Can public service survive Trump’s assault?


Imagine you are offered a job. The pay is not as much as you could earn elsewhere, but it seems like meaningful work.

Then you learn that the CEO does not actually believe in the mission of the organization. He attacks its employees in public. His supporters even accuse employees of being engaged in one nefarious plot after another.

Would you still want that job?

This is the quandary facing the next generation of public servants in America.

It is the legacy of Donald Trump and Trumpism. Even if Trump never again holds public office, his anti-statist conspiratorial politics dominate contemporary Republicanism. This is bad news not just for public employees who have become targets in an increasingly scary culture war. It’s bad for the rest of us, too, because the services public employees provide will decline in quality. As loyalty to the regime becomes the key criterion for hiring, it will grow harder to attract good people into government.

Suspicion of government has defined Republican politics for decades, but the post-Trump strain is different. The current moment reflects something more than skepticism about state power. Instead, MAGA anti-statism rejects the idea that disinterested, nonpartisan public service is even possible. By presenting public officials as an existential threat, Republicans justify capturing and aggressively using state power in radical ways, deprofessionalizing the public service as it does so.

The attack has ranged wide and deep. Nearly every Trump speech is peppered with references to the “deep state” in law enforcement. A staggering number of elected Republicans call into question the legitimacy of our electoral apparatus and the people who run it. Right-wing activists have targeted teachers and school librarians for doing their jobs. Elected officials haven’t been immune — politicians and their families have been targeted by a rise in violent political speech and, indeed, by violence itself.

The anti-statist moment comes at an especially bad time for the US public sector. The US has an aging federal workforce — almost one in five is eligible to retire. Just 7 percent of the federal workforce is under 30, compared to almost 20 percent of the broader US labor force.

The good news is that young people like the students I teach are still interested in public service. But Republicans are making it a less and less welcoming environment. And if continued unchecked, the vicious attacks on public servants could have dire consequences for the present and future of American democracy.

The Trumpist GOP vs. public service

To understand what Trump and the Trumpified Republican Party are up to, it helps to unpack this new variant of anti-statism. Three key elements jump out.

The first is conspiratorial thinking. According to the MAGA perspective, state actors are involved in a coordinated effort to target their enemies and advance a set of goals at odds with popular will. The paranoid style that Richard Hofstadter described in the 1960s has moved from the fringes to the heart of the Republican Party. This worldview has been given a contemporary spin with conspiracy theories such as QAnon and election denialism.

The second element is the embrace of state power for right-wing goals. Trump-era anti-statists are not libertarians. They portray the “deep state” as something to be controlled rather than minimized. As a result, professional public sector expertise is viewed skeptically, valuable only to the extent it aligns with those goals. The only good public servant is the one directly advancing their causes. Everyone else must be forced out.

Third, the logical outcome of the first two elements is a tendency to adopt extreme action. This is reflected in a creeping indifference to professional qualifications, an embrace of violent rhetoric, and a willingness to set aside basic constitutional and legal protections.

When he first ran for office, Trump trafficked in stereotypes and conspiracy theories about government, railing against “the swamp” and the “deep state.” But once in office, there didn’t seem to be much of a coherent plan to put his brand of anti-statism into practice.

To be sure, it manifested itself in some ways. For instance, Trump’s political appointees were often opposed to the mission of their own agencies, putting them at loggerheads with employees. Political harassment of career officials increased. The Trump era saw a 36 percent rise in federal employee complaints of wrongdoing, retaliation, and improper treatment compared to the Obama administration.

And Trump’s rhetoric — and the targets of it — certainly made his anti-statism distinctive. Rather than being limited to the traditional targets of Republican disdain, such as regulatory agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, he took aim at parts of the administrative state that put him in legal jeopardy or thwarted his efforts to rig the 2020 election — institutions such as the FBI, the Justice Department, and the military, that the GOP had traditionally cheered

But reality did not quite match rhetoric when it came to (in the words of Steve Bannon) “the deconstruction of the administrative state.” The bureaucracy weathered the Trumpist assault the first time around.

It appears Trump and his allies are all too aware of this and are plotting a more concerted attack should they get another chance. According to a report this summer in Axios, they are mulling a plan they never got to execute during the first Trump term.

In October 2020, Trump signed an executive order that had been in play since early in his administration: Schedule F. Schedule F would allow Trump to convert any official in a policymaking or policy advisory role into a political appointee. The vague nature of the executive order could effectively allow Trump’s political appointees to fire tens of thousands of white-collar career civil servants by converting them into political appointees, thereby removing the civil service protections intended to stop the politicization of the public service.

Bipartisan good-government groups and public administration wonks like myself have warned about the potentially calamitous effects of Schedule F, especially in the hands of a leader with an authoritarian mien and disdain for the rule of law. But it wasn’t until reporting about the Trump loyalists planning his next administration that the scale of the threat became clear. Schedule F would be used to purge public employees who saw any tension between personal loyalty to Trump and their oath to defend the Constitution, starting with the national security and law enforcement agencies.

When President Biden took office, he rescinded Schedule F. For its part, the Democratic-held House recently passed a bill aimed at curbing a president’s ability to reclassify federal employees; that bill is awaiting a vote in the Senate.

In speeches, Trump has left little doubt about the purpose of Schedule F and his intent to revive it: “We will pass critical reforms making every executive branch employee fireable by the president of the United States. The deep state must and will be brought to heel.”

Government power in the service of culture wars

Even as Trump has focused on his perceived enemies, he has also opened the door for anti-statists with a broader set of targets in mind.

Christopher Rufo, who has spearheaded the movement to surveil and censor classroom discussion, appealed directly to Trump to bar the federal government and its contractors from offering diversity training. Rufo has sought to broaden the coalition for his campaign against public schools by echoing rhetoric about “grooming,” falsely raising the specter of a pedophilia conspiracy among public officials, a core belief of the QAnon movement that makes up a significant component of the Republican Party.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Trump’s most likely rival for the Republican nomination, is embracing anti-statist politics with a MAGA bent. DeSantis has targeted schools, universities, and public health institutions. He joined other Republicans in painting the Mar-a-Lago raid as an example of how a recently passed bill to bolster the IRS would be used to attack Republicans.

The heightened culture war hasn’t spared public health. The wearing of masks or use of vaccines became unnecessarily polarized. Republicans became more likely to believe misinformation about vaccines and less likely to take them, leading to greater deaths relative to Democrats. Consequently, public health officials became viewed on the right as instruments of oppression or threat.

Violent political rhetoric has not just become more mainstream in Republican politics and media. It is also increasingly directed toward previously obscure public servants. Educators, tax collectors, election administrators, and public health officials must now worry that they will be subject to harassment or worse. Law enforcement sometimes seems reluctant to respond, reportedly out of concern that they will be accused of restricting First Amendment rights.

Researchers are just starting to track such threats against less visible — and less well-protected — public officials. A few data points and anecdotes get at the dire situation:

  • After the 2020 election, about one-third of election officials reported feeling unsafe, with about one in five saying they were concerned about their life being threatened. Steve Bannon and other Republicans have launched a nationwide effort to replace these officials with 2020 election deniers who stand ready to ensure the mistake of 2020 — that the Democratic winner of a free and fair election took office — is not repeated. It’s working. In Nevada, for example, election supervisors in 10 of the 17 counties have left amid a campaign of abuse and harassment. “You just feel like you’re fighting for your life,” said one.
  • Nearly one in eight public health officials reported job-related threats in 2021, and nearly one in four reported feeling bullied, harassed, or threatened. Many have left their jobs or no longer feel safe visiting certain areas.
  • Across America, a wave of legislation has restricted what teachers and, in some cases, professors can say in their classrooms. This loss of professional autonomy has been accompanied by intimidation, false accusations, and violence. Willie Carver Jr., the 2022 Kentucky Teacher of the Year, left his job as a teacher after unfounded accusations of “grooming” students. While 77 percent of teachers said they felt respected by the public in 2011, that number has dropped to 46 percent today, during a national teacher shortage.
  • False accusations that public schools and community public libraries are peddling pornography have triggered book bans. Librarians have been forced to pull books from the shelves, especially those relating to the experiences of historically marginalized groups. Many librarians have quit or lost their jobs for resisting the bans. “Nothing in my background could have prepared me for the political atmosphere of extremism, militant Christian fundamentalism, intimidation tactics and threatening behavior currently being employed in the community,” wrote one librarian who resigned.
  • In a sign of the right’s increasing willingness to bend public services toward culture-war ends, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) directed the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate families with transgender kids; some 2,300 of the 13,000 employees have left, putting the state system in crisis.
  • After Trump’s home at Mar-a-Lago was raided, conservative media published the names of the FBI officials who performed the search after a Trump supporter who called for the murder of FBI officials launched a violent attack on a field office. The former president shared a post characterizing the FBI as “the Fascist Bureau of Investigation.”

No way to run a government

The best recruitment tool government has going for it is that it allows people to make a difference, whether it’s helping kids grow, performing groundbreaking science, or protecting their fellow citizens.

Research shows that people with high public service motivation want to work in government, and this motivation makes them more honest and effective in their work. But when people feel like they cannot fulfill such motivation in an organization, they become more likely to exit.

How long will teachers who are censored or harassed, scientists fighting a hostile environment, or lawyers watching the rule of law being ignored stay in the public sector? And who replaces them? As public organizations become more politicized, employees are not just more likely to exit, but also less likely to invest in upgrading their skills because there is less reason to expect those skills will be put to use.

There is also the small matter of maintaining democracy. Trumpists have gradually discovered that controlling certain administrative positions provides a powerful means to subvert democratic outcomes and protect themselves from democratic accountability. Honest and competent administrators are important to a functioning democracy.

The public sector does have real problems. There has not been a meaningful update in the US federal civil service system since 1978, and modernization is badly needed. But by making public service a job where political loyalty matters more than professional competence, Trumpism will make it less attractive for everyone but his loyalists, and lower the quality of government for the rest of us.

Donald Moynihan is the McCourt professor of public policy at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy. He writes about government at “Can we still govern?” @donmoyn.