Sean Hannity has some great advice for so-called “President” Trump. It’s an idea that Hannity borrowed from Newt Gingrich, who got it from Abraham Lincoln, and in Hannity’s version it goes like this:
Let's go back to 1861, President Abraham Lincoln he created a team of rivals, a so-called team of rivals, a cabinet of rivals including adversaries that he ran against the Republican primary. While President Lincoln sought to unify his party through cabinet selections, he also executed an extensive government purge. He fired over 75 percent, nearly 1200 people. Out of 1500 bureaucrats that worked in the executive branch that President Lincoln feared could be disloyal. It's time now for President Trump to follow Abraham Lincoln's example and fire anyone and everyone who was actively working against him in government…my message tonight is simple, every holdover from the Obama, they need to go. 1
Purge the bureaucracy! Drain the swamp! Remove the disloyal opposition! It worked pretty well for Abraham Lincoln in 1861--though it didn't prevent four years of civil war--so why shouldn’t it work just as well for Donald Trump today?
Here is Newt Gingrich’s earlier and more thorough airing (he even quotes a respected historian!) of the idea:
President Trump will soon discover that federal bureaucrats are far more hostile, destructive, and obstructionist than federal judges.
Ninety-five percent of federal bureaucrats’ donations were for Clinton (99 percent at the State Department, 97 percent at the Department of Justice), so it is clear there will be continuing resistance to President Trump’s policies.
And the intense hostility of the Left will encourage these pro-Clinton bureaucrats to feel noble about undermining and betraying the president.
Eventually, President Trump will be faced with a choice: either dramatically shrink his goals and accommodate the Left or learn from Abraham Lincoln and force bold, deep change on the bureaucracy.
Once he took office, Lincoln fired almost 80 percent of federal employees. This aggressiveness enabled him to replace pro-secession bureaucrats, who would have ensured the North lost the war, with pro-Union enthusiasts who helped him win.
Allen Guelzo, a Henry R. Luce professor of the Civil War era and the director of the Civil War Era Studies Program at Gettysburg College, has written on Lincoln’s experience. The Trump team should meet with Guelzo. He writes:
“Until the 1883 Pendleton Act every federal office-holder – from cabinet secretaries to postmasters – could be removed without cause or explanation by the president. And since federal appointments generally paid better than their private-sector equivalents, competition for these jobs was intense, and tended to be handed out as compensation for political services. In the 19th century, political parties did not command huge campaign chests of their own; political operatives worked largely in the expectation that their time and services would be paid-for by appointment to political office. That, in turn, meant that presidents guarded their appointment powers jealously, since dangling the prospect of federal jobs was the surest way of guaranteeing the loyalty of a political party’s ground-game.
“Lincoln was fully as willing to work the patronage lever when he became president. Lincoln’s White House staffer, William O. Stoddard, remembered that Lincoln hired and fired federal office-holders with dizzying energy. ‘I doubt if ever before there was so general displacement as at the beginning of Mr. Lincoln’s term.’ Partly, this was because patronage appointments remained the principal means of securing political loyalty. But it was also a matter of ‘draining the swamp.’ Lincoln, as the first Republican – and first anti-slavery – president, came to Washington after six decades of almost-uninterrupted Democratic dominance of the executive branch. Successive Democratic presidents, from Thomas Jefferson to James Buchanan, had stocked federal offices with pro-slavery Southern appointees who would not shrink from sabotaging the presidency of Lincoln, ‘the Black Republican.’
“So, once in office in 1861, Lincoln did not hesitate to purge the executive branch of anything which hinted at disloyalty. Of the 1,520 executive branch positions immediately under Lincoln’s oversight, Lincoln fired 1,195 of their occupants, which amounted to ‘the most sweeping removal of federal officeholders in the country’s history up to that time.’” 2
Other considerations aside, it’s helpful to remember that, by the time Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated in 1861, seven Southern states had already seceded from the union; other states seceded immediately following Lincoln’s assuming office. That may or may not justify Lincoln’s purge of the executive branch, but it provides some necessary context.
Republicans have long had an uneasy relationship with Lincoln and his legacy; while wanting to pose as members of “the party of Lincoln,” as conservatives they are also staunch advocates of “states’ rights” and of their own version of federalism, both of which clash with Lincoln’s fundamental pro-union philosophy and with his expansion of federal powers. Some modern conservatives (Fox News’ Judge Andrew Napolitano, for example) have gone so far as to label Lincoln one of the three great “tyrants” of American history (Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt are the others, FYI).
With Trump in office, Gingrich and Hannity are now encouraging the sort of executive “purge” that their putatively conservative principles deem tyrannical and that, had President Obama attempted, they would surely have denounced as “Stalin-esque”.
That glaring inconsistency (hypocrisy?) aside, both Gingrich and Hannity are overlooking a fairly important detail: as historian Alan Guelzo notes in the excerpt above, federal office-holders have been protected since 1883 (20 years after Lincoln) by the Pendleton Act (and by subsequent legislation) which explicitly sought to insulate the federal bureaucracy from political motivations.3 What Lincoln did in 1861 was legal, albeit unprecedented in extent; what Hannity and Gingrich are proposing today would be illegal—unless, of course, they are adopting the Nixon theory of presidential powers: “When the President does it, that means it is not illegal. By definition.” 4 Or they may be adopting the Andrew Jackson theory that the President can do pretty much whatever he wants unless and until someone manages to stop him (“John Marshall has made his decision. Now let him enforce it.”).
Nixonian or Jacksonian: in either case the precedents are troubling, to put it mildly. One hopes that our so-called “President” will resist such radical counsel; but based on all the available evidence thus far5 one has little reason for optimism.
3 The Pendleton Act wasn’t necessarily a “good government” reform. The law was passed after President Garfield was assassinated by a disgruntled office-seeker; to that extent, it was actually more about protecting presidents by removing their ability to bestow (and thus their responsibility for) patronage appointments. In any case, our modern civil service statutes have supplemented the Pendleton Act and have created, in theory at least, an apolitical bureaucracy.
4 From Nixon’s interview with David Frost: https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2007/sep/07/greatinterviews1
5 http://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2017/01/05/republicans-reinstate-rule-allowing-1-salary-government-bureaucrats/ Colloquially, this is a policy of “If you can’t fire them, f—k them.”