At CPAC 2017, Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief political strategist, proudly announced the coming “deconstruction of the administrative state” as one of the three policy pillars* of the new administration. The term he chose, “administrative state,”—smacking of chat-room pseudo-intellectual fascism—represents a divergence from the standard Republican screeds against big government. Trump’s own views on the role of government couldn’t be less clear, but the Administration’s cabinet foretells a destructive intent. By and large, his domestic advisors are best suited to destroy their chosen departments with either incompetence or malice. That EPA civil-servants took the unprecedented step of lobbying congress against Scott Pruitt’s confirmation as Administrator speaks for itself. We have reached the logical nexus of a 50-year effort by the right to politicize and undermine even the most mundane functions of government. The agenda now is not tax cuts and deregulation, as we might have had from a hypothetical Romney Administration. Instead, this White House, or at least influential elements within, looks to tear the whole of government down.
It began with Goldwater, who provided the ideology. Nixon perfected the tactics of resentment, birthing a potent new populism. Reagan identified government as the problem and took the first stabs at the regulatory and welfare state advanced by presidents of both parties since the Depression. Gingrich’s ascendence in the 1994 midterms though, was the turning point. His generation of strident conservatives swept away more moderate GOP voices and reframed the essential partisan divergence into a binary question about the very legitimacy of government institutions. Since then, we’ve gradually progressed to a point where ever more mundane functions have come under partisan fire. The 1995-96 government shutdown, Bush-era tax cuts and deregulation, and Obama-era obstruction and brinksmanship, have ratcheted our politics to the point where nothing can be taken for granted: Trump’s first budget proposal would shrink discretionary spending to levels not seen since 1962.
If there’s any room for comfort to be had on the progressive side, it’s that we’ve finally reached the ideological and practical terminus of this trend. There’s bound to be quite a few losses in the next few years, but in the destruction we’ll have the evidence we need to fully and finally rebut their arguments. Republicans have been attempted arsonists for years, but now the house is actually burning. In the meantime, it is incumbent on us to to depoliticize the basics of government so we can have the debate on more favorable terms, no longer arguing about the legitimacy of government, but rather, how to perfect it.
*Bannon actually used the term “buckets” to describe the Trump Administration’s policy priorities, which seems altogether more truthful. How Bannon intends to hold up the other buckets, “national security and sovereignty” and “economic nationalism,” which presumably mean deportations, travel bans, walls, and tariffs, without robust government administrating is unclear. Bannon, like his boss, has always seemed like more of a words-guy.