It’s a challenge to pick the worst of the furnace-hot verbiage spewing forth from the new Administration; there is just so much to choose from. But to me, one completely frightening statement stands out. It is “deconstructing the administrative state” as the stated purpose of the Trump team. If this statement doesn’t motivate citizens to action, what will?
Translated into everyday English, the President, Steve Bannon, and their billionaire cabinet of corporate minions are telling us that their goal is to axe as much government as possible—except, of course, for the already-bloated military-industrial complex which would receive $54 billion more to entrench itself. A seemingly soothing “deconstruction” bromide cannot mask that the destruction of government as we have known it for more than a century is their real objective.
By the close of the notorious Gilded Age and the dawn of the Twentieth century, it was apparent to everyone with eyes to see that unchecked forces of industrial monopoly and corrupt politicians were disadvantaging the many to the enrichment of the few. Allowing those powers to continue unconstrained could only sow the seeds of even worse economic oligarchy and serious social unrest. Movements took shape and marches began as we the people realized that the nation needed a new and different road to progress—competition in business, more popular input into the decisions of government, and active public oversight to protect the common good from control by the few.
So reform came. Slowly, but it came. New laws were passed and new agencies of government established during the Square Deal of Teddy Roosevelt, the New Freedom of Woodrow Wilson, the New Deal of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Women’s rights, worker rights, voter rights, and civil rights began to expand opportunity in the workplace and participation in government. Pensions for the elderly, help for those who could not help themselves, workplace safety, environmental protections, and a host of other reforms commensurate with the needs of a growing and diverse society stimulated progress that otherwise would not have come. Not everything worked perfectly, far from it. But at least we began to understand that inequality, repression, lack of opportunity, government by the few and government for sale couldn’t keep the good ship America afloat.
It was slow going, and the old powers of money and monopoly fought it every step of the way. They always kept a toe-hold, spent too much money corrupting politics, continued to exercise outlandish economic and political influence, eventually dragged government back behind closed doors, and put themselves firmly in the saddle, wielding every bit as much clout as they had in the pre-reform years of the Gilded Age. And today, the richest President ever sits atop our government, surrounded by a coterie of billionaires and millionaires that makes a mockery of the “populist” rhetoric they espoused on their way to power.
Too many fell for the rhetoric that government was not the solution, but the problem. Ronald Reagan claimed that decades ago, and now the Trump folks go farther than even Reagan dared: government is the enemy. Not enough of us stopped to question this factless indictment of the good things government does.
No one better understood what was happening than my boss when I first came to Washington many years ago, U.S. Senator Fritz Hollings. He saw first-hand how people were buying into the special interest attack on government, even as they benefited from that government every day of their lives. Hollings tells the story of talking with a voter during the 1980 campaign who had gone to college on the GI Bill, bought a house with a VA loan, drove to and from work on the Interstate Highway, got an SBA loan to start a business, cheered when his kids received student loans for college, and was thrilled that his parents were happily retired on Social Security and Medicare. This voter told Hollings he was voting for Ronald Reagan in order to get government off his back!
A lot of voters wore the same blinders last November. Not Trump, Bannon, and the billionaire barons, though. They knew what they wanted, they despised government, and they were hungry for the power to rip it apart. The recently-released budget plan should make it clear for all to see: social programs decimated; feeding the hungry; providing a modicum of help for those who cannot fend for themselves; providing decent health care for everyone; protecting the environment; supporting government research and development that have done so much to fuel economic growth; making sure that Wall Street and the big banks don’t send us into another job-killing recession; support for education, public broadcasting, the arts and humanities—all these and more are on the chopping block. The Trump Administration is out to gut or kill (depending upon how much they can get away with) the agencies of government established to enforce the law, defend the public interest, and encourage the nation’s progress.
One of these under-the-gun agencies is the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) where I served as Commissioner for more than a decade. Its new Chairman is clear about his intention to kill the hard-won net neutrality rules put in place by the last FCC, cut back on even the small Lifeline subsidies recently made available to those who cannot afford broadband, and throw out the privacy protections that the last Commission put in place to protect consumers against big telecom, cable, and internet companies selling our personal information to the highest-bidding advertisers.
To add insult to injury, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai waffled about whether he agrees with the Administration that “the press is the enemy of the American people” at a U.S. Senate Commerce Committee oversight hearing this month. The Senators asked again in a subsequent letter to which Pai gave a one word “No” to the specific question about whether the press is the enemy. It received as much media attention with its Friday release as you would expect. What we needed was a forthright, “profile in courage” response, coupled with a clarion call for his FCC to fight with all its might to ensure a vibrant, local, and diverse media ecosystem, online and offline, that connects us all and informs us all.
Make no mistake: the Trump Administration is putting the nation in fast reverse, oblivious to what actually made America great and bereft of a viable vision for our future.
As always, meeting democracy’s greatest challenges comes back to …you and me. It’s that time again.