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Leave it to Trump to remind voters how much they need government

Demonizing federal workers has been part of the GOP playbook since the New Deal — but suddenly all that is changing

Federal workers and contractors, along with their unions, stage a protest calling for an end to the government shutdown and back pay in the Hart Building on Jan. 23. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Federal workers and contractors, along with their unions, stage a protest calling for an end to the government shutdown and back pay in the Hart Building on Jan. 23. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

OPINION — Two years ago, during the inaugural address, few imagined that “this American carnage” that Donald Trump was pledging to end would someday extend to the family finances of 800,000 unpaid federal workers.

Equally unfathomable was the idea that January 2019 would morph into “Have You Hugged a TSA Worker?” Month. Once derided as the front-line symbols of ineffective Security Theater, these low-wage federal workers are now rightfully hailed for keeping the planes flying as they work without paychecks and worry about car payments.

Demonizing most federal workers has been part of the Republican playbook dating back to the New Deal. And Trump has extended this vitriolic hatred to the Justice Department, the FBI and the national security establishment.

This right-wing view of the federal workforce was best expressed recently by an anonymous “senior Trump official” in a brutal op-ed in the Daily Caller. This Trump loyalist — who works somewhere in the non-funded part of the government — flatly announced, “We do not want most employees to return, because we are working better without them.”

This anonymous Trump figure sounds like he or she stumbled on a box of leftover quotes from the Ronald Reagan administration. Anyone who can remember the 1980s has heard variants of the claim, “On an average day, roughly 15 percent of the employees around me are exceptional patriots serving their country. … But 80 percent feel no pressure to produce results. If they don’t feel like doing what they are told, they don’t.”

Lara Trump — the president’s daughter-in-law who presumably does not have to worry about car payments — said about the hardships of federal workers in a recent interview, “It is a little bit of pain. But it’s going to be for the future of our country … and generations after them will thank them for their sacrifice right now.”

In Lara Trump’s view, it’s almost as if in 2119 there will be a gleaming marble monument on the Mall commemorating the stalwart federal workers who went into debt, haunted pawn shops and skipped meals so that America could have the most beautiful wall since, well, Jericho.

Beginning in the mid-1970s, pollsters have asked a variant of the same question: “Would you rather have a smaller government with fewer services or a bigger government with more services?”

During economic hard times (the mid-1970s, after the Sep. 11 attacks and following the 2008 financial meltdown), public opinion has been roughly divided on the question. But when the economy was vibrant during the late 1990s and in Barack Obama’s second term, as many as 60 percent of Americans said they prefer “smaller government.”

Of course, the poll question does not define what “smaller government” might consist of. And it is easy to picture the mythical conservative slogan, “Keep the government’s hands off my Medicare.”

But this public distrust of government goes a long way toward explaining Republican policies over the last four decades. It covers everything from Ronald Reagan’s budget-slashing to George W. Bush’s fumbling attempt to privatize Social Security to the rise of the Tea Party movement to Trump’s venomous scorn for the federal workforce.

In a sense, everything on this list is an extension of a favorite joke that Reagan trotted out at the beginning of a 1986 press conference: “I’ve always felt the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’”

But right now, I suspect that joke would not get much of a laugh anywhere other than, maybe, the Oval Office.

Suddenly, we are discovering the importance of everything from federal meat inspections to FBI criminal investigations to, yes, the processing of tax refunds.

The Washington Post reported Wednesday that hundreds of IRS workers around the country are legally defying orders to return to work without pay. Under their union-negotiated civil service contracts, these Treasury employees cannot be compelled to work if showing up would cause personal “hardship.”

With Trump averaging less than 40 percent support in recent approval polls, the president’s unflinching position probably cannot survive a breakdown in the willingness of federal workers to donate their labors in hopes of a prompt settlement. There is, after all, something sadly pathetic in Trump counting on unpaid IRS workers to send money to American taxpayers.

In fact, most Republican gestures of empathy for federal workers seem curiously off-key. Arizona Sen. Martha McSally — just appointed to John McCain’s former seat after losing to Kyrsten Sinema in November — made a special trip to thank border patrol and customs officials for working without pay.

While McSally, who is a top Democratic target in 2020, did not deviate from her support of Trump, she did donate free pizzas to those safeguarding the border at the Nogales ports of entry.

True, the formal rule of gift-giving states that “it’s the thought that counts.” But this may be that rare case when a paycheