I have witnessed the death of democracy. I don’t mean in a poor country with few democratic institutions and a weak rule of law. I don’t mean via a military coup or under pressure from a hostile power. I mean here in the United States, quietly and as a result of decades of decay — rot from within.
In a sense, we all witnessed it. From the moment Donald Trump was elected president until the day he left office, government officials refused to follow his orders that conflicted with their own views, in spite of their obligation to serve whoever is president. The permanent bureaucracy felt they knew better. After all, they were experts, while the president, in their estimation, was an ignoramus, or worse, unfit for office. …
I witnessed the death of democracy up close and personal. President Trump selected me to run the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which is responsible for all government international broadcasting. At a budget of about $850 million a year, USAGM is made up of five broadcasters: Voice of America, Cuba Broadcasting, Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Radio Free Asia, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Together, they reach over 350 million people a week in over 70 languages.
I’ve been told that the day after Trump was elected, the senior leadership of USAGM held a meeting to decide how best to block Trump from assuming authority over the agency, as they deemed Trump dangerous and unqualified. The White House selected me in March 2017, two months after President Trump was sworn in. Agency leadership, along with others in the federal bureaucracy and eventually Democrats in the Senate, blocked my confirmation for three years and three months. I finally walked through the door of USAGM in June 2020 for the final eight months of the Trump presidency.
My goal, my only goal, was to return the news services to their legally mandated mission: to report news that is “accurate, objective, and comprehensive” (in the words of the VOA charter, which is U.S. law), and to promote American ideals like democracy and human rights around the world. In this modest, nonpartisan goal, I was doomed from the start. The USAGM permanent bureaucracy was ready to undermine every move of my administration, with the help of their allies in the media, Congress, and the courts, as well as pro bono lawyers. After all, they had been preparing for years while my nomination languished.
To give a few highlights. On my first day, I removed or caused to resign the heads of the five networks, as was my explicit right under law, and as is a common practice among incoming CEOs in the private and public sector. This move was clearly nonpartisan, as I had removed Republicans as well as Democrats, and they were essentially political appointees. The purpose was a clean start. The media portrayed this as “the Wednesday night massacre,” though only five out of 4000 employees left. They repeated their claims that I intended to turn USAGM into “Trump TV,” which they had manufactured the day after the White House selected me in March 2017.
Every subsequent act of my administration was not only blocked, but lied about and used to discredit me personally and the Trump administration generally. My efforts were treated as an attack that merited the strongest counterattack from my purported employees. …
There was no way for me, a Senate-confirmed agency head, to assume authority over this mid-sized agency. The permanent bureaucracy and their allies simply would not permit it. Bad as it was for me, it is so much worse at bigger agencies like the State Department, the Department of Defense, and the intelligence agencies. No matter that Donald Trump was the duly elected president of the United States, federal bureaucrats did not accept that. After all, they knew better how to run the country, so that is what they did. This is tyranny, pure and simple — government by unelected bureaucrats, subverting the will of the majority.
Are there any solutions?
I do not accept the two favorite solutions put forward by conservative reformers.
The first group says the problem is that Donald Trump did not get enough qualified, experienced, government professionals in key political appointments soon enough. Next time, we need to have a government in waiting, ready to serve. Surely, this is a good idea, but far from sufficient. In my agency of 4,000 people, I could bring in about 10 political appointees. We were outnumbered 400-to-1.
As near as I can tell, all my mid-level and senior managers were partisan Democrats or not very political. Many lower-level workers, especially technicians, were more evenly divided, but they did not lead the agency. Those who did lead the agency made their opposition to President Trump and me personally very clear. No amount of management genius by a few could overcome this concerted opposition of the many who were out to undermine us. …
Usually, those who think they can manage the bureaucracy end up instead making an implicit deal with them: They are allowed a few conservative pet projects to burnish their credentials with their base, but they agree to let the bureaucracy run the remaining 95% of the agency — a recipe for a peaceful and “successful” time in office.
The second, more radical group of reformers advocates firing huge numbers of career bureaucrats in a short time. Some say we need to fire 30% in the first weeks of a new administration, an appealing slogan and rallying cry, but no more likely to succeed than a “good management” solution.
I highly doubt that this ambitious objective could be achieved, given the size and nature of the modern federal bureaucracy. Government bureaucrats have powerful civil service protections. In eight months, I could not fire a handful of people whom career adjudicators recommended terminating for cause, such as gross mismanagement leading to security lapses. I put them on administrative leave with pay and then started the process of removal. All have been brought back among those who wanted to return.
Republicans often promise to eliminate entire departments. For example, candidate Ronald Reagan ran on eliminating the newly created Education Department. Not one department has been eliminated. Most grew in size, including the Education Department.
Even if the new administration could institute a 30% across-the-board cut, the wrong people would likely be fired. The best at scheming, the most committed ideologues, are the most skilled in surviving reductions in force. Declaring war on the bureaucracy, unless you have a real plan, will mire the new administration in endless internecine battles, in court and on the Hill, distracting it from the rest of its agenda. Remember all the supporting institutions, like the media, the courts, and whistleblower law firms? They would have a field day.
Organizations infested by leftists remain forever leftist because leftists only hire other leftists. It’s a ratchet moving institutions left.
Once an institution is infested, the only solution is to burn it down. Reagan had the right idea, but didn’t follow through or could not bring it off. Eliminate entire departments and start again, from scratch, with good people. Take risks, because, in the long term, anything is better than what we have now.
The only viable compromise might be to put all hiring and promotion decisions firmly in the hands of a brand new organization that never hires any leftists.
But leftists would rather die than agree to that. So you’d have to trick them into it by allowing them to believe they could corrupt the hiring body. Then maybe they would, and the exercise would fail.
Light relief: This seems incredibly tame and pollyannaish by today’s standards, but the principles shine through: