As Congress takes small steps to re-claim its critical role as an independent branch of government, there is another important check on the Trump Administration’s inclination to autocratic rule that needs protection: civil servants. From my perspective of nearly thirty years working in the federal judiciary, a branch of government built on commitments to accuracy, consistency, and stability, the need for politically neutral fact providers has never looked more urgent.
Criticizing government has been as much a national pastime as baseball–we all laughed when Ronald Regan joked that the nine most terrifying words are “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” But in fact the federal bureaucracy protects us from all sorts of threats, from ignorant policy makers, to unscrupulous profit seekers, to misguided social fads. Americans are free and live with relatively little fear in no small part because there are experts watching and worrying on our behalf–chemists testing the air and water, intelligence nerds monitoring terrorists patterns, biologists watching and ready to contain new virus outbreaks, help in natural disasters, prosecutors catching and preventing cheaters, diplomats maintaining close relations with foreign friends and foes, regulators ensuring banks don’t risk our savings, judges rendering impartial verdicts when we can’t resolve our own differences….the list is almost endless. These people are from the government and are here to help. Our lives would be far more burdened without them.
When Americans elected Donald Trump president, we knew he was fickle in his politics, narcissistic, and the antithesis of Hillary Clinton, the experienced establishment professional. Apparently, Clinton represented a class of elite rulers serving policies and norms many voters wanted to disrupt; and clearly he, with his singular ability to boldly lie, enrage, insult, and intimidate, was the one who could do that.
That disruption has proceeded predictably, though maybe farther than many expected. None can deny that Trump, the master brander, now dominates the Republican Party, and is working to turn the professional federal government into a reflection, and projection, of his own image. His authoritarian bent, cheered by some as strength standing up to a political elite, is working to redirect government agencies from their mission of service to the public to one of service to him. He rejects and publicly disrespects the opinions of anyone whose stature or expertise challenges his dominance. He appoints cabinet leaders who weaken the agencies they head with their self-dealing or out of loyalty to him personally, rather than supporting the values of the institutions they lead. In some cases, he hobbles government functions by selectively cutting funds, and avoids Congressional oversight by failing to nominate leadership at all. This undermining of the independence and mission of government agencies like the CDC, EPA, State Department, Department of Justice, and the FAA, is reducing the potency of agencies on which Americans have relied for a very long time for safety and security in a complex, dangerous world.
Jokes aside, government is the mechanism by which we-the-people govern ourselves, and public servants are the infrastructure of that governance. In my experience of almost 40 years working in and around local, state, and federal government, the great majority of public employees know their jobs well and value their agencies’ missions. I have seen them keep an agency ship afloat when a misguided leader would have run it aground. Civil servants’ loyalty often leans more to the public they’re serving than to their administrative and political bosses. While this can be frustrating for those who would run government like a corporation, with unquestioned hierarchical authority, I think of it as a strength of our country, of democracy.
The political independence and reliable expertise of a professional government bureaucracy, focused on Congressionally assigned missions, supports our social and economic stability and security. The Trump Administration’s systematic efforts to coerce or co-opt these agencies from their mandated public missions to the service of narrow personal interests is a mistake that should be resisted by all who value a safe and free society.