By Jenna Ben-Yehuda, President and CEO, Truman National Security Project and Truman Center for National Policy
The election is well underway with a record-shattering 70 million votes already cast for the next President. Meanwhile, Donald Trump is laying time bombs for a prospective Biden administration. Each is intended to gut the government workforce and civil society of its independence and expertise under a second term. Three recent moves, taken together, deserve consideration and bring to mind actions by authoritarian governments in Russia, Venezuela, and Hungary. These countries have deployed similar tactics to dismantle independent voices and politicize government employees, which in turn have given wide berth to corruption. If implemented, these actions will threaten our national security. They must be roundly condemned.
First, the White House announced a new job category that would make career civil servants easier to fire. The Executive Order, issued last month, would remove job protections from policy experts within the US government. This change institutionalizes the President’s longstanding demonization of government expertise — the fictitious “Deep State” seeking to subvert him. The proposed rules will make it easier for a president to fire wide swaths of dissenting employees, or those who were simply occupying jobs he wanted to fill with supporters. So outrageous is this rule that even the President’s chosen head of a key advisory council on the civil service resigned in protest.
We should all remember the horse-breeder who was put in charge of FEMA prior to Hurricane Katrina. “Heckuva job, Brownie!” first uttered in sincerity, has come to represent the height of failure. From New Orleans to Moscow, the politicization of the civil service is a well-worn path to corruption, ineffective governance, and indifference to human rights violations.
Congress passed the Pendleton Act in 1883 to dismantle the very same type of politicization that Trump is attempting in our time. The Act ushered in new requirements to replace political favoritism with a new meritocracy and dealt a blow to the “spoils system” that had prevailed. The reform prohibited the executive from firing or demoting employees whose political views were divergent. President Chester Arthur signed the bill into law with enthusiasm. As a result, the victor received far fewer “spoils,” and Americans received the professional-grade government they deserved. To be certain, the federal workforce of today is in need of wholesale structural reform to best serve the American people, but its dismantling by naked politicization is poison, not remedy.
Hand-in-glove with last month’s attack on an independent civil service came two warning shots on non-governmental institutions. The first was Secretary Pompeo’s announcement on October 13 that all civil society groups that receive funding from foreign governments must prominently acknowledge doing so. While on the surface such a move might appear benign or even laudable, it’s been an effective tool of authoritarian regimes to quash dissenting voices. In Turkey, the Open Society Institute’s local branch was forced to close after years of government harassment. The office, which supported human rights defenders and a vibrant political discourse, faced non-stop charges in the government-controlled media that it was an agent of foreign interests out to destroy the Turkish nation. Legal intimidation ensued, culminating in the detention of its director and board chair. While most have been released, one of the original founders of the group, Osman Kavala, remains in prison.
The first step down this path is to cast doubt on the independence of think tanks and other US-based non-governmental organizations that criticize the executive. Has a group received funding from the EU in the past? Then none of its reporting on Europe can be trusted. Given the Administration’s record of positing “alternate facts” in lieu of the truth (see the President’s recent claim the COVID-19 crisis is ending, just in time for the latest surge in cases), this should be viewed as part of the Administration’s longstanding war on expertise, especially when that knowledge reveals uncomfortable truths. Think tank funding transparency is welcome, but coupled with wide-ranging efforts to limit dissenting views, this action must be regarded with skepticism.
As with civil servants, it would only take a few cases of an Administration trashing the work of a particular group as part of a foreign-based effort to exert a powerful self-censorship effect. The result would be less information getting to the public and to policy-makers, whose ranks would have already been depleted by the above-referenced executive order.
The third shot across the bow came last week when the State Department leaked that it is about to name several groups — Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Oxfam among them — as “anti-Semitic,” and threatens to withhold cooperation with them. This is in response to these groups having criticized Israel in the past. They have also criticized the United States and nearly every other country. Furthermore, their work in some of the world’s most embattled places has been essential to the quality of the State Department’s annual reports on human rights, on religious freedom, and on trafficking in persons. It’s provided so much value that the US government has long funded similar groups to ensure these efforts continue around the world.
The use of the term “withholding cooperation” sends a clear signal to authoritarian regimes, where these groups often work amidst great danger, that the United States government will not object to their harm or expulsion in a meaningful way. Discrediting groups that have long records of the impartial documentation of human rights abuses is one more element of Trump’s attack on democratic values. As these groups have sharpened their domestic focus to investigate domestic human rights violations, from police brutality to child separation, the move would also represent an effort to cast doubt on the credibility of groups critical of Trump administration policies here at home.
The intent across these three actions is clear: increase political spoils, reduce dissent, and quash independent voices. For a President who has lied more than any on record, it’s staggering how often he also tells us exactly what he plans to do. These moves must be met with skepticism and condemnation. A Biden Administration would likely take swift action to reverse the Executive Order, but should also take additional steps to strengthen a traumatized workforce that has faced intimidation and recrimination over the last four years. As we’ve seen in countries around the world, functioning democracies need a professional civil service and strong civil society organizations that are empowered to speak the truth, especially when it is unpopular.