Populism and the Deep State: The Attack on Public Service Under Trump

26 Pages Posted: 16 Jun 2020

See all articles by Donald P. Moynihan

Donald P. Moynihan

Georgetown University - McCourt School of Public Policy

Date Written: May 21, 2020


This paper addresses the ways in which the Trump administration has exemplified and sped up a long-term trend toward democratic backsliding in the United States by undermining public sector institutions, with particular focus on the federal career public service. While previous administrations have looked for ways to exert closer control over parts of government they are ideologically at odds with, the Trump administration has gone further. It has sidelined administrative expertise and scientists in many areas, selecting senior leaders whose lack of qualification is frequently matched only by their disdain for their organizational mission. To achieve its goals, the Trump administration has shown a willingness to push the boundaries of the law beyond its breaking point. While avoiding a direct attack on the civil service via a governmentwide reform, the Trump administration has sought to weaken the ability of public sector unions to negotiate for benefits, punished individuals and units deemed not to be politically loyal, and weakened oversight bodies such as Inspectors General. All of this has been accompanied by a rhetoric of delegitimization, where the President and his supporters frequently invoke conspiratorial theories of “deep state” plots that have been embedded in the Republican Party. The broader picture suggests that Trump is an outlier, but not an anomaly, in terms of US democratic backsliding.

Keywords: populism; Trump; public administration; politicization

Suggested Citation

Moynihan, Donald P., Populism and the Deep State: The Attack on Public Service Under Trump (May 21, 2020). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3607309 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3607309

Donald P. Moynihan (Contact Author)

Georgetown University - McCourt School of Public Policy ( email )

Old North, Suite 100
37th & O Streets NW
Washington, DC 20057
United States

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