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A Re-elected Trump Could Destroy American Government
Remembering his difficulty retaining loyal personnel last time around, his allies are already vetting potential appointees for a second term.
[On the July 21, 2023 episode of The Bulwark’s “Beg to Differ” podcast, guest John Prideaux, the U.S. editor of the Economist, and panelist Bill Galston discussed what a second Trump term could look like.]
John Prideaux: Right, so there are a couple of parts to this. One is this phrase that we’ve heard a lot for the past few years, “the deconstruction of the administrative state.” And this is the idea among America Firsters that there are all these government agencies that are unconstitutional, and they’ve taken power away from Congress, and they need to be scrapped. And there’s a, in some senses, reasonable constitutional argument about that.
And then there’s a version of that, which is, basically, here’s how Donald Trump takes his revenge on the deep state.
And then there’s another part to all of this fiscal effort, which is the thing that I wrote about last week in the Economist, which is the preparations, in personnel terms, for a second Trump administration, which are well underway at places like AFPI, the American First Policy Institute . . . and also at [the] Heritage [Foundation]. And at Heritage, they have this effort led by Paul Dans, who worked in the Trump administration, to vet about 3,000–4,000 people who could serve as political appointees in the next Trump administration, to make sure that those people know the policy backwards, know how those agencies operate, know how to get things done, and anybody who has criticized Donald Trump over the past however many years would be pretty much automatically weeded out in that vetting process.
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And so, what we saw in the first Trump administration—which of course was a lot of chaos, but then also a lot of people serving in that administration who were there to serve their country and perhaps had some other sense of what their role in the Constitution was—those people wouldn’t be there next time around. That would partly be because it would be self-selecting. If you’re a Republican for whom January 6th was a step too far, you’re not going to want to serve. . . .
Bill Galston: The main point I want to make is that what we’re seeing in Donald Trump’s reported plans for his second term, in some respects, is a culmination of a current that has been running among conservatives and within the Republican party for a very, very long time. If you go all the way back to the Nixon administration, the argument was pretty overt that the bureaucracy, aka the “permanent government” or what we’ve come to call the “administrative state,” is filled with people who either have their own interests to serve or who are ideologically opposed to conservatism in all of its works and ways. . . .
[Doing away with the administrative state] would mean, in effect, repealing 100 years or maybe even 120 years of American history. And in the immediate circumstances, that is, of the possibility of someone whose commitment to democracy is shaky at best, accumulating all executive powers in his own hands, it is something to be feared deeply.
The other point I want to make is that, to tie a bow on what others have already said, the second Trump administration would be much better organized and much more purposeful and much more unitary than the first one was—and therefore far more dangerous.
Donald Trump himself admitted . . . at his speech to CPAC earlier this year that the first time around he didn’t know who the good people were and the bad people, the strong people and the weak people, the reliable people and the unreliable people—but now he does. And aided and abetted by America First and the Heritage Foundation and others, he’s right. He will. And he will be able to do to the executive branch an enlarged version of what he did for the judiciary. That is, make all appointments off a pre-approved list. And the sorts of internal fights that hobbled him in his first term, I believe, would be conspicuous by their scarcity in a second term.
So, in the immortal words of Ronald Reagan, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
And I guess my message would be: Be afraid, be very afraid. And if you care about the future of the country, leave everything you have, whoever you are, whether your contribution is intellectual, political, or financial, leave it all on the court over the next fifteen months. Play as hard as you can, because all the chips are going to be out on the table, and this is a game for the highest stakes imaginable.