the national interest

The Retaliatory State: How Trump Is Turning Government Into a Weapon of Revenge

President Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan.

Do you remember the “IRS scandal”? Unlike the conspiracy theories supported by “crazy” Republicans, like birtherism and Sharia law spreading in the U.S., the IRS scandal is one of the conspiracy theories supported by “Establishment” Republicans, like climate-science denial and Benghaaaazi. The premise of the “IRS scandal” held that the agency, supported explicitly or implicitly by the Obama administration, targeted conservative groups for harassment. Years of investigation by Congress and the IRS Inspector General firmly proved the opposite. The IRS, trying to enforce ambiguous rules governing political activity by nonprofit groups, flagged organizations on both the right and left in roughly equal measure.

The intensity of the IRS conspiracy theory petered out, but has never surrendered its place in the right-wing imagination. (Indeed, Wall Street Journal columnist William McGurn regurgitated the fantasy again yesterday.) The “IRS Scandal” has some importance beyond its insight into conservative paranoia. It has turned out to prefigure the Republicans’ own blueprint for the use of government as an implement of partisan domination and revenge.

In his essay on the “paranoid style” in American politics, which focused on the ravings of the conservative movement, Richard Hofstadter identified their penchant for reproducing the very techniques they decried. “The enemy seems to be on many counts a projection of the self: both the ideal and unacceptable aspects of the self are attributed to him. A fundamental paradox of the paranoid style is the imitation of the enemy.” Conservatives simultaneously suspect that Democrats have perverted government as a tool of partisan domination and that this is a proper and normal — or at least inevitable — use of executive power.

Politico reports that the Trump administration is leaning toward appointing Thomas Brunell to the top operational job running the Census. While Brunell “appears to have little experience in federal statistics or at managing a big organization, both characteristics that census-watchers believe are vital for the job,” he does have one point on his résumé that makes him deeply attractive for the post. He is a committed advocate of Republican gerrymandering efforts, and the author of a book titled Redistricting and Representation: Why Competitive Elections Are Bad for America. The Census is written into the Constitution and serves an essential governing function. Nobody has ever before thought to turn the direction of it over to a figure whose public career is so closely identified with partisan maneuvering.

Trump has openly called for using the Department of Justice and the FBI to prosecute his political opponents. “At some point the Justice Department, and the FBI, must do what is right and proper. The American public deserves it!” he has tweeted. “I am really not involved with the Justice Department. I’d like to let it run itself. But honestly, they should be looking at the Democrats,” he said, adding, “A lot of people are disappointed in the Justice Department, including me,” he told reporters. Having repeatedly threatened the news media, there is almost no way for CNN not to suspect the Department of Justice’s anomalously harsh regulation of its parent-company merger is a form of retaliation for its coverage. The threat to CNN doesn’t have to explicit in order to have an effect.

The use of government as a tool of vengeance is not merely a recurring theme of Trump’s government. It is, in at least some cases, an explicitly articulated public philosophy. Stephen Moore, a conservative economic adviser at the Heritage Foundation, praises the Republican tax-cut plan as a deliberate attack on blue America. Moore, who has met with Trump and previously worked for such places as The Wall Street Journal editorial page and the Club for Growth, is not a marginal kook but instead a deeply influential one. His brazen endorsement of the goal of using the tax code to strike out at the party’s enemies merits close attention.

Moore argues that subjecting income spent on state and local taxes to federal taxation — a change Republicans might be expected to oppose as a form of double taxation — will have the delicious secondary effect of pressuring state government to shrink. “The big blue states either cut their taxes and costs, or the stampede of high-income residents from these states accelerates,” he gloats. “The big losers here are the public employee unions — the mortal enemies of Republicans. This all works out nicely.”

Moore likewise praises the plan for taxing university endowments. Republicans in general, and Moore with special fervency, typically oppose taxes on wealth. But he waxes enthusiastic about this wealth tax. “The first shot against the University Industrial Complex has finally been fired,” he exults …

These endowments subsidize the six and even seven figure salaries of pompous, tired, and tenured professors (who teach 4 or 5 hours a week) and administrators, who indoctrinate 21-year olds with an increasingly vacuous and illiberal education. The assault on free speech on campus is only the latest outrage. Bravo to Republicans for starting to turn off the spigot.

Note that this line of reasoning does not even pretend to treat the proposed taxation of university endowments as a fair or technically superior reform of tax policy. Moore advertises his belief, no doubt widely shared within the party, that it is an attack on an institution whose political views his party abhors. Supply-side economics has given way to revenge-o-nomics.

For eight years, the notion of a gangster government using its power to punish its enemies existed as a lurid persecution fantasy on the right. Now it is being touted as a governing blueprint.

The Retaliatory State: Trump Using Government As Revenge