The Republican party of today has a new attitude towards the power of government. The Reaganites who used to dominate the party mostly saw government as the problem: if only it could be cut back or eliminated entirely, free markets would deliver everything America needed. But a new report on plans being developed for Donald Trump’s possible return to the White House shows just how much this has changed. Rather than sidelining or eliminating federal agencies, Republicans now want to do something much more disturbing: seize effective control of them in order to persecute their enemies and implement a radical agenda.
At the core of the new plan, as reported by Axios, is the intention to strip away employment protections from thousands of senior civil servants, eliminating at a stroke a large chunk of the civil service’s expertise and institutional memory. This would allow them to be replaced with a “cadre” loyal to Trump’s America First agenda, most of them likely to be 20- and 30-somethings with no experience in government who would owe their newfound prominence to Trump alone. Ideologically zealous and loyal to a fault, they would set about trying to reshape the government in Trump’s image.
Whoever developed this plan certainly had a keen eye for Trump’s greatest weakness as president. He hollowed out some agencies, particularly the state department, by driving staff to leave. But ignorant of how government worked and too impulsive to stay focused on a long-term program of change, he had little success at actually forcing most agencies to implement his America First agenda. Often, it seemed like Trump considered his own government to be more useful to him as a political foil than as a tool in his hands. Trump appeared to have decided there was little point to trying to actually control the “deep state” when he could instead portray himself as its victim.
What seems to have changed in the interim is Trump’s desire for revenge. According to the Axios report, Trump’s top priority in a new administration will be to “clean house” in the intelligence community, DoJ and FBI. Loyalists will be installed in the place of current leadership. Why these places? The standard conservative critique of the civil service is that everyone in it is a liberal, but that certainly isn’t true of these agencies. Rather, they’re the places you need to corrupt if you’re bent on breaking the law and persecuting your opponents. Trump – notoriously thin-skinned, impulsive, and vengeful – wants to do just that.
But this isn’t just a problem limited to Trump. The conservative movement as a whole increasingly dreams of turning the state against its enemies. The people at the heart of the movement today are more likely to idolize the Hungarian autocrat Viktor Orbán than they are Ronald Reagan. They aren’t animated by the belief that the job of government is simply to get out of the way – instead, they want to use it to impose a radical agenda on American society. And the recent overturning of Roe v Wade provides a blueprint for how a compliant conservative judiciary can enable government officials to take away even the most fundamental of human rights.
What will be done with this power? Some of it is grimly predictable. With the Department of Justice finally under control, the next Republican president would be free to launch criminal inquiries into political opponents. The brutality of immigration enforcement would be sharply increased while environmental regulations would languish unenforced. Rightwing extremists would go unmolested while American Muslims had their rights abused. Corruption and venality would become rampant across the government as checks and balances were removed and inexperienced hacks had their first taste of power.
Given the scale of the federal government and the sheer weirdness of conservative politics, other consequences are hard to fathom. Be it vaccines, Disney movies, or whatever else is agitating the Fox News faithful, the government would be much more responsive to their views. At the same time, the things that actually matter – from nuclear safety to protecting the country from terrorist attacks – would go neglected. A civil service bent to the will of the modern conservative movement would not be a place that respected science, rationality, or legality. Precisely what might give under the weight of an attack on these principles is difficult to predict. But something definitely would.
Although Trump would bring his own particular set of grievances to the venture, any future Republican president is likely to follow a similar blueprint. Given the sheer scale of changes they want to impose on America, today’s conservatives act more like revolutionaries. And like all revolutionaries, they want to seize control of the state and launch an offensive on as many fronts as possible. If Trump’s first term isn’t to appear to future historians as a grim prelude to something far worse, they must never be allowed to do it.