Hollowing out government capacity and leveraging executive power to harm political enemies is at the heart of the Trump-DeSantis project. Will we hear about that?
Last week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis launched his presidential campaign with a glitchy rollout on Twitter, a sign of his obsession with online discourse. Media coverage has been rather predictable. We’ve heard DeSantis attacked as a Trump wannabe without the requisite charisma. We’ve gotten analysis that DeSantis can execute Trumpism with little drama and ruthless efficiency.
But there’s another way to talk about DeSantis’s campaign. In a recent radio interview with Mark Levin, DeSantis said, “As governor I studied all the authorities that I possess, constitutionally, statutorily, customary policies, I knew what I needed the legislature for … And the same thing would apply to the presidency. You understand Article II powers, you understand where your leverage points are, you understand your statutory authority. You also have to be willing to assert the true scope of your Article II powers, and I think most presidents haven’t been willing to do that.”
The narrow framing of presidential elections as a personality contest is a trap that allows presidential candidates to avoid highlighting the true meaning of what DeSantis said above: how he would actually run the executive branch, which after all is the definition of the job.
The media’s compulsion to boil down presidential elections to professional wrestling contests found its apotheosis in the 2016 elections, where Trump received billions more in free “earned media” coverage than his less-noxious competitors. Media companies financially profited from the public disservice of letting discussions of policy implementation and management of the executive branch take a back seat to covering the Trump show. This year’s decision by CNN to allow Trump to kick off his re-election campaign with a town hall that essentially doubled as a rally is a worrying sign that the mainstream media has not learned from its mistakes.
The focus on personality is not the only way the press minimizes the role of the executive branch that a president is tasked with leading. Another issue is the fixation on presidential candidates’ legislative agendas, in a political world where getting signature legislation through Congress grows ever more challenging, and where the president doesn’t play a unilateral (or often even the primary) role. To be fair, the Biden administration was able to leverage slim majorities to secure the passage of the landmark Inflation Reduction Act and American Rescue Plan. But even these victories will likely now be tempered, with the House Republican majority clawing back funds initially appropriated to the Internal Revenue Service, and freezing spending at agencies responsible for implementing the law, as part of the debt ceiling deal.
Biden should never have dealt away portions of his hard-won legislative victories. But the administration and media’s focus on the high-stakes negotiations instead of unilateral executive options to handle the manufactured debt crisis is also a reflection of the ongoing minimization of executive power.
What needs to be acknowledged is that the president is responsible for enforcing and administering laws already in place, and with that comes broad power to implement policies and regulations that improve people’s lives and challenge corporate wrongdoing. Longtime readers will be familiar with this argument—the Prospect’s Day One Agenda highlighted ways the president could raise wages, crack down on monopolies, address the climate crisis, raise taxes on corporations, and more, without going through Congress or abusing executive authority. My colleague Max Moran outlined 277 policies the Biden administration could have taken without seeking permission from Congress.
Obviously, there is reason to be wary of a president misusing their significant executive authority. If Trump and DeSantis’s track records as cruel and corrupt executives are anything to go by, Trumpism as a political platform is a serious threat to democracy and the effective functioning of the federal government. And the public should know more about this than how someone eats pudding.
A key determinant of which path an administration follows—wielding executive branch powers thoroughly and responsibly, or abusing them—is its treatment of the nonpartisan civil service. The executive branch is staffed by over two million career civil servants responsible for administering the laws passed by Congress. Upon entering office, Trump declared war on the civil service, instituting a temporary hiring freeze that began a four-year-long attack on the officials who ensure the federal government fulfills its mandates to the people. By the time Trump left office, he had slashed the size of the federal workforce in all but three Cabinet-level departments: Defense, Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs. At the agency level, only the Small Business Administration and the National Science Foundation managed to survive the purge and grow their staff rolls.
Trump also politicized the hiring process. Experts with institutional knowledge were ousted, while other civil service workers were fired, demoted, or denied promotions after being identified as insufficiently loyal. The culmination of this assault on government expertise and capacity was the executive order introducing Schedule F, which would have established a new category for federal employees, allowing for easier dismissal of individuals reclassified in this manner. Trump’s staff estimated that the order would have empowered the president to fire as many as 50,000 career government officials, a significantly greater number than the typical 4,000 political appointees who are replaced with a change in administration.
The Trump administration failed to get Schedule F off the ground, but the brains behind the project, particularly former director of the Office of Management and Budget Russell Vought, remain committed to enacting the project. And with the existence of a Heritage Foundation–sponsored database of over 20,000 potential administration officials, it’s likely that implementation of this project is a real Republican Party goal. DeSantis’s emulation of Trump’s civil service onslaught on the state level shows that disdain for government service and capacity is key to rising through the Republican ranks.
As Pema Levy notes, in Desantis’s ironically titled new book The Courage to Be Free, the Florida governor claims “America has entered a ‘post-Constitutional order’ where federal agencies have become an all-powerful fourth branch of government that must be brought ‘to heel’ to restore democracy.” In simple terms, that means anyone who doesn’t toe the governor’s anti-abortion, anti-Black, anti-LGBTQ line should fear for their job.
In fact, last August DeSantis illegally fired elected county prosecutor Andrew Warren over his refusal to prosecute cases related to the Supreme Court’s rollback of abortion rights. Warren hasn’t been the only victim of DeSantis’s autocratic tendencies; seeking to install allies in various positions, especially across universities, DeSantis stripped deans and departmental committees of their hiring privileges, shifting the responsibility to university presidents who are more easily appointed and tracked. His two terms in Florida have been marked by pushing the boundaries of executive power: suspending elected sheriffs and school board members, firing elections supervisors, consolidating authority during the pandemic, and using state power to target businesses that don’t share his ideology.
As is often the case, where there’s abuse of executive authority, there’s corruption. NBC News reported last week that officials from the governor’s office “have been sending text messages to Florida lobbyists soliciting political contributions for DeSantis’ presidential bid, a breach of traditional norms that has raised ethical and legal questions.” The governor has frequently turned to donors, rewarding about 250 people who contributed to roughly $3.3 million in campaign donations with leadership roles. One executive, Troy Link of Jack Link’s Protein Snacks, donated $187,000 to DeSantis-affiliated organizations less than a month before being appointed to the Enterprise Florida Board of Directors.
A Lever investigation also found that DeSantis has overseen the transfer of over $1 billion worth Florida employees’ pension funds into “donors’ high-fee, high-risk ‘alternative investments’”—a likely violation of a federal anti-corruption rule that prevents donors from receiving pension investments.
As the past six years have clearly illuminated, hollowing out government capacity and rewarding loyalists is at the heart of the Trump gospel, and leveraging power is DeSantis’s modus operandi as well. As coverage of the Republican primaries ramps up, the press must focus on how this style of executive branch mismanagement endangers democracy and the public interest. That’s more important than trying to figure out if DeSantis has the personality to sell this anti-democratic vision.