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Unveiling the authoritarian roadmap
The Heritage Foundation blueprint for Trump to politicize the administrative state will also undermine democracy
At campaign rallies, President Trump promises to destroy the “deep state” with one particular tool: Schedule F. If you combine the severity of the consequences with the level of lack of public knowledge, Schedule F is the biggest underreported risk to US democracy. So lets talk about what we’ve learned in recent weeks about how it will be implemented.
Schedule F is an executive order that allowed political appointees to convert career officials into fellow appointees. The result would be to strip career officials of their job protections, allowing them to be fired without cause. In his current campaign Trump has said: “Either the deep state destroys America or we destroy the deep state”, vowing "retribution" for his political enemies. Schedule F offers the key means to achieve Trump’s vision. The entirely predictable effects of Schedule F would be:
Make the already politicized system of American government more politicized, swelling the number of political appointees from about 4,000 to tens or even hundreds of thousands.
Undermine the quality of government, both by discouraging capable people from joining and staying in government, and by allowing partisanship to displace considerations of performance. We tried this during the spoils system, and it didn’t work. (See recent relevant research: here, here, and here).
Weaken American democracy: the push for Schedule F came after Trump’s first impeachment, and reflects a belief that with better control over administrative positions, Trump might have been able to hang onto power. A non-partisan civil service maintains key democratic cornerstones, such as following the law and due process, loyalty to the constitution and providing transparency about wrongdoing within the executive branch. Take that away, and it becomes much easier for a President with an authoritarian mien to subvert democracy.
Recent maneuverings in right-wing politics offer five additional lessons about how the next Republican Presidential administration would work.
Lesson #1: A Trump tool to ensure political loyalty has become the GOP consensus
Biden rescinded Schedule F, but any Republican President could bring it back, and it is increasingly clear that they will. DeSantis has embraced Schedule F. This helps to embed it into Republican orthodoxy, a consensus very much shaped by the demands and desires of Trumpism.
We learned a lot more about what this emerging consensus looks like in recent weeks. On April 21, the Heritage Foundation unveiled its “Mandate for Leadership”, a blueprint for running the government, something it has done for GOP candidates since the Reagan administration. A couple of things have changed since then. The most critical is the development of Schedule F as tool to enable this politicization. James Sherk, one of dozens of Heritage alum who jointed the Trump administration, authored the proposal to created Schedule F.
Another change is the political economy of power in these circles. Heritage has become more a more important source of influence for Republicans as the party has shifted to the right. It is the think-tank equivalent to Fox News. But like Fox, it faces competition from newer and more radical start-ups. The Tea Party and post-Trump era has sprouted dozens of new influence groups, which compete for influence and donor dollars.
In this context, Heritage is under pressure to maintain its dominant position. To do so it has co-opted around 50 right-wing groups behind a unity agenda for governing. They say they are spending an unprecedented amount of money, $25 million, to create a personnel database of 20,000 screened loyalists who can serve as appointees.
I asked Don Kettl, Professor Emeritus at the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, about the timing of this effort:
The important thing about the Heritage piece is that they are out so early. This is aimed at the 2025 transition. The policy space on the right is very crowded, so they're trying to stake out their position early. There's a lot of jockeying about just how strong an anti-bureaucracy pitch to make, and it's now impossible to imagine a Republican candidate who wouldn't take a position on making it easier to fire poor performers.
For example, Heritage is working with the Center for Renewing America, whose leader Russ Vought, another Heritage alum, served as Trump’s head of the Office of Management. Vought tried to covert 88% of career officials into political appointees he could fire, but ran out of time as the Trump administration ended. (Vought is also behind the “weaponization of government” trope).
According to Vought: “I think Schedule F is basically doctrine now on the right…Schedule F is getting to the point where I cannot see anyone who runs on the Republican side who doesn’t put this into play.”
Lesson #2: The right-wing unity movement is really just serving Trumpworld
The Heritage-led project is, in theory, there for any Republican President. But it is built to serve the needs of Trump and Trumpworld.
What do I mean by Trumpworld? Presidents can draw on a constellation of experts, associates, campaign officials and hangers-on to populate their office: a Bushworld or Bidenworld to help them the govern. Trump did not have this, and has acknowledged as much:
When I went there, I didn’t know a lot of people; I had to rely on, in some cases, RINOs and others to give me some recommendations, but I know them all now. I know the good ones, I know the bad ones, I know the weak ones, I know the strong ones.
Trump did face resistance. But it is important to understand the nature of this resistance. Much of it came, as the political scientist James Pfiffner argues, from his own political appointees. And much of it centered in stopping Trump from breaking the law, such as Bill Barr refusing to use the DOJ to go along with false claims or election fraud, or John Kelly pushing back against using the government to investigate Trump’s political enemies.
