Gage Skidmore photo via Wikipedia

First, Destroy the Federal Workforce — Then Rule Like an Autocrat

The bureaucracy is one of the last things standing in Donald Trump’s way


President-elect Donald Trump’s greatest advantage is the fact that he is facing a public and a media that have no framework for understanding him. American politics and journalism long ago suppressed and expelled the people who were equipped to understand exactly what the fuck is going on right now.

Instead we’ve been left with a mushy mass of Meryl-Streep-self-righteous-lecturing-liberalism that spent a few days after the election wagging its finger about the danger of “normalizing” Trump, but which has since done just that.

More or less all of their organized responses so far have been what we would have seen if Mitt Romney or Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio had won instead. There might be a difference in the magnitude of their opposition, but no difference of kind or character.

The upshot is that Trump’s flurry of unprecedented and disorienting activity isn’t being assimilated and understood in a coherent way, and the nature of the threat he poses — not as a “Muscovite Candidate,” but as an honest-to-god dictator — is frankly incomprehensible in their existing framework.

Case in point — Trump and congressional Republicans have effectively ended the federal civil service in the last week or two, and along with erosions of constitutional authority enacted by Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and their immediate predecessors, Trump will very likely have near-autocratic powers almost immediately after he is sworn in next week.

Liberal analysts haven’t wrapped theirs heads around this because it runs entirely contrary to their political norms and expectations. Liberalism’s time for explaining things has reached an end. Trump’s election is both a cause and symptom of this death of liberalism, and all liberal institutions — including the concept of civil service — are dead and dying too.

Four specific actions — among others — have done the most to signal Trump’s shift. First we have the questionnaires the Trump transition team sent to the U.S. Department of Energy about individuals working on climate change and to the U.S. State Department about who was working on gender equality issues.

Trump is a climate change denier and a misogynist, and the clear implication of the questionnaires is that he intends to eliminate these positions.

Next came the announcement by the Trump team that all Obama-appointed political ambassadors would be terminated on Jan. 20, 2017, no exceptions, regardless of circumstance. These positions are both the most political and the least in some ways — these aren’t career diplomats, but rather the chief financiers of Obama’s campaigns who chose a diplomatic post as their post-election goody bag.

At the same time, they direct official business in the courts of the United States’ closest and oldest allies, making extended vacancies in these posts problematic. Trump has broken with tradition and good sense in issuing a formal “tough shit” to these appointees and the embassies in which they serve.

Third came Trump’s war of words against the CIA, his appointment as national security advisor of a figure that the CIA despised and ran out of town and his refusal to receive regular briefings from the intelligence agencies. The so-called “deep state” is the element of the federal bureaucracy most immune to political change, and Trump is taking it on. If Trump can push around the CIA, what hope does the EPA have?

Finally, in the aftermath of public outrage over the GOP’s attempted evisceration of the Congressional Ethics Office, lawmakers sneaked in a return of the so-called Holman Rule, a 19th-century parliamentary procedure that allows any member of Congress to cut any particular federal position’s salary to $1.

In instances when it would be politically sensitive to vote to cancel a program or revoke its authorization in law — say, a federal program promoting women’s rights abroad — it can be much easier to vote for an obscure amendment to technically fund the program but only pay the workers enacting it $1 a year. It’s a chickenshit way of wielding a hatchet against public servants.

Each of these stories has been covered by the press, but to date reporters don’t seem to have seen the clear connection between them all. The ambassador story shows that Trump and his incoming regime view all government posts as political, and that they value their politics over any priorities of policymaking.

The pushback against the CIA shows that there are no limits to where they will assert their will. The questionnaires show that they are searching deep within the federal bureaucracy for their political targets. And the Holman Rule change gives them the weapon with which to strike those targets.

The entire federal bureaucracy will fall in line with Trump’s whims — or it’ll end up on the list of one-buck chumps.

Energy Department officials in 2013. Photo via Wikipedia

In all of this, Trump is exploiting the fact that liberals don’t really know what the government is made of. Liberal ideology says things like “we the people are the government” or “this is a government of laws” or whatever. But laws — including constitutions — are just words on paper, at best. The idea of some unified, ideal “public” that the state wholly represents or extends from pretty quickly breaks down into noble-sounding mysticism.

Governments can pass laws, and they are dependent on and exposed to the masses in a variety of ways, but the state is a material thing, made of flesh, blood, steel, concrete and other things you can stub your toe on. The public can want or hope for all kinds of stuff, the laws can say all kinds of things, but ultimately the government is the bureaucracy and the material resources — physical, human, financial, etc. — available to it.

