Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump’s chief strategist and beacon of the so-called ‘alt-right’, recently announced to cheers at the right-wing Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) that “the primary goal of the Trump administration” is “the deconstruction of the administrative state” or the dismantling of the public sector.
Similarly, Trump’s oft-chanted populist campaign pledge to #DrainTheSwamp was calibrated to attract support from the small-government, anti-federal element of the American electorate.
Since taking up in the Oval Office, the President’s actions (as well as his marked inactions) have demonstrated a relentless focus on the fulfilment of this promise to shrink the federal workforce, and to remove it from electoral control. Trump has gone to war with the public sector.
On his first Monday as President, Trump signed an order imposing a near-total freeze on public-sector recruitment. His Presidential Memorandum also included a commitment to develop “a long-term plan to reduce the size of the Federal Government’s workforce through attrition”. Moreover, with one hundred days of his presidential term behind him, Trump has yet to fill a sizeable proportion of the roughly 4,000 federal appointments he is entitled to make. Where he has filled roles, Trump’s selections have been characterised by a fox-henhouse dynamic consistent with his hostility towards public-sector workers.
In justification of his assault on the federal workforce, Trump relies on the standard-issue set of tired anti-public sector clichés about supposed inefficiency and laziness. His proposed solutions are as unoriginal as his critique: he wants to apply his brand of private-sector ‘The Apprentice’ logic to the federal workforce. A senior adviser in the administration recently said that “the government should be run like a great American company”.
Superficially, Trump’s anti-public-sector rhetoric seems economically motivated. His press secretary, Sean Spicer, has argued that “federal employee health and retirement benefits require a level of generosity long since abandoned by most of the private sector” and demonstrate “a lack of respect for the American taxpayer”.
In reality, however, Trump’s animosity towards the public sector has far less to do with economics than it has to do with core ideology.
Structured, as it is, on precedent and procedure, the default setting of the bureaucracy, in the US as elsewhere, is the maintenance of order. It sits on a sort of ideological gimbal: it can remain stable in pivoting to serve worldviews either side of centre. Its procedures, in other words, can flex to reconcile small lurches to the right or left.
There is, however, an inbuilt intolerance for the radical extremes: a fail-safe calibrated to trigger in the event of violent ideological swings. The federal workforce serves as a buffer – a kind of surge protector – between the people and the sometimes experimental enthusiasms of partisan politics. Trump sees the public sector as a political opponent: and he’s right to. Hillary Clinton won bureaucratic hotspots like Washington DC and Maryland with easy majorities, and 95% of political contributions made by federal employees went her way.
It is not incidental that Trump tries to discredit the federal bureaucracy at every turn. Public-sector workers are accused, in slavish obedience to that age-old right-wing mythology, of being dispassionate, indifferent, cold and impersonal. When Trump and his team talk of applying private-sector logic to the public sector, they say the federal workforce needs to become more ‘responsive’, more ‘nimble’ and more ‘flexible’.
These terms, however, are bywords for Trump’s desire to see a suspension of the transparent, impartial public system and its replacement by an opaque black-box system based on erratic discretion and exclusive loyalties. Nothing is more ‘nimble’ nor more ‘responsive’ than the capricious whim of a despot – think ‘off with his head’, or ‘you’re fired’.
The public bureaucracy is gender-neutral and colour-blind; it is uninterested in inherited differences in status or prestige. What codes as indifference through the looking glass of right-wing propaganda is, in reality, impartiality. What Breitbart calls impersonality is actually a commitment to radical tolerance. Methodologically, the federal workforce rigorously adheres to transparent procedure: its elevation of due process is possibly its most essential feature.
Far from being some unfeeling monolith, the public sector operates on core values: values antithetical to those held by the Trump administration. The anatomy of an authoritarian regime is bespoken by inner circles: by cadres, cabals and coteries. Power is pooled in the hands of a few, and guarded there by populating the executive branch via nepotism, cronyism and patronage.
The ideological clash between public-sector impartiality and Trumpian discretion is perfectly, almost poetically, captured in the fact that Trump, in a brazen act of nepotism, has appointed his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to head up a White House ‘SWAT’ team, the ‘Office of American Innovation,’ charged with “scaling proven private-sector models” in the federal government.
If a public-sector bureaucracy works without passion or prejudice, then an authoritarian regime works fast and loose on grace and favour. There are palms to grease rather than forms to fill and administrative decisions are made on a provisional, ad hoc basis. Disorder is weaponised and the state becomes permanently indecipherable.
Since Trump’s election, the antibodies cryogenically embedded in the public-sector system have thawed and grown active. The federal bureaucracy has emerged as a sort of entrepreneurial check on Trump’s power. Much-maligned public-sector workers have been recast as folk heroes of the resistance as they take to ‘rogue’ twitter accounts, sign dissent memos en masse or leak prodigiously to the news media (je suis Sally Yates). The IRS, remember, holds the ultimate article of kompromat – the tax returns.
George Washington famously (perhaps apocryphally) remarked that the comparatively less contentious structures of the Senate should function as the saucer in which the hot tea of the House would cool. This function, however, is endangered. Whether it’s the erosion of the senatorial filibuster in the US or our own Senate’s brush with extinction, upper houses are, increasingly, being drawn down into the sinking sands of partisan politics.
We have seen the public sector shift to fulfil some of this function. The bureaucracy serves to insert a pause in the impatience of sectarian politics. Its slowness is often a virtue; it’s a civilising force that engenders a sort of pacifying reason. It is a final line of defence against an erratic regime.
The public sector is constrained in the factors it can take into account to justify a decision. This is alien to Trump who as ‘Apprentice’ star or beauty-pageant judge is used to total freedom to discriminate on whatever grounds he chooses. Here’s what we need to remember: the right may claim that personal freedom emerges from small government, but – in reality- it is precisely in those bureaucratic constraints, that impeccably performed blindness to inherited difference, that much of our freedom as citizens lies.
Lughán Deane works with Impact, Ireland’s largest public-sector Trade Union.