The Trump administration's approach to big government seems positively schizophrenic. But then you'd expect that, wouldn't you? The president has no coherent political philosophy. He has a collection of grievances.
So what excuse do his critics have? They haven't sounded much more coherent than he has lately, either.
We are led to understand, from about 9 billion different ominously titled think pieces, that Trump is a brutal authoritarian who is only waiting for the right moment to declare martial law and round up the dissidents. Some of that is good old-fashioned fear-mongering—the same sort of thing you hear from the right when Democrats are in power. (Remember Obama's "FEMA camps" or the NRA's Wayne LaPierre warning about "jack-booted thugs" during the Clinton administration?)
But there also is some truth to the charge: As noted in this column about a year ago, Trump is perhaps the most maximum of Maximum Leaders the country has seen since FDR. In Roosevelt's defense, at least he was trying to stop the Nazi war machine. Trump has gone to war against Latino fence-jumpers looking for work and members of the media who don't kiss his ring. Not quite the same.
Moreover, Trump is engaged in some rather martial projects, such as a big hike in Pentagon spending and a hugely expensive wall along the southern border. He also wants to hire 5,000 more Border Patrol agents and 10,000 Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. (And this after the number of border and customs agents already has doubled during the previous two administrations.) Oh, and the president also wants to build a huge tariff wall to stop the Yellow Peril of Chinese products from invading our shores.
Trump's vision of America isn't so much a shining city on a hill as it is a fortified garrison.
At the same time, we are all supposed to recoil from the recent assertion by Trump's Rasputin, Steve Bannon, that the administration aims for the "deconstruction of the administrative state."
Some of the White House's critics seem to be rather fuzzy about exactly what that means, while others seem to think it means "literally dismantling the departments of Education and the EPA and Energy." It's no big secret, though: Georgetown Law's Jonathan Turley explained it clearly when he testified before Congress a little while back. The administrative state is the unaccountable part of the executive branch that has arrogated to itself the functions of the other two branches by (a) cranking out rules far faster than Congress writes laws, and (b) conducting judicial proceedings 10 times as frequently as actual federal judges do.
Policy wonks contend that this has been made possible by excessive judicial deference to executive agencies, and particularly by a Supreme Court decision known as Chevron. Whether Chevron deference is good for America or not is a fair question, but as topics go it's drier than chalk dust.
Still, assume for the sake of argument that Trump's critics are right and he does want to dismantle much of the apparatus of the federal government. (After all, he did say he would like to cut regulations by 75 percent.)
If that's true, then much of the concern about Ein Trump Autokratie goes away. Take the Federal Communications Commission: Trump recently named Ajit Pai its chairman. Pai opposes tight regulatory constraints on the internet, which makes progressives sad. But it also makes autocratic rule harder. If Trump wanted to control the internet, he would have renamed Pai's predecessor, Tom Wheeler, a progressive who favors stringent government oversight.
Likewise, if Trump really were to eliminate the Department of Education, then people who draw devil's horns on pictures of Secretary Betsy DeVos could stop worrying that she would ram school choice down the throats of liberal enclaves. By the same token, shuttering the Department of Energy would make it virtually impossible for the administration to manipulate research or to stop the energy market's shift away from fossil fuels and toward renewables.
Shutting down the EPA also would take a big stick away from Trump's meaty paw. Remember, it was only a few years ago that EPA administrator Alfredo Juan "Al" Armendariz was caught on videotape saying that his philosophy of governance was "kind of like how the Romans used to conquer little villages in the Mediterranean. They'd go into a little Turkish town somewhere, they'd find the first five guys they saw, and they would crucify them. And then you know that town was really easy to manage for the next few years." (He later resigned.)
Nor could the EPA do what it tried to do to Mike and Chantell Sackett: Force them to obey a compliance order, or face ruinous fines, without so much as a court hearing. The EPA insisted that its bureaucratic edicts lay beyond the reach of judicial review—a stance that epitomizes the worst of the administrative state. A unanimous Supreme Court ultimately ruled otherwise.
Granted, it's possible to impose a military junta while leaving the private-sector economy alone. But for real old-fashioned totalitarianism you need a huge, centralized bureaucracy. Liberals who fear right-wing presidents might be wise to keep that in mind.
This column originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.