If Trump can make the bureaucracy do what he wants it to do, he has individual control of the state — the formal definition of an autocrat.

And as for Congress passing laws to stop him — the great liberal hope of all the schemes posted on social media and clogging up lefties’ email boxes over the last several weeks — Congress long ago ceded major legislative powers to the executive that essentially give any president the power to write laws on his or her own.

Nobody has exercised this power as boldly as Barack Obama has done, although Trump will certainly make him look demure by comparison. Obama’s persistent executive orders were artifacts of a conception of presidential authority developed by many previous administrations that makes a mockery of liberal notions of the separation of powers.

Under such a separation, the president would propose laws and a federal budget to finance projects authorized under law, and then Congress would pass these laws — some of which establish federal agencies — and a budget to fund those operations.

The president may then — if directed by law — appoint officers to carry out the policies set by Congress, and Congress typically has the power to approve or deny those appointments. Presidents propose policies, but Congress sets them and the president then enacts them with congressional oversight.

What Obama’s executive orders assume, however, is that the president has a coequal role with Congress in setting policies for federal agencies. Congress passes a law creating and directing an agency to do certain things, but the president can then come in and direct the agency — under his or her assumed executive authority — to do certain other things, or to do the things Congress has directed them to do in a specific way which may or may not reflect Congress’ intent.

He or she can even then direct the agencies to not enforce certain laws or to develop rules that expand the purview of these laws, putting new people and entities under their jurisdiction without the action of Congress.

The bottom line is that the president proposes laws, proposes the budget to fund the agencies authorized under law, appoints the officers to enact the policies authorized, but then can also amend or reinterpret that policy in a way that Congress could probably check by passing another law, but which he can then reinterpret how he will — maybe using one of George W. Bush’s beloved “signing statements.”

Photo via Wikipedia

Congress plays a role, but it is clearly much less powerful than the president’s. Add in Trump’s coming politicization and autocratic wielding of the federal bureaucracy alongside a sycophantic Congress and you have a meat-and-potatoes executive with a mere congressional garnish.

This breakdown in liberal separation of powers theory is a function of liberalism’s failure to understand the nature of state institutions. Read your Federalist Papers — Federalist 51 in particular — and you see that the idea behind the separation of power is that “ambition is set against ambition” and that “the interest of the man [is] connected to the constitutional rights of the place.”

But the main interest of “men” is not to starve or freeze to death, and civilizations produce food, shelter and other basic needs in complex processes of production. Each “man” thus has an interest derived from their role in that process — their class position — and “places” or branches of government have no interests aside from the class interests of the individuals that possess them. Branches of government don’t clash, classes do.

Branches of government are inevitably captured by one class interest or faction or another, organized into a political party. If your party controls both Congress and the White House the interest is in getting as much done as possible and the White House can move more quickly and decisively — the interest is in empowering the president.

If your party controls the White House but not Congress the interest is in expanding the president’s power as much as possible so that you can resist the factions in control of the House and Senate. But if unified control has been established at least once before — remember — the executive has seen its powers expanded, and this advantage gives it an edge in the battle between the presidency and the legislature, allowing it to expand its power further.

In either unified or divided control we take a step closer towards unitary power serving a unified ruling class — one growing more and more unified as it grows smaller and smaller and resources are concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. At that point — now — liberalism has outlived its usefulness for the elites and the gloves can really come off.

Ask an ambassador or a Department of Energy employee brushing up their resume and they’ll tell you they’ve already done so.

The last two things to mention here are a word of warning and a word of hope. The word of warning is that Trump very well may take advantage of the incoherence and confusion of his opposition and make several dramatic and authoritarian moves in rapid succession early in his rule.

This will further disorient the public, the media, the Democrats and other sources of criticism, undermining their credibility, and consolidating his followers who love to see the eggheads scrambling. If you anticipate it you might have a chance of keeping your networks calm and of being able to organize resiliency and resistance in your community.

The word of hope follows from that. Even if Trump does have autocratic control of the federal bureaucracy, it’s still a bureaucracy. Bureaucracies are inherently inefficient, chaotic, riddled with contradictory interests that burrow into them and find their niche at the expense of the larger institution, and at many times totally unresponsive to the expectations placed on them.

Trump will do a great deal of harm, but no dictator is totally efficient — this one potentially least of all.

If we protect our communities and find strategic points of fighting back — especially if we can activate and empower those communities that have been ignored or marginalized by the liberal order altogether — we can take advantage of his weaknesses and failures and build a real democracy in the wake of this autocracy.

Folks may not understand what’s going on today, but the ones who figure it out do stand a chance of undoing Trump’s autocratic rule.

Stay defiant.

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