Image Credits: Evan Vucci/AP .
It’s summertime, and you’re probably trying to think more about ice cream and beach trips than the threat of fascism, and I can’t blame you. But the New York Times is trying to do what it can to shake you out of your complacent stupor. It began with a June 15 article by Jonathan Swan, Charlie Savage and Maggie Haberman that detailed the Trump World’s intention in a second term to “fully jettison the post-Watergate norm of Justice Department independence.”
The reporters were keen to disabuse you of any thought that the risk was limited to Trump: “Republican presidents have accepted the canard that the D.O.J. and F.B.I. are — quote — ‘independent,’” Mr. [Ron] DeSantis said in May on Fox News. “They are not independent agencies. They are part of the executive branch. They answer to the elected president of the United States.”
On July 17, the same crew of Times reporters teamed up to warn that it’s not just the independence of the Justice Department that you have to worry about:
Donald J. Trump and his allies are planning a sweeping expansion of presidential power over the machinery of government if voters return him to the White House in 2025, reshaping the structure of the executive branch to concentrate far greater authority directly in his hands.
Their plans to centralize more power in the Oval Office stretch far beyond the former president’s recent remarks that he would order a criminal investigation into his political rival, President Biden, signaling his intent to end the post-Watergate norm of Justice Department independence from White House political control.
Mr. Trump and his associates have a broader goal: to alter the balance of power by increasing the president’s authority over every part of the federal government that now operates, by either law or tradition, with any measure of independence from political interference by the White House, according to a review of his campaign policy proposals and interviews with people close to him.
Mr. Trump intends to bring independent agencies — like the Federal Communications Commission, which makes and enforces rules for television and internet companies, and the Federal Trade Commission, which enforces various antitrust and other consumer protection rules against businesses — under direct presidential control.
But wait, there’s more:
He wants to revive the practice of “impounding” funds, refusing to spend money Congress has appropriated for programs a president doesn’t like — a tactic that lawmakers banned under President Richard Nixon.
He intends to strip employment protections from tens of thousands of career civil servants, making it easier to replace them if they are deemed obstacles to his agenda. And he plans to scour the intelligence agencies, the State Department and the defense bureaucracies to remove officials he has vilified as “the sick political class that hates our country.”
There’s plenty of detail in the article about who is behind this planned seizure of power and how it is being organized, and I recommend you take on the unpleasant task of reading it. But it’s vitally important to realize that DeSantis has the same basic idea. The day after the faltering launch of his campaign on Twitter, the Florida governor was a guest on Glenn Beck’s radio show where he discussed his plans to dismantle the Deep State.
DeSantis also made the rounds, talking to radio host Mark Levin and Fox New’s Trey Gowdy. Here’s how Jim Newell of Slate summarized things:
DeSantis’ pitch to Florida-ize the rest of the country relies on pushing the envelope on the use of executive power. He told radio host Mark Levin that he has studied the Constitution to find new “leverage points” that would allow him to exercise the “true scope” of the presidency. “Presidents have not been willing to wield Article 2 power to discipline the bureaucracy,” DeSantis told Glenn Beck in another interview. “I’ll come in and on day one we’ll be spitting nails.” Next to, presumably, a broad-based firing of the federal bureaucracy itself, DeSantis said he would fire FBI director Chris Wray on day one, and made the point to Fox News host Trey Gowdy that his new FBI director and attorney general would not operate independently, but more as functionaries of the president. This centralization of power, enabled by acquiescent state courts and the Legislature, is precisely how he’s run Florida.
I know that all the stories about DeSantis in the news right now are emphasizing his campaign’s problems, but the odds that the Republicans nominate someone other than Trump or DeSantis are vanishingly small at this point.
So, I think it’s close to safe to say that the 2024 election will be a contest between Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on one side, and these radical theories of the Unitary Executive on the other.
And, it’s true, as the Times’ reporters say, that “Mr. Trump and his advisers are making no secret of their intentions,” which is also clearly true for DeSantis, but I somehow doubt the American public will see their choice in these terms.
Maybe they’ll base their decision on the economy or Hunter Biden’s laptop. But the true choice is between a government as we have known it since it began to take form in the Progressive Era and through the New Deal, and a completely authoritarian alternative where there are no checks on the president’s power.
“The president’s plan should be to fundamentally reorient the federal government in a way that hasn’t been done since F.D.R.’s New Deal,” said John McEntee, a former White House personnel chief who began Mr. Trump’s systematic attempt to sweep out officials deemed to be disloyal in 2020 and who is now involved in mapping out the new approach.
“Our current executive branch,” Mr. McEntee added, “was conceived of by liberals for the purpose of promulgating liberal policies. There is no way to make the existing structure function in a conservative manner. It’s not enough to get the personnel right. What’s necessary is a complete system overhaul.” …
“What we’re trying to do is identify the pockets of independence and seize them,” said Russell T. Vought, who ran the Office of Management and Budget in the Trump White House and now runs a policy organization, the Center for Renewing America.
Importantly, Mr. Vought, who is playing a central role in planning Trump’s second term, says he is “delighted to see few of Mr. Trump’s Republican primary rivals defend the norm of Justice Department independence after the former president openly attacked it.”
It’s key to understand that the only way to prevent a fascist takeover at this point is to defeat the Republican presidential nominee. It doesn’t matter who that nominee is because there’s really no resistance anymore to these Unitary Executive ideas. The Hill reports that there’s real consternation about this radicalism within the Senate Republican caucus, but they seem to be suffering under the delusion that the problem will go away if Trump goes away.
Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.) pushed back on calls to defund the Justice Department, telling reporters: “Are we going to get rid of the Justice Department? No. I think defunding is a really bad idea.”
Thune later explained to The Hill: “There are seasons, swings back and forth in politics and we’re in one now where the dominant political thinking is more populist with respect to national security, foreign policy, some domestic issues.”
But he said “that stuff comes and goes and it’s built around personalities,” alluding to the broadly held view that Trump’s election to the presidency in 2016 and his lasting influence over the party has put his brand of populism at the forefront.
Maybe Sen. Thune is correct that seasons swing back and forth, but we can already tell the kind of season in which the 2024 election will be held, and it’s a fascist season. It can be summed up as: Fascism, yes or no?