The Trump administration’s bureaucracy is notably unusual for a couple of reasons. The first comes from the president’s adamant desire to shrink the number of federal employees, as evidenced by his short-lived hiring freeze during the first six months of 2017. An effort to reduce the size of the federal government, the Trump administration aimed to mimic a policy of the Reagan administration. Although unsuccessful—because the government needed to fill critical positions—the president’s efforts to drastically alter the composition of the federal government put critics of the administration on alert. Does the Trump’s administration dedication to weakening the federal government pose a threat to democracy? The answer is unclear, but is, most probably, no.
Before addressing the Trump administration’s bureaucracy more specifically in terms of democratic erosion, one must first address how a modern democracy can erode. The description of democratic erosion detailed by Varol (2015) is most helpful in this case. Contrary to what has been previously thought by democratic theorists, Varol (2015) argue that modern democracies can erode, and when they erode it does not happen quickly, like through a coup. Instead, modern democracies can erode if the administration undermines the system using the system itself. Varol (2015) discuss how modern authoritarianism can appear as a democracy while certain holes in the democratic framework erode the democracy from within the system. Varol (2015) call this kind of system stealth authoritarianism. If American democracy were eroding under the Trump administration, it would take this form.
In light of this, one can understand why there is criticism of Trump’s bureaucratic leaders. The president has not appointed individuals like most modern presidents—life-long civil servants who are loyal to the establishment. To head federal bureaucratic agencies, the president has chosen a sleigh of wealthy individuals who have similar backgrounds and careers as Trump. In addition, a number of state department diplomats have resigned in response to the president’s policies, especially his immigration policies.
A key sign of an eroding democracy, according to Levitsky and Ziblatt (2018), is executive control “the referees.” Does the Trump administration’s appointing of individuals with little or no government experience indicate democratic erosion in some form? Possibly. Individuals with little government experience may be more likely to follow instructions of the person who appointed him or her. Furthermore, the appointment individuals who have little to no experience in government at all to head federal agencies raises a red flag. Without a track record, Americans are unable to understand to whom these individuals are loyal—other than the president who appointed them. Although it would only be an assumption, it is reasonable to wonder if the patronage in the Trump administration—as evidenced by Trump’s appointing of wealthy individuals with little or no government experience like Trump himself—is an indicator of some level of democratic erosion. A weakened bureaucracy can mean that the president has fewer checks on his executive power. As is the case with this kind of slow, stealthy democratic erosion, it is difficult to be certain, especially because so little time has passed. One thing to look for, though, would be an increase in the number of individuals not appointed by Trump who leave their positions in the federal government either without reason or because of Trump’s policies.
All things considered, it is difficult for Americans to think that their democracy could be eroding. It is a thought that shakes our core beliefs. From a young age, American students are taught that of our nation’s invincibility, but more and more often in the news and among peers we hear that that reality might be changing. Could it be that it is merely change and not democratic erosion? Absolutely—and that’s the difficulty that comes from the nature of this type of problem. Stealthy authoritarianism or democratic erosion is difficult to measure. One thing is clear, though. There is an overall sense of disorientation and decline in trust of the federal government for some Americans because of the drastic changes the Trump administration has made. While the changes to the federal bureaucracy and its leadership represent a new direction for the federal government, they may not necessarily indicate democratic erosion.
Levitsky, Steven & Daniel Ziblatt. 2018.How Democracies Die. Excerpt TBD.
Varol, Ozan. (2015). Stealth Authoritarianism. Iowa Law Review, 100(4), 1676-1718.