Sometimes the right wing in this country seems like a riddle wrapped in an enigma encased in a conundrum.
Do they want to strengthen the government in line with the once-fringe doctrine of the “unitary executive,” concentrating most official power in the hands of a president who would then rule more or less by fiat? That’s the fascist position.
Or would they prefer to destroy the government, to “starve the beast,” something anti-tax activist Grover Norquist used to call for decades ago? “I don’t want to abolish government,” he declared. “I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” That’s the anti-government nihilist position.
You might not think that those two goals could coexist comfortably within a single party. And of course, you’d be right if you were talking about an ordinary American political party. But the Republicans are no longer an ordinary party. In many respects, in fact, they have become the however-fractious sole property of one Donald J. Trump. That former and quite possibly (God forbid) future president has no trouble simultaneously advocating contradictory, not to mention devastating, ideas. That’s because, for him, ideas are an entirely fungible currency that he deploys primarily to maintain the attention and adulation of his — and it is increasingly his alone — GOP “base.” And precisely because Trump has so little invested in actual policy, the right wing believes he’s a weapon they can point and shoot in whatever direction they choose.
You might also wonder why, at a moment when horror is being heaped on horror in Israel/Palestine, when wars continue unabated in Ukraine and Sudan, I find myself focusing on some distinctly in-the-weeds aspects of the American political system. Perhaps it’s partly to distract myself from all the other nightmares around us. But even if I believed (which I don’t) that the right response to the crisis in Israel/Palestine involved sending more weapons and money to Benjamin Netanyahu, Congress isn’t in a position to appropriate anything at the moment.
Just as we face so many crises globally, the legislative branch of the world’s (theoretically) most powerful country has ceased to function. Perhaps by the time you read this, Republicans in the House of Representatives will have stopped squabbling over which right-wing bigot should be speaker. Maybe they will have opted for Jim Jordan, who has accused the Biden administration of planning to replace white voters with immigrants, or perhaps someone else entirely. Remember, too, that whatever joker emerges as speaker from such a chaotic process will be second in line to the presidency, should something happen to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.
Recently, I’ve somehow managed to end up on a few right-wing email lists. The strangest people (Ron DeSantis, for example) are writing to ask me for money. My most recent supplicant was Stephen Miller, former senior adviser to President Trump and co-author, with Steve Bannon, of Trump’s 2017 inaugural address in which the new president inveighed darkly against the “American carnage” he saw defiling the nation’s landscape. These days, Miller is himself a president of something called the America First Legal Foundation, which bills itself as “Fighting Back against lawless executive actions and the Radical Left.”
Miller, it turns out, has written to let me know that “we are living in extremely perilous times and a truly dangerous moment for our Republic.” As it happens, I agree with him, though obviously not for the same reasons. “The federal bureaucracy has turned against the American people,” Miller’s missive continues. “It has been completely corrupted into an ideological monolith of hard-left loathing for America. The fearsome power [his emphasis] of the state is raining down on political dissidents, while violent and vile criminals are released into our communities.” The solution, of course, is to send money to America First Legal, so it can get on with the business of “Fighting Back against lawless executive actions.”
Miller, however, will likely be less concerned about the fearsome power of the state once it’s again in the hands of Donald Trump. Indeed, he’s part of a group of former and present Trump advisers engaged in planning for a potential presidential transition in 2025. These include Russell Vought, who ran Trump’s Office of Management and Budget, and former Trump White House chief of personnel John McEntee. As the New York Times reported in July,
“Mr. Vought and Mr. McEntee are involved in Project 2025, a $22 million presidential transition operation that is preparing policies, personnel lists and transition plans to recommend to any Republican who may win the 2024 election. The transition project, the scale of which is unprecedented in conservative politics, is led by the Heritage Foundation, a think tank that has shaped the personnel and policies of Republican administrations since the Reagan presidency.”
The key thrust of Project 2025 is full implementation of the “unitary executive” principle — the view that the Constitution locates the power of the executive branch in a single individual, the president. In its maximalist version, according to the Times, this theory also contradicts the long-held doctrine of the separation of powers, under which three co-equal branches of government — executive, legislative, and judicial — provide checks and balances on each other. Under the unitary executive principle, presidential power simply outweighs that of either Congress or the Supreme Court. Project 2025’s backers know that Donald Trump will agree and act accordingly.
By “long-held doctrine” I mean a blueprint for democratic government that goes back to two seventeenth- and eighteenth-century political philosophers: Charles Montesquieu, who first wrote about the separation of powers, and John Locke, whose ideas about unalienable rights were enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. Like Montesquieu, Locke advocated for a separation of governmental powers in which the legislative, not the executive, would be supreme. In that view, the democratically elected legislature makes a nation’s laws and — just as the name suggests — the executive exists to “execute” them.
Despite their occasional homages to Montesquieu and Locke, the Heritage Foundation and its followers have flipped that thinking upside down by insisting that the Constitution considers the executive branch superior to the other two. If that were the case, wouldn’t the executive branch be described in that document’s first article? In fact, Articles I, II, and III describe the legislative, executive, and judicial functions in that order, suggesting that if any of these is superior, it is (as Locke argued) the legislative.
Heritage, however, points to Article II, which begins: “The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. He shall hold his Office during the Term of four Years, and, together with the Vice President, chosen for the same Term, be elected, as follows…” What “follows” is a lengthy description of the very electoral process that Trump and company tried so hard to suborn on January 6, 2021.
While Trump was president, he delighted in explaining to anyone who’d listen that he had “an Article II, where I have the right to do whatever I want as president.” At the time, that suggestion of ultimate power was met with widespread derision.
