The claim that President Donald Trump is the target of a deep-state coup relieves his most zealous supporters of the obligation to consider facts that might lead to his impeachment for pressuring the president of Ukraine to dig up dirt on Trump’s potential Democratic rival in the 2020 election. It also perpetuates a smear against federal employees, particularly those in national security, that is harmful to the nation’s health and to the future of public service.
I write from Maryland, where there’s a high concentration of federal workers (about 144,000 of them, according to governing.com), including thousands who work at the National Security Agency at Fort Meade. While there have been troubling and sometimes illegal practices within the spy agency, and elsewhere in the federal government, the idea that a cabal could form, collaborate with the military and pull off a coup is absurd. And yet conspiracy theories bounce around the right-wing echo chamber. Moreover, on the local and state levels, it’s been the common practice of conservative pundits and politicians to bad-mouth public employees, particularly school teachers, and to generally view government as intrusive, obstructive or incompetent. This has been going on for decades.
Forty years ago, Ronald Reagan described government as an ominous threat to the citizen. “The most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help,’” Reagan said as he assumed command of a federal workforce he promised to shrink. And though he failed to do that — both the size of government and the federal deficit grew during his eight years as president — his Republican Party became known for its embrace of smaller government.
But it’s one thing to bemoan the size of government (even as you allow it to grow), quite another to pull it back from regulating industry, protecting natural resources, keeping watch on civil rights and public health. It’s quite another to criticize the government’s vigilance, to denigrate the intelligence and law enforcement agencies charged with keeping us safe, to claim that some spooky “deep state” has formed and that a coup is underway to remove the president from office.
“That kind of commentary really gets at me, that theme of inherently not trusting our own government,” said Rep. Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, a moderate, first-term Democrat and a former intelligence officer and Pentagon official who served in Iraq. As a recent guest on The Daily podcast, Slotkin reflected on what she had heard about the Ukraine scandal and the impeachment inquiry during town halls with constituents. Some in the audience used the word “coup” and that, Slotkin said, made her blood pressure rise.
“To hear a number of people talking about their inherent distrust,” Slotkin said, “that the president somehow had to go to a foreigner because he couldn’t trust his own law enforcement and intelligence community ... that just got to me.”
“You can boo the FBI, ma’am,” she told a constituent. “I will not boo the FBI.”
This is not to say that government is without fault, failure or excesses. But the overheated right-wing harangues against almost all federal agencies has taken a toll. The constant bad-mouthing is an insult to men and women who make an honorable career of public service. It diminishes the general confidence that most government officials are conscientious and dedicated.
We need people of integrity serving us at the highest levels. We should be thankful for whistleblowers. We should be grateful that career diplomats, like former White House advisor on Russia, Fiona Hill, or the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, are averse to authoritarianism and dedicated to respecting our laws.
If we don’t recruit and keep good people to work in government, then we are setting the nation up for even bigger systemic failures, from new financial crises to environmental disasters. It’s not the vaunted private sector that’s going to save us from polluted air and water or warn our kids away from tobacco products. It’s not the private sector that cares about equity in public education and paying teachers what they are truly worth to this society.
A president should respect the role of the federal government in protecting public health and natural resources, in settling disputes, in taking care of poor people and people who are disabled. And a president should be a champion of public service. He should hold it noble and call citizens to it. In the next election, we should look for a president who inspires young men and women to serve their country — and not just in the military, but as teachers, social workers, scientists, economists, librarians, Peace Corps volunteers.
We haven’t heard that message in a long time.
Ten years ago, I wrote a column about an effort to establish the U.S. Public Service Academy. It would have been the civilian counterpart to Annapolis and the other military academies. Proponents, including some prominent Democrats in Congress, envisioned a four-year college focused on service and leadership. Graduates of the USPSA would have given back five years in public sector jobs in areas of critical need at the local, state and federal levels.
Alas, it did not happen. The tea party happened, and Republicans who opposed the Affordable Care Act were not about to support the USPSA. It’s a shame on two levels: a shame that we don’t have an academy to teach Americans about public service, and a shame that we need one.