Textbook Reactionary Populism

25 July 2022, 1117 EDT

I recently posted a piece at Lawyers, Guns and Money about Jonathan Swan’s twopart series on Trumpworld’s plans for a second term. The gist is that Trump and his inner circle intend to revive his Schedule F executive order. 

What is Schedule F? Eric Katz explains:

In October 2020, just before the presidential election, Trump signed his controversial executive order creating a new class of federal employees excepted from the competitive service. The order sought to remove career federal workers in “confidential, policy-determining, policy-making or policy-advocating” jobs from the General Schedule into a new job classification where virtually all of their civil service protections were absent, essentially making them at-will employees. Although the Trump administration began efforts to reclassify jobs into the new Schedule F, they ultimately were unable to move any workers before January 2021, and President Biden quickly signed an executive order rescinding the edict as one of his first acts as president. 

The former Trump administration officials envision quickly shifting many employees under the new classification, making those positions eligible for quick hiring and firing without the normal protections afforded to civil servants. The new flexibility would allow a future Trump administration to get rid of any employees it deems as standing in the way of implementing its agenda and replace them with loyalists. 

“It literally takes five minutes to reissue it,” a former Trump administration official involved in personnel policy and current talks about Schedule F’s revival told Government Executive. “There was real value to issuing Schedule F because it turned it into a ‘flip the switch’ thing for the next administration that wants to do it.” 

The original Schedule F order faced widespread condemnation from lawmakers—including members of both parties—good government groups, unions, employees and former government officials.   

Swan’s article provides another reminder that Trump remains an existential threat to U.S. liberal democracy. But it’s not just Trump. Any number of other GOP presidential hopefuls – say Ron DeSantis or Josh Hawley – would likely implement the same kind of plan. 

Reactionary Populism and Neopatrimonial Authority

The specifics of the “Schedule F” plot also track with how I’ve come to understand Trumpism: as a specific form of reactionary populism

Reactionary populism has – in one form or another – been around for quite some time. If I remember correctly, we can find a reactionary-populist faction of the Republican Party at least as far back as the 1930s, and the Democrats used to be home to one as well. Reactionary populism started, as best I can tell, gaining real traction in the GOP during the Obama years. It did not, however dominate the party.

This changed with Trump. He not only mobilized reactionary populists. He also mainstreamed the reactionary-populist worldview.

What does this have to do with Schedule F?

Once in power, reactionary populists pretty much always pursue neopatrimonial styles of governance. This involves breaking down “state autonomy” and transforming government bureaucracies into an extension of their own personal authority. 

I’ve mentioned before that I consider Stephen Hanson and Jeffrey Kopstein’s “Understanding the Global Patrimonial Wave” (Perspectives on Politics, 2022) an essential read. 

As they explain:

German sociologist Max Weber…  considered the key act of politics to be obedience to the leader’s command. Such obedience is more likely and consistent, Weber argued, when subordinates subjectively believe that orders from their superiors are “legitimate”—that is, that they have a duty, and not merely a self-interested motive, to obey. Without obedience to commands there can be no government, no matter how it is chosen. The core link is between the leader and his or her administrative “staff.” This relationship can be highly personal and intimate, or it can be impersonal and legalistic. The staff accept commands as legitimate for basically one of two reasons: because of their sense of duty to the person of the leader or because of their sense of duty to law and abstract rules. For much of human history, this sense of duty was based primarily on personal relationships. During periods of social crisis, followers might obey orders under the spell of a leader’s personal charisma. Yet charismatic leadership generally does not last long. The patrimonial bond, when durable, was emotional, one of respect, friendship, and devotion, embodied in the beloved monarch whose royal lineage had ruled since “time immemorial.” Finding a loyal staff is not easy, so in its purest form “patrimonialism” amounts to rule by the family and friends of the leader. To provide a succinct definition, a patrimonial regime is a form of legitimate domination in which the ruler and his staff fuse administration with personal authority, considering the state itself to be a “family business” of sorts.

Weber’s three types of authority—traditional, charismatic, and legal-rational—as seen in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Democracy, Authoritarianism, and Neopatrimonial Governance

We should not conflate patrimonialism—whether new-style or in its OG form—with authoritarianism. 

democracies are becoming more personalistic.

Plenty of authoritarian regimes operate along more legal-rational line. They make use of state bureaucracies “staffed by a civil service of educated professionals” who follow “rules and procedures” and are “recruited on the basis of merit rather than personal relationships.” In more rational-legal regimes—whether democratic or authoritarian—”the basic grounds on which commands” are “obeyed” stem not “from duty to the person of the ruler” but from “duty to the impersonal abstraction of the rules themselves.” 