Trump wants loyalists who do not just share his vision of government but also condone his lawbreaking. Indeed, he looked for those who would enable it, giving him the formal or other sorts of tools to take control of government. Vought is an example of such an official. He overruled career officials who warned that Trump’s withholding of aid for Ukraine was illegal. Some of those officials subsequently resigned while a Pentagon official who raised concerns was denied a promotion. With Schedule F, Trump would simply be able to fire these officials if they dare to raise concerns about illegal behavior in the first place. And Trump loyalists would conjure up a secret legal rationale to justify his lawbreaking, as they did with Ukraine, centered on unitary executive theory, the novel idea that the Constitution imbues God-like powers on Republican Presidents to do whatever they want with the executive branch.
Trump now has his Trumpworld. It is a group:
built around accepting the Big Lie that the last election was fraudulent and Trump was right to try to overturn it. Their loyalty to him matters more than their loyalty to the constitution
ready to use Schedule F on Day 1 to impose loyalists in key positions, starting with the national security apparatus to protect themselves and target their enemies
In the New York Times, Kevin Roberts, the President of Heritage summed it up: “In 2016, the conservative movement was not prepared to flood the zone with conservative personnel. On Jan. 20, 2025, things will be very different. This database will prepare an army of vetted, trained staff to begin dismantling the administrative state from Day 1.”
It is not just that Trump is the likely nominee. It is that the Heritage report is infused with his ethos of governing, and staffed by his loyalists. Paul Dans leads the newest iteration of Heritage’s “Mandate for Leadership” project. Prior to working in the Trump administration, Dans worked in commercial law, without experience either in running public organizations or public personnel law. Dans was a White House liaison to Office of Personnel Management under Trump, appointed by Trump’s former bag man Johnny McEntee when McEntee was given charge of the Presidential Personnel Office. He was imposed on the head of OPM, Dale Cabaniss, who quit after she was told she now answered to Dans. In the closing days of the Trump administration, Dans was being lined up to take over OPM, and implement Schedule F.
A key player in building the personnel database is James Bacon, a college senior when he helped implement McEntee’s post-impeachment loyalty tests for government employees. Their bizarre tests — EPA officials were asked about their views on Afgan policy — embedded a culture of fear amidst the surging pandemic, where officials felt unwilling to challenge the President’s rosy prognostications.
This is not a group that cares about professional qualifications or competence. They looked at the worst-managed Presidency in recent American history, one marred by incompetence, instability and scandal, with two impeachments and the longest government shutdown in US history, and thought: “Cool. We need much more of that.”
Lesson #3: A decades-old desire for politicization has become newly dangerous
Trump has also pledged a “civil service test” for all federal employees covering “due process rights, equal protection, free speech (and) religious liberty” and promising to fire all who fail. It is not clear if this would be legal for existing employees, and given Trump’s track record, it is likely to be a test of political ideology rather than a test of competence. The Heritage report has a different test in mind, arguing for bringing back IQ tests to the federal employment which had been suspended in the 1970s because of disparate impact on minorities.
The call for IQ tests reflects some of the oddities of the Heritage report, which is that in many ways it is mired in the past, even as it tries to stay relevant in a populist present. Some of the players writing chapters have been in place for decades. As policy professor Heath Brown points out, IQ tests, are a hobby horse of Don Devine, who worked with the Reagan administration. This also explains the claim that Jimmy Carer’s Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 was to have a more politicized administration. This is not, to put it mildly, a mainstream view, though it is one that Devine has been advancing for decades. Indeed, its the case that the CSRA capped the number of political appointees who could serve in the Senior Executive Service. (My thanks to Doug Brooks of Duke University for reminding me of this point). Indeed, an oral history of the law reveal that its architects wanted to protect against politicization in the aftermath of Nixonian excesses.
The consistent theme you find across Heritage’s Mandate for Leadership reports across decades is a deep distrust of government, and the people in it. This feeds the desire for politicization, the disdain for expertise. In his introduction to the newest edition, Kevin Roberts articulates this attitude in the context of attacking what he views as Woodrow Wilson’s elitism:
Intellectual sophistication, advanced degrees, financial success, and all other markers of elite status have no bearing on a person’s knowledge of the one thing most necessary for governance: what it means to live well. That knowledge is available to each of us, no matter how humble our backgrounds or how unpretentious our attainments. It is open to us to read in the book of human nature, to which we are all offered the key just by merit of our shared humanity.
The alternative offered is one of Jacksonian populism: public services are not so complicated! Who needs expertise! Jacksonian populism does not have a good track record in practice, giving rise to the spoils system, inefficiency, and wide-scale corruption. It turns out your do need expertise, technical skills and policy knowledge to run a large, modern and complex federal government.
