Planning the next Trump administration
The conservative movement is plotting
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One of the things I often tell my students and anyone else who will listen is that the Trump administration could have turned out a lot worse. Trump did a lot of damage, but he was often held back by his own incompetence and inability to act as an effective manager of the government. Ironically, the man who rose to prominence as the mythical hero boss of The Apprentice was actually a lousy chief executive. He was ignorant of how the government worked and uninterested in learning. And because he failed to bring in a slew of managers who shared his agenda, he never really got the government to line up behind his policy goals.
If, like me, you don’t like Donald Trump’s policy goals, then that’s great. But it would be a mistake to think that things are going to play out the same way in 2024. There are signs that the broader conservative movement has learned the lessons of Trump’s last administration and are putting in place steps to make sure that next time is different.
Why Trump failed
To understand why Trump failed to get the government on his side last time, you have to rewind to 2016. Trump was an outsider candidate who most mainstream Republican groups did not expect or want to become their nominee. When he became the nominee, they widely expected that he would lose. And when he won, they for the most part thought it was their job to be “the adults in the room” who would control and constrain him. Trump’s first chief of staff, Reince Priebus, was literally the chair of the Republican National Committee. His second was Marine General John F. Kelly. These figures each emerged from the era compromised in their own way, but neither was a true-blue Trumper.
Trump couldn’t find credible MAGA figures to fill administration positions because there just wasn’t a large enough cadre of ideologically appropriate figures, much less ones who had any sort of clue how the government worked. The larger world of conservative institutions - particularly the think tanks from which so many staffers typically come - was not thoroughly Trumpified. Trump also had a problem trusting a lot of the people who moved in this world of think tanks. They were suspect to Trump and those closest to him because they were more or less part of “the Establishment” which Trump saw as his enemy and which he believed had tried to stop his campaign.
The final problem was that Trump, not understanding how the government worked, put virtually no effort into planning the staffing of his administration. He seemed to think that becoming president was like a corporate takeover in which you just move into the C-suite and everything and everyone else stays in place. He made Chris Christie the chair of his transition committee but showed no interest in what Christie was doing, telling him on one occasion that “Chris, you’re wasting a lot of time on this. You and I are both so smart, if we win this thing, we can do the entire transition if we just leave the victory party two hours early.” He finally shut the transition down because he complained it was spending too much money.
The results of all of this were plain to see once Trump became president. He ended up relying on career and establishment figures to run a lot of the government - people who didn’t reflect his ideological priorities and often actively tried to thwart them. The people who mostly agreed with his ideology - like Steve Bannon or trade advisor Peter Navarro - were disorganized mavericks who the more experienced figures shut out of the process. Ashas written, Trump did succeed in hollowing out some parts of the civil service, particularly the State Department. What he did not succeed in doing is building up a MAGA-ified bureaucracy in its place.
The plan for next time
There are signs that figures in the broader conservative movement are onto this problem and trying to do something about it before Trump’s next term. The New York Times is reporting that the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation is leading a $22m effort to prepare staffing plans for the next Republican administration. Here’s the Times:
They have already identified several thousand potential recruits and have set a goal of having up to 20,000 potential administration officials in their database by the end of 2024, according to Kevin Roberts, the president of Heritage. Heritage has contracted the technology company Oracle to build a secure personnel database, Dr. Roberts said.
“In 2016, the conservative movement was not prepared to flood the zone with conservative personnel,” Dr. Roberts said. “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’s easy to see why Heritage is doing this if you look at the success another conservative organization had in leading Trump in this way. The Federalist Society managed to basically turn the presidency into an arm of itself during the Trump administration, presenting lists of judges who they wanted nominated and then sitting back and watching Trump do it. When you have a president who doesn’t have a good understanding of the functioning of the government or a strong network among conservatives, simply presenting him with a list of what you want done solves both his problem and your problem. Now that the conservative movement more broadly is thoroughly Trumpified, finding lists of ideologically appropriate appointees for government jobs won’t be difficult either.
That’s not all there is to this, though. As I wrote about in The Guardian a year ago, the next Republican president - Trump or not - is likely to go even further. Rather than just replacing the 4,000 or so political appointees that a president can typically put in place, he’s also likely to try to undermine civil service job protections and purge even more. Stripping away the experienced personnel and institutional memory from what Trump calls “the deep state” and Ron DeSantis calls “the regime” would remove another potential source of resistance to the MAGA-fication of the government. Parts of the government would likely be stripped down and hollowed out (think of the Environmental Protection Agency) and others would be weaponized against the president’s opponents (think the Justice Department).
If Trump were to win again, he’s likely to want loyalty from the people he appoints. The people in the Heritage project are apparently already thinking about this, including many people in their database who previously served in the administration. Given the sort of people who usually pledge their loyalty to Donald Trump, this is likely to be disastrous for the government, leading to reams of 20- and 30-somethings who owe their entire station in life to Donald Trump being put in charge of institutions they are not experienced or wise enough to wield power. As I wrote in that Guardian piece:
What will be done with this power? Some of it is grimly predictable. With the Department of Justice finally under control, the next Republican president would be free to launch criminal inquiries into political opponents. The brutality of immigration enforcement would be sharply increased while environmental regulations would languish unenforced. Rightwing extremists would go unmolested while American Muslims had their rights abused. Corruption and venality would become rampant across the government as checks and balances were removed and inexperienced hacks had their first taste of power.
Given the scale of the federal government and the sheer weirdness of conservative politics, other consequences are hard to fathom. Be it vaccines, Disney movies, or whatever else is agitating the Fox News faithful, the government would be much more responsive to their views. At the same time, the things that actually matter – from nuclear safety to protecting the country from terrorist attacks – would go neglected. A civil service bent to the will of the modern conservative movement would not be a place that respected science, rationality, or legality. Precisely what might give under the weight of an attack on these principles is difficult to predict. But something definitely would.
I still agree with those words today - and it’s another reason to want to prevent Donald Trump, or indeed any other Republican, from winning the next election. Last time was bad enough, but next time could be catastrophic.
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