There’s a reason authoritarians target the bureaucracy. Once they have it under their control, they are better able to stifle dissent and criticism, reward friends and punish enemies, using the levers of government to maintain power. In his first term, Donald Trump largely failed to take control of the administrative state, that sprawling web of agencies that keeps the federal government running. To be sure, he ignored scientists and punished bureaucrats. But Trump’s officials largely lacked the capacity to manage the institutions they were charged with leading.
Trump will not make the same mistake twice. According to Jonathan Swann’s blockbuster two-part Axios report, the former president is currently overseeing plans to build a government based on personal loyalty to him. Trump’s weapon to disembowel government is an executive order he signed shortly before the 2020 election: Schedule F. It allows a president to force tens and potentially hundreds of thousands of career officials to become political appointees, stripping them of job protections. In short, it allows the president to fire civil servants who fail his political loyalty test.
Trump ran out of time before he could implement Schedule F, and Biden rescinded it. But if Trump wins in 2024, an aggressive purge of the civil service will be one of his first priorities.
When he was elected Trump’s use of the “swamp” and “deep state” terminology tapped into conspiracy theories much the same way that he tapped into birtherism, albeit more symbolically than with a strategic intent. He still hired institutionalists, like James Mattis and John Kelly, and even allowed some bipartisan Obama appointees to remain in place.
By the end of his first term, Trump absolutely understood the importance of controlling the bureaucracy. He became convinced that career public servants were responsible for his first impeachment. While Trump largely blocked political appointees from co-operating with the impeachment investigation, a number of career officials did testify.
The White House followed through on a promise of payback against these officials, publicly attacking some, removing them from positions, and denying promotions to the degree the law allowed. It is easy to imagine that with Schedule F, Trump’s payback would have been more comprehensive, simply firing all the officials who dared to respond to Congress, as he did to the inspector general who forwarded the whistleblower complaint about Trump’s withholding arms to Ukraine.
Trump struggled to direct the government because he lacked a deep bench of talented and loyal appointees. In Axios, Swann documents the massive scale of operations in place intended to not just fill existing appointments, but replace careerists by taking advantage of Schedule F.
There are multiple overlapping organizations in Trump World, a fully stocked army of loyalists ready to take control of government: the Center for Renewing America, Conservative Partnership Institute, Personnel Policy Organization, the American First Policy Institute, and the old standby of the Heritage Foundation. They are not just building a database of resumes; each institution has drawn on personnel involved in creating Schedule F and looks forward to exploiting it. Millions of dollars from conservative donors, including the Koch network, are funding their efforts. They are also funding a barely-disguised attack on American democracy.
Proponents of Schedule F presented it as a way of improving government performance by firing poor performers, and improving political responsiveness. Swann’s detailed reporting shows that the goal, instead, is a form of authoritarian control. This is reflected in a primary desire to take control of the national security and justice apparatus. Trump’s inability to capture these institutions stymied his coup attempt. If the top lawyers are Trump loyalists, the most outrageous power grabs and misdeeds will be declared legal, with the implicit backing of the military.
More politicized government workplaces result in lower employee capacity and performance. Swann’s reporting underlines that the types of candidates being sought for Trump World are loyalists first. Relevant experience, or a desire to work in the federal government for the long haul are viewed as a negative. Instead, the ideal candidate is someone who does not believe in government, who has a chip on his shoulder about the system. It would be a government of angry young men, who will not understand what they are doing and do not care.
Another basic qualification to enter Trump World is a willingness to accept attacks on American elections. According to Swann: “Trump has reduced his circle of advisers and expunged nearly every former aide who refused to embrace his view that the 2020 election was ‘stolen.’ ” The people who are being lined up to take control of government are distinguished by their comfort with anti-democratic actions. For example, Jeffery Clark, of Center for Renewing, was also one of the Justice Department officials willing to abet Trump’s coup.
Schedule F would burn down the civil service system. It would be a government of the lawless leading the incompetent.
Trump loyalists would feel comfortable re-interpreting—or ignoring—statute and government processes to fit with their beliefs. Clean air and safety regulations might stay on the books but be rendered meaningless in practice. Government data unfavorable to the administration would be suppressed or altered. Public statements about what government actors are actually doing would become rarer and less believable. And questionable actions by the security forces to target political enemies and protect friends could become routine.
Career public employees would be forced to choose between their oath to the Constitution—in effect, their oath to serve the public—and keeping their job. They will have their loyalty questioned based on which political organizations they associated with in college, or voter registration, or social media activity. Some will not go along with the program. They will be fired. Or never join the government in the first place.
It would be easy to assume that Schedule F would be a return to the spoils system that characterized 19th century government, ushering in an era of incompetence and malfeasance. But the spoils system era was at least characterized by peaceful transitions of power. Everything happening now in Trump World is premised on the idea that such transitions are a mistake. Another abiding ethos of Trump World is that presidential power is absolute (see the unitary executive legal theory), and can be used to override laws. Efforts to hold the President accountable for the violation of law are what need to be punished.
So, what’s the solution? The executive order is premised on power Congress has delegated to the presidency. It could take it back, or at least reiterate basic protections to career officials. Democrats in the House of Representatives added an amendment to a must-pass Defense appropriations bill, but Republicans are planning to block it in the Senate.
Trump’s embrace of anti-government sentiment is his key to authoritarianism. Thus, Republicans fearful of government power are ready to do away with basic protections against government power. It is quite possible that any populist Republican would exploit Schedule F. It’s not just Trump.
Much of the prosperity and power of America is tied to the administrative state. It has served democracy well, and evolved to meet the demands of very different presidents. We have become so used to bashing the administrative state that we have lost sight of how important competent and honest government is securing our rights, prosperity, and quality of life.