The Ugly History Behind Trump’s Attacks on Civil Servants

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tags: Trump, Joe McCarthy



Landon R. Y. Storrs is a professor of history at the University of Iowa and author of  The Second Red Scare and the Unmaking of the New Deal Left.

Attacks on federal employees have long carried more than a whiff of emasculation, with the American ideal of rugged individualism weaponized against supposedly effeminate public workers bilking upstanding taxpayers. Since the “snivel service” reform battles of the 1880s, which made government employment contingent on qualifications rather than party loyalty, conservatives have questioned the masculinity of male government workers, casting them as non-entrepreneurial types who prefer to follow rules for modest pay rather than take risks in pursuit of profit. That the federal workforce was sexually integrated earlier than others invited further ridicule.

The Red Scare of the early 1920s—which followed waves of Catholic and Jewish immigration, black migration northward for wartime work, and women’s enfranchisement, not to mention the Bolshevik Revolution—included conservative attacks on government agencies, especially state and national labor and welfare departments, which employed many women. Margaret Robinson, a conservative and antisuffragist leader, warned that state bureaucracy “offers jobs for women in politics,” which could “destroy our form of government” as well as the very basis of society.But that Red Scare was short-lived, and those agencies were not powerful.

As the U.S. government expanded under Franklin D. Roosevelt, the attacks became more virulent. The challenges of the Great Depression, global war and nuclear weaponry expanded the federal bureaucracy and shifted power away from legislators to career civil servants (who often were better-educated and more cosmopolitan than elected officials). Lawmakers, especially rural conservatives, resented this change. Aided by media outlets such as the Hearst empire, they derided civil servants as eggheads, know-it-alls, and, in a pejorative phrase of the day, “short-haired women and long-haired men.” A best-selling “nonfiction” book by two Hearst journalists, Washington Confidential (1951), took readers on a gossipy, pulp-filled tour of the nation’s capital, and described its inhabitants as robots of indeterminate gender who enjoyed lifetime security on the government’s “perennial payroll.”

During the Second Red Scare, which reached a crescendo in the 1950s, this populist hostility to government experts became a useful tool for those who sought to roll back liberal policies. The anticommunist crusade spawned a sprawling federal loyalty program that did not catch any spies (other measures did that) but destroyed thousands of lives, stifled political debate and stymied effective policymaking long after the scare subsided. ...




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