But some things are different than when Heritage first launched their project in 1980. The report is full of culture war saber-rattling. “Woke” is mentioned 35 times, “critical race theory” 23 times and “transgender” 13 times. “Elite” is mentioned 37 times but just to be clear the well-connected authors of a presidential transition project funded by rich donors are not elite. They are against that sort of thing. The project director, Paul Dans announces: “It’s not 1980. In 2023, the game has changed. The long march of cultural Marxism through our institutions has come to pass.” This statement inadvertently says more about the rise and embrace of right-wing populism than it does about Marxists occupying the commanding heights of American institutions.
More consequential than updating the culture war window-dressing is the tools at the disposal of the next Republican President, and the purpose to which they will be used. First, the availability Schedule F offers a nuclear option to undermine the administrative state. A President can simply wave a magic wand and bypass the civil service system built over the past 140 years. This may be legal, but that does not make it wise, or consistent with Congressional intent. Second, the most likely holder of that nuclear option will be a leader who has made clear through his actions and words that he intends to use that tool to weaken American democracy.
Lesson #4: The center-left needs its own agenda to restore American administrative capacity
There are perfectly legitimate complaints about the way in which the US personnel system is too slow, unable to hire the people they need, in a manner and pace that is necessary. The Heritage Foundation has packaged some of those reasonable concerns, alongside various misreadings of the problem, a long-term desire for politicization and Trump’s deep state conspiracism. As long as they do so, it seems difficult to find any compromise. At the same time, all of the energy on this topic is coming from the right. According to Kettl:
What's just as interesting is how quiet the middle and the left are. The right is roaring out of the box with plans to slash the number and power of federal employees. The left has nothing on the table as a counter. So that in itself will be an important point as the election--and ultimately the transition--rolls along.
To counter the center-left needs something of its own, something that is centered on more than protecting the rights and benefits of public servants, but clearly connects to peoples lives. A clear candidate is the idea of restoring American administrative capacity. This idea might not light up voters, but it reflects real and reasonable bipartisan concerns that the American administrative state has become too sclerotic, and less able to undertake big projects.
An agenda centered on this topic would include a mix of different types of actions. Some of this is occurring. For example, I give high marks to the Biden administration’s effort to push government bureaucracies pay more attention to the experience of the public through its customer service focus. This agenda would also include using technology in transformative ways to improve government. It would change regulatory authority to make it easier to do things — like build houses or implement pro-environmental agendas — rather than stop things.
In terms of civil service, it means improving the ability to hire the best talent. Hiring seems to me to be the more consequential challenge given an aging federal government workforce where 1 in 5 are eligible to retire. Currently there are a patchwork of systems to get very smart people into the federal government, but these should be quicker and simpler. Making it easier to fire people should be feasible, as long as there is a clear line of separation between political appointees and those doing the firing.
James-Christian Blackwood of the Partnership for Public Service outlines additional general principles for improving governance, including managers more aggressively using existing performance tools, bigger rewards for good performers, better training of leaders, and a simpler and more accessible hiring process. These all make sense as part of a general strategy to improve administrative capacity.
The vision I outline sounds quite different from what Trump and Heritage et al. want. And so, the most likely outcome for an administrative system that badly needs updating is either a) nothing happens, or b) the state will be transformed but to become more politicized and less competent.
Lesson #5: Much of the right-wing governing coalition is indifferent to or supports Trump’s attacks on democracy
The reason why I think progressives should push for a more aggressive vision for restoring state capacity is that they need to tell a better story about how government helps people. This is ultimately about democratic investments and democratic dividends, one which offers a sharp contrast to right wing plans to strip administrative capacity in a manner that tangibly weakens American democracy.
If it seems I am being overly alarmist here, I just want to point out one thing: a huge amount of right-wing America, including respected institutions and donors who think themselves fierce patriots, are providing their money, skills and resources to help a man who refuses to accept the outcome of a free and fair election and then sought to reverse that outcome. If in power again, he has pledged to take control of the state and punish his political enemies. They are, it seems, fine with this, indeed ready to serve this vision. And for that reason they should not be trusted to govern.
There is, of course, no mention of this in the Heritage report. You learn nothing about the threats Trump posed to democracy. Quite the contrary. The report reiterates Trump talking points, . The Department of Justice which “has twice engaged in covert domestic election interference and propaganda operations—the Russian collusion hoax in 2016 and the Hunter Biden laptop suppression in 2020—is a threat to the Republic.” The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) which contradicted Trump‘s claims of election hacking should be moved to the Department of Transportation, pr because it “is a DHS component that the Left has weaponized to censor speech and affect elections at the expense of securing the cyber domain and critical infrastructure, which are threatened daily.” Never mind that Trump political appointees led CISA and the DOJ in 2020. For in truth, it is not just politicization that they want, but a certain type of politicization, designed to serve one party, and to keep it in power regardless of what the voters say.
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