans to set up their illiberal democracy. An illiberal democracy describes a governing system in which, although elections take place, citizens are cut off from knowledge about the activities of those who exercise real power because of the lack of civil liberties; thus it is not an open society. Orbán will be speaking at CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, in Dallas August 4 to 7. We, the exceptional People, all of us this time.
Thank you for finally saying what I knew to be true. Especially when reporters and newscasters say record setting inflation … blah, blah, blah. I remember quite clearly that not only was gas unaffordable in the early 70’s but there was no gas even if we could pay for it. I remember people waiting in mile-long lines to get two or three gallons of gas. And when Carter retained Paul Volker… that was unpopular. But Volker was instrumental in bringing down inflation … and what Volker did is what the Federal Reserve appears to be doing this time around, as well. History does, indeed repeat itself. I pray it works again. Just like the approval ratings. If I wrote it, people would say I did not know what I was talking about, but what you say is true. All of the past Presidents back to JFK, had low approval ratings, at times during their terms, and, honestly, had JFK lived, who knows what would have or could have happened.
Keep on keeping on. You keep me sane!!!