Of course, all real-world political systems combine different forms of authority. But the term “neopatrimonialism” describes a specific kind of hybrid arrangement.

On paper, neopatrimonial regimes look like legal-rational ones. Most civil servants do standard civil-servant things. State bureaucracies and political officials invoke principles of fairness, equal treatment, merit, and following the rules. 

In practice, patrimonial authority predominates; the state serves the personal interests of its leadership; agencies ‘just happen’ to target opponents of the regime for audits and regulatory violations (the Obama IRS scandal, if it weren’t bullocks, would have been a good example of how this works). Supporters somehow almost always submit winning bids for government contracts. Opponents don’tThat kind of thing.

Hanson and Kopstein point out that the current patrimonial wave affects both democratic and autocratic regimes. Many commentators warn about the rise of personalist authoritarianism in countries like Russia and China. As others point out, democracies are also becoming, on average, more personalistic.

Erica Frantz and her co-authors write that:

[O]bservers’ intuitions are correct: Levels of personalism have increased in democracies in recent years. Importantly, we show that greater personalism is associated with a variety of negative outcomes, such as higher levels of populism, a higher probability of democratic erosion, and greater political polarization. In addition, we explore the potential causes of the personalist wave and find evidence that new technologies and digital tools are facilitating it.

We should distinguish between personalist regimes and personalist politics

When we talk about the personalist politics we mean, more or less, the relationship between parties and their leaders:

  • How much do people think of politics in terms of leaders or parties? One reason to think that there’s a connection between communication technologies and personalism: the increasing salience of leaders in parliamentary systems.
  • How autonomous are political parties from their leaders? Some parties are independent of their leadership. Others exist only as a vehicle for an individual politician.

Personalist politics do facilitate neopatrimonialism; personalist regimes tend to exhibit higher levels of neopatrimonial governance. But keep in mind that we also find neopatrimonial styles of governance in contexts where authority rests in families, ethnic groups, or parties.

Indeed, one plausible future in the United States is that term limits produce a succession of reactionary-populist regimes. Perhaps they might crystalize around a family. It is more likely, I expect, that we’d see authority derive from a flexible arrangement, in which party provides a bridge between personal loyalty to presidents.

Americans don’t tend to think in terms of patrimonial authority

Hanson and Kopstein make a lot of important arguments, but one is that political scientists have generally dropped the ball because we’re used to thinking about regimes mostly in terms of the autocracy-democracy continuum; when we do study neopatrimonialism, we typically assume it’s confined to the “developing world” (this tendency is, in part, a holdover from modernization theory).

This myopia explains, in part, why the field struggles to make sense of regimes that combine electoral democracy with neopatrimonial governance: we tend to try to put their square pegs into the round holes of democracy and authoritarianism. 

Of course, neopatrimonialism does erode liberal democracy. 

  • At lot of what makes democracy “liberal” overlaps with legal-rational governance, including, first, equality before the law and, second, the fair and consistent application of rules and procedures. 
  • Some leaders undermine democracy as a means of pursuing neopatrimonialism. The perks of a neopatrimonial system—including enrichment for you, your family, and your cronies—only continue so long as you hold onto power. Regime change, whether peaceful or not, can land the neopatrimonial leader in court on charges of corruption—or worse. Undermining democracy? That’s just collateral damage.
  • Others use neopatrimonial governance in order to subvert democracy. For example, turning the state into a giant patronage machine is a pretty good tactic for consolidating political power—especially if you want to avoid autocracy-style violence and repression.

Despite this, neopatrimonial quasi-democracies are going to look and behave differently than legal-rational quasi-democracies. 

How Republican Rhetoric Greases the Wheels of Neopatrimonialism

The conceptual challenge here extends far beyond political science. Americans don’t tend to think about regimes in terms of patrimonial and legal-rational authority. This is a real problem. It makes it much harder for people to understand the nature and extent of the threat—especially if it involves reforms that, on face, might seem reasonable.

This is particularly true, I’d wager, for Republicans who otherwise do not particularly care for Trump or Trumpism. The reason? Trump’s efforts to establish personal authority over the civil services easily slot into longstanding GOP complaints about bureaucracy.

Republicans have spent decades attacking the federal bureaucracy, and the rhetoric that they use has a strongly “polyvalent” quality. It communicates distinctive meanings to different audiences. 

Let’s keep things simple by limiting ourselves to three difference valences of anti-bureaucracy rhetoric: “libertarian,” “technocratic,” and “populist.” 

