How Trump purged non-loyalists from federal government institutions and reshaped them in his own crude image

How Trump purged non-loyalists from federal government institutions and reshaped them in his own crude image
President Donald J. Trump, joined by Vice President Mike Pence and members of the Coronavirus Task Force, speaks to members of the press Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020, in the James S. brady Press Briefing Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by D. Myles Cullen)

President Ronald Reagan’s influence on the U.S. conservative movement greatly decreased in 2016, when Donald Trump was elected president and ushered in a different type of right-wing politics that owed a lot to Patrick Buchanan and combined social conservatism with an emphasis on protectionism, isolationism and hyper-nationalism. The Atlantic’s George Packer, three years into Trump’s presidency, examines the ways in which Trump has reshaped the federal government and the White House — and not for the better.


Packer explains that when Trump was sworn into office in January 2017, many people in Washington, D.C. believed that he would be “outmatched by the vast government he had just inherited.” But it didn’t work out that way; instead, Trump refashioned government institutions in his own crude image, from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to the State Department.

“The new president was impetuous, bottomlessly ignorant, almost chemically inattentive, while the bureaucrats were seasoned, shrewd, protective of themselves and their institutions,” Packer recalls. “They knew where the levers of power lay and how to use them or prevent the president from doing so. Trump’s White House was chaotic and vicious, unlike anything in American history, but it didn’t really matter as long as ‘the adults’ were there to wait out the president’s impulses and deflect his worst ideas and discreetly pocket destructive orders lying around on his desk. After three years, the adults have all left the room.”

Instead of Trump being undermined by government bureaucracy, Packer stresses, Trump used his paranoia and fear of “the Deep State” to make people in the federal government submissive to him.

“Conservatives at Breitbart News, Fox News and elsewhere began applying the term (Deep State) to career officials in law-enforcement and intelligence agencies, whom they accused of being Democratic partisans in cahoots with the liberal media — first to prevent and then to undo — Trump’s election,” Packer explains. “Like ‘fake news’ and ‘corruption,’ Trump reverse-engineered ‘Deep State’ into a weapon against his enemies, real or perceived.”

Looking back on the Trump Administration’s three-year history, Packer emphasizes that Trump favors unquestioning loyalists and is likely to fire those who stand up to him: Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, for example, didn’t last, while Attorney General William Barr and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are the type of loyalists Trump wants in the White House.

“Under Pompeo,” Packer notes, “42% of ambassadors are political appointees — an all-time high. Before the Trump presidency, the number was about 30%.”

Elizabeth Jones, a retired ambassador, told The Atlantic that ambassadors are now “chosen for their loyalty to Trump. They’ve learned that the only way to succeed is to be 100% loyal, 1000%. The idea that you’re out there to work for the American people is an alien idea.”

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