However, were Trump to be re-elected, the folks at the Heritage Foundation’s Project 2025 and the America First Policy Institute have plans to, as the starship Enterprise captain Jean-Luc Picard would say, make it so. As the Times reported in July, their goal is “to alter the balance of power by increasing the president’s authority over every part of the federal government that now operates, by either law or tradition, with any measure of independence from political interference by the White House.” Consider what follows a first step in exactly that direction.
A (Schedule) F in Government
Okay, now let’s truly dive into the weeds: In his final year as president, Trump issued an executive order amending the regulations governing the federal civil service. That service was instituted by law in 1871 in response to what was then seen as rampant favoritism throughout the federal government. Patronage jobs — positions granted, often to the friends and family of powerful politicians or in return for money or favors — were officially eliminated. Competitive processes designed to select qualified candidates for specific positions replaced the old system.
Today, the Office of Personnel Management oversees the hiring and firing of roughly 2.2 million civilian federal employees, the people who keep the wheels of government turning. They administer Social Security, Medicare, and the Internal Revenue Service, among many other things. They make sure that your meat isn’t rotten and the alcohol content of your vodka bottle is what it says on the label.
The vast majority of those employees are chosen through competitive examinations, but about 4,000 key positions are directly appointed by the president or other senior officials, including the leadership of many agencies, like the Environmental Protection Agency or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and other government executives. It’s not unreasonable for presidents to want to put their own policy stamp on various branches of government through such appointments.
Those 4,000 positions exempted from competitive hiring fall into five categories, delineated in five “schedules” (lists) described in a subsection of Title 5 of the United States Code. To be exact, Rule VI of Subsection A of Title 5 — I told you we were going to get into the weeds! — lists in Schedules A through E the employees exempt from civil service exams.
Or at least those were all the exempt categories until October 2020. That’s when Donald Trump issued an executive order creating Schedule F, which exempted from competitive hiring all “career positions in the Federal service of a confidential, policy-determining, policy-making, or policy-advocating character.”
Such a broad, ill-defined category could, in fact, have come to include any junior employee in any federal department who might in the course of his or her employment have cause to send a memo to a superior advocating any action. It’s estimated that implementing Schedule F would have sent the number of exempt civil service employees soaring from 4,000 to roughly 50,000.
On taking office, however, President Joe Biden immediately rescinded that executive order so, at the moment at least, Schedule F no longer exists.
In fact, the feckless President Trump we knew wasn’t even vaguely prepared to replace 50,000 civil servants with his own people during his last few months in office or, likely as not, over the following four years had he been re-elected. That’s where the Heritage Foundation’s Project 2025 comes in. They are now spending millions of dollars to recruit and vet political appointees who would toe the Trump line (a line they hope to draw in a future Trump presidency).
Jokers to the Right of Me…
The rock band Stealers Wheel caught our current situation perfectly back in 1972 when they sang about “Clowns to the left of me/Jokers to the right.” The jokers to the right of me (and to the right of the majority of the people in this country) are the members of the House Freedom Caucus, their allies, and other MAGA followers. They are the ones (de)constructing the house of cards that Congress is becoming at this very moment. To call them anarchists would be an insult to conscientious anarchists everywhere. They are, in fact, anti-government nihilists who believe in little beyond a kind of gun-slinging performative violence. They don’t want to drown the government quietly in a bathtub but to strangle it on live TV. And keep in mind that they have imagined nothing with which to replace it.
Where to begin? Those Freedom Caucusers in the House are now walking weapons in search of a target. Yes, they threatened to shut down the government unless their demands were met, but then they couldn’t even decide what those demands were. Did they want to cut Social Security, Medicare, and other social service programs? Impeach President Biden? Stop the prosecutions of Donald Trump? Increase border security? Stop funding Ukraine’s war effort?
When House Speaker Kevin McCarthy agreed to cooperate with the Democrats to prevent just such a shutdown, they threw him out. Then they couldn’t agree on a new speaker, even though the House of Representatives can’t conduct business without one. Yet not a day passes without a bomb-thrower like Matt Gaetz strutting around saying things like:
“My goal is to get the most conservative Speaker of the House with broad trust across the conference. The Swamp of Washington D.C. is going crazy right now because they are not in complete and total control — this gives us a great opportunity to put the interests of our fellow Americans first.”
All Together Now
Much of this would be funny if it weren’t so deadly serious. However, recent polls suggest that a 2024 contest between Donald Trump and Joe Biden remains a toss-up. As historian Heather Cox Richardson recently told the Guardian, “Democracies die more often through the ballot box than at gunpoint.” The re-election of Trump. she believes, will signal
“an end of American democracy. I have absolutely no doubt about that, and he’s made it very clear. You look at Project 2025, which is a thousand pages on how you dismantle the federal government that has protected civil rights, provided a basic social safety net, regulated business, and promoted infrastructure since 1933. The theme of his 2024 campaign is retribution.
“I don’t think people understand now that, if Donald Trump wins again, what we’re going to put in power is those people who want to burn it all down.”
I can’t say it any better than she has. They want to burn it all down so that they can rule over the smoldering ashes. That would put us on a true Schedule F — for Failed State — a condition this country now seems hellbent on achieving.
Rebecca Gordon, a TomDispatch regular, teaches at the University of San Francisco. She is the author of Mainstreaming Torture, American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes and is now at work on a new book on the history of torture in the United States.
Originally published in TomDispatch.com
Copyright 2023 Rebecca Gordon