  • For libertarians, attacks on “government bureaucrats” are part of a larger, general criticism of the administrative state. The aim is to shrink the size and scope of government in favor of markets and private actors.
  • Technocrats focus on bureaucratic pathologies: the proliferation of “red tape,” conflict and duplication among agencies, lack of responsiveness, and so on. These are problems in their own right, but they are also a concern to the extent that they interfere with the implementation of specific conservative policies.
  • Populists believe that a group of “elites” exercise control over powerful institutions. These elites use that control to benefit themselves at the expense of “the people.” Government bureaucrats either serve the interests of elites or are themselves part of the elite (see arguments about the “professional managerial class,” which is where the horseshoe actually does meet.

These valences can combine in a lot of different ways. Technocratic criticisms commonly feature in more populist and libertarian attacks on the civil service. By the 1980s, national politicians usually encoded populist objections to Civil Rights in libertarian and technocratic language.  

Some reactionary populist demagogues are true believers. Others are cynical opportunists. But, as I noted above, no matter where they fall on that axis, they invariably attempt to consolidate their power by transforming the state into their own personal patrimony. 

Populist leaders paint their actions as returning power to the people

Successful populist leaders are able to turn their efforts into a self-reinforcing process. They use every incremental increase in personal control over government finances to reward supporters, thus encouraging business leaders and political officials to throw in with the regime—and reducing the clout of those who refuse; when their loyalists take control of a regulatory body, they turn it into a political weapon for weakening opponents; this makes the next body easier to capture. Rinse and repeat.

The irony, of course, is that populist leaders paint their actions as returning power to the people—even as they consolidate elite control, they claim to be breaking the power of elites.

With Trump, though, we saw an interesting (and worrisome) twist. 

His uncoordinated assault on the independence of the civil service was also legible in libertarian and technocratic terms. In essence, Republicans from different wings of the party each could view his action through different frames—each of which obscured the nature of Trump’s personalist power grab. 

Well, maybe “obscure” isn’t quite the right word. Let’s put it this way: they had an easier time accommodating Trump’s neopatrimonialism. 

From a technocratic or libertarian perspective, Trump wasn’t making the state his own personal patrimony. He was finally reining in those liberal, big-government bureaucrats! Talk of Trump killing U.S. democracy? Liberal hysteria. Even if he actually wanted to, there’s no way he could succeed because of the guardrails built into the system (i.e., the ones he was trying to dismantle). 

For what it’s worth, this gets at why, after January 6, it took massive intervention by FOX News and the broader right-wing media ecosystem to rescue Trump form political collapse. It’s also why the January 6 Select Committee hearings are damaging, however modestly, his changes of winning the presidency in 2024. January 6 was consistent with a more ‘traditional’ understanding of how leaders try to destroy democracy. It wasn’t slow and complicated. 

Loyalty is a Bug, not a Feature

Now, as far as I know, its true that members of the civil service lean Democratic. There’s apparently little evidence that this translates into a disposition to undermine Republican presidents. 

So did some parts of the civil service “thwart” Donald Trump? Sure.

Sometimes, I expect civil servants prioritized bureaucratic interests or organizational mission over enacting policy directives. The same thing happens to Democratic administrations. 

There are also clearly pockets of active partisanship. This is most worrisome when it shows up in the security services – a pattern that seems to skew right, not left.

But it is important to stress how little “disloyalty” the Trump administration would accept. Swan reports that the idea for Schedule F began early in 2017, when the State Department ‘rebelled’ against the so-called ‘Muslim Ban.’ 

How, exactly, did State rebel? Something like 900 members of the State Department signed a “dissent memo.” They used normal channels and standard-operating procedure to register disapproval. Yeah, it blew up in the press. But that’s not a refusal to carry out Trump policy. Not even close. 

Indeed, most of the time, though, civil servants “thwarted Trump” because they were doing their jobs.

For example, a career employee blew the whistle over concerns that Trump pressured Ukraine’s president to investigate his political rival. An inspector general cited whistleblower protection laws when siding with a Customs and Border Protection employee who blew the whistle on his agency’s racial profiling of motorists. A court relied on civil service laws to issue an injunction protecting several Voice of America employees from an agency head accused of “political meddling” and trying to “disseminate political propaganda.” An inspector general’s report later vindicated other VOA employees in this work environment.

Both the “technocratic” and “libertarian” frames imply that this is precisely what the civil service should be doing. Unfortunately, thanks to Trump, the “populist” frame now predominates. It is conventional wisdom in the GOP that civil servants make up a hostile “deep state”—one dedicated to destroying Republican presidencies.

The only solution, it follows, is to purge it and install reliable Republicans. Or those loyal to the current GOP president. 

Doesn’t really matter. 

Same difference.