While out walking my dog yesterday I had a revealing political exchange with a neighbor.
The conversation began with a polite discussion of the neighborhood; the neighbor generously volunteers to keep up maintenance in the community to save the homeowner’s association money on repairs. As we discussed various concerns about the neighborhood people had brought to his attention, his reference to “the liberals” came up; I self-identified as such. That’s when things got interesting.
In response to my confession, the first thing my neighbor asked was how much I knew about Stalin and the number of deaths for which he bore responsibility. Taken aback, I probed the source of the question. Knowledge about Stalin was his litmus test for liberals – and evidence of their denial of atrocities on the political left.
University students, apparently, are kept from knowledge of the horrors of Stalinism by professors who sweep this history under the rug as a means of sanitizing the political left. I responded that this was not only entirely untrue, but that his association of progressives with Stalinism was severely misguided.
I chose not to take the discussion in this direction, but the obvious irony is that the political right is at this moment engaged in a campaign to “purge” the “deep state” in our federal government – a project with clear Stalinist overtones.
What is this project about? What are its objectives and its consequences?
The New Yorker recently published an insightful account of the shameful “deep state” campaign.
The project amounts to a decision to go after civil servants who were important to developing Obama-era policies that the new administration finds objectionable. The New Yorker focuses on a loyal, talented young woman who was targeted due to her value in negotiating the nuclear deal with Iran and extracting the best possible terms for the U.S.
Of course, the record of the federal civil service is one of faithfully executing policies of successive administrations regardless of their politics. There can be obstruction and foot-dragging, but civil servants also are bound by a code of ethics that illuminates by contrast the disgraceful behavior of the current cabinet oligarchy.
The New Yorker points out how the Nixon administration systematically sought to marginalize civil servants it saw as a threat to that lawless administration’s political control.
The infamous “Malek Manual” was the guiding document for that project. This was an 80-page memo associated with a business executive brought into the Nixon Administration as a loyalist to be assigned to political tasks in various agencies.
The manual establishes a system for classifying civil servants on a K, O, L, or N basis — for “Keep,” “Out,” “Let’s Watch,” and “Neuter.” The very project is reflective of an administration with no more regard for the rule of law than the current administration.
The manual rehearses in detail civil service rules of appointment and laments the difficulty of removal and adverse action against civil servants.
The objective is to identify means to circumvent these rules.
As the manual states on p. 72: “there are several techniques which can be designed, carefully, to skirt around the adverse action proceedings.” These include the “frontal assault” involving a frank announcement that the individual “is no longer wanted” and can leave either under favorable conditions immediately or be forced out under humiliating conditions later on.
“There should be no witnesses in the room” for the frontal assault.
Then there is the “special assistant technique” of assigning a “family man” who does not want to travel to duties involving extensive travel in order to force a resignation. The report actually contains this passage: “Until his wife threatens him with divorce unless he quits, you have him out of town and out of the way.”
But even this odious document refers in its conclusion to political costs that will ensue: “There is no question that the effective activities of a political personnel office will invoke a one-shot furor in the hostile press and Congress.” The costs would nonetheless be worth the benefits because of the necessity of establishing “political control.”
That political control, the document arrogantly concludes, “is the difference between ruling and reigning.”
Still, the document was to be kept confidential and there could be no links to the president.
What differs now is the brazenness of the purge and the very public way in which the process is portrayed as a virtuous assault on forces seeking to undermine a legitimately elected political authority.
In fact, while the Nixon era politicization of the civil service relied on secrecy, the “deep state” purge depends on its public nature.
In short, the current occupant of the Oval Office is attempting to turn the world inside out by weaving a story of victimization at the hands of federal institutions – from the intelligence agencies to the Justice Department to the Obama loyalists seeded throughout the federal bureaucracy.
This narrative has gained momentum on Fox and other right-wing media, and has reverberated on the official English-language Russian news station, RT.
If American citizens like my neighbor buy into the “deep state” purge, American democracy is on very treacherous ground indeed. As reported recently by the Washington Post, that is precisely what is happening as increasing numbers of Republicans (now a substantial majority) express opposition to the Mueller probe.
The objective, of course, is to undermine the legitimacy of Mueller’s findings in advance so that it will be possible to continue to wage political war on the findings as a buttress to the legal assault, which may well fail.
But democracy can not function without effective institutions whose legitimacy is widely embraced by citizens. The American political system will bear the costs of this institutional wreckage for years to come.