For almost four years, the breathtaking cruelty, mismanagement, and corruption of the Trump administration have kept the pundits yapping, the printing presses running, angry congressional letters flying, and the Twittersphere ablaze. Depending on the results of next Tuesday’s election, however, Joe Biden may soon be in a position to actually do something about it all. As Biden and his advisers survey the rubble, it will be important that they not get distracted by the nonsense (“I will tweet less” is not a compelling administrative pillar), but rather home in on those features of the Trump administration that have made life worse for millions.
As Trump tweeted gleefully away, hurling insults and peddling conspiracies, his lackeys have quietly been retooling the federal government’s engines to propel a wealthy few to new heights, while limiting its ability to work for anyone else. Committed public servants who dissent or contradict have been swept aside, budgets for regulation and enforcement slashed, basic government functions outsourced to friends and benefactors, and every possible administrative tool put to such corrupt ends. A critical look at these strategies and, just as important, at the structural weaknesses and ideological groundwork that allowed them to flourish will offer the Biden administration the best possible road map as it seeks to “Build Back Better.”
Theatrically yelling, “You’re fired!” not only made Trump a media star, but it has been Trump’s burning desire when confronted with committed public servants empowered by civil service protections to contradict political leadership when it strayed from the realms of empiricism.
Sweeping these figures aside has been one of Trump’s driving motivations ever since, with frightful and at times lethal consequences for the general public. Over the protests of government scientists, this administration has rolled back regulations on air and water quality. It has halted studies on everything from the public-health risks of mountaintop removal and chemical pollutants to the threats from invasive species and climate change. The dangerous consequences of this administration’s disregard for scientific expertise became all the more evident with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Trump’s refusal to listen to the government’s public-health experts has resulted in tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of avoidable deaths and an economic crisis that is more severe and protracted than it needed to be.
Faced with dismantling their own work when it contradicted Trump’s prejudices and interests, many civil servants have simply chosen to leave. For its part, the administration has done all it can to further accelerate that trend. In each of the last four years, the president’s budget has called for deep cuts to the social safety net, public health, and environmental programs (while, it should be noted, finding plenty of funding for the Department of Defense and border enforcement). While Congress has largely scoffed at these extreme proposals, the budgets have nonetheless sent a message that agencies are at risk.
The president and his appointees have driven that message home by unilaterally tearing down what they can wherever they can. Within days of taking office, Trump instituted a hiring freeze, signaling the start of a war of attrition that would leave the government less agile and more permissive to elite wrongdoing. Though the official hiring freeze only lasted for a few months, hiring in many departments and agencies continues to lag and staffing levels are still falling in many areas. At the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Acting Director Mick Mulvaney went even further by requesting a budget of zero dollars from the Federal Reserve in 2017. Across a wide swath of agencies, enforcement staff has dwindled and official priorities shifted such that breaking the law and getting away with it has become easier than ever for corporate America.
But while Trump and his henchmen are more than happy to sacrifice enforcement, other governmental functions are not so easily jettisoned. The federal government performs all manner of behind-the-scenes roles that keep the country humming. Shrinking it “down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub” would make even the most ardent free-marketeers unhappy. So, when it couldn’t eliminate some fundamental tasks, the administration has simply changed who it is that carries out those tasks. From Trump’s perspective, contracting out carries no shortage of “benefits”: funneling government funds directly into the pockets of friends and benefactors; circumventing civil service protections; reducing transparency; the list goes on and on.
If there is any silver lining to this reign of destruction, it is that Trump has revealed once and for all whom these efforts to undercut government really benefit. And although his campaign has charted new territory, Trump is far from the first president to undermine or disregard civil service expertise, defund or strategically attrit agencies deemed inconvenient to corporate profits, or contract out the federal workforce. Obama’s appointee to lead the obscure but powerful Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, Cass Sunstein, pushed the EPA to weaken ozone standards against all available scientific evidence—by so doing, trading thousands of annual excess deaths for a softer blow to corporate America. Underfunding government, particularly enforcement functions, has been a bipartisan tradition for decades. It was Bill Clinton who really set the government-outsourcing frenzy in motion after Carter and Reagan had demonized public employees as deadweight.
Over the past several decades, each of these presidents contributed to the slow but steady degradation of the government’s capacity to work energetically in the public interest. By accelerating these trends, Donald Trump has made it clear that reversing this degradation can’t wait. If Biden is elected, he must work not only to reverse Trump’s damage but that from decades of this harmful consensus. Civil servants must not only be tolerated but respected and systematically elevated. Budget requests should be bold enough to reverse the attrition under Trump and fill the roles soon to be vacant thanks to the coming wave of retirements from an aging workforce. Just as importantly, the fight to get these policies implemented must be fierce. And bringing the vast workforce that is performing the federal government’s responsibilities under the umbrella of civil service protections must be a priority.
Critically, however, learning the lessons of the Trump administration does not just mean looking to its example and then doing the opposite. Trump and his appointees have been aggressive and creative in their pursuit of corporate America’s interests. Biden should be just as zealous in his application of executive power to the task of improving regular people’s lives.
And the president wields a lot of power. When Obamacare repeal failed to pass the Senate, the administration set about killing it with a thousand cuts, pulling health care from the grasp of millions. Through executive action alone, environmental regulations have been rolled back, financial regulatory standards loosened, workers’ rights revoked, and so much more. If Trump’s administration wasn’t quite so sloppy in its rush to appease industry, it likely could have accomplished even more.
These tools were, no doubt, put to abhorrent ends. They were applied in a manner that more often than not stretched or even broke the bounds of legality. Some will insist that this example necessitates a rapid return and redoubled commitment to old norms. Such a knee-jerk reversion to the mean, however, will not be enough to meet the moment. Trump’s example should not dissuade a Biden administration from taking bold and lawful action to erase the harm Trump caused and to set out a new governing vision.
Wielding the full range of tools in the administrative tool belt will allow the Biden administration to eliminate Trump-era rules more quickly—something well within reach through legal means. Further, as the Prospect’s Day One Agenda demonstrates, executive power need not just be employed as a tool to erase the prior president’s legacy. A Biden administration would have the power to implement transformative changes on everything from financial to labor policy and climate to health policy, even in the face of Senate intransigence.
If Joe Biden assumes the Oval Office this January, he will face a daunting set of competing priorities. A careful look at the Trump administration’s harmful feats and the structures that made them possible, however, suggests two principles that will be essential to a Biden presidency’s success. If the government is to work for any but the wealthiest few, we must fight for its renewed capacity in every way. And if we hope to see that reinvigorated government reach its full potential, we need political leadership willing to use every administrative tool to advance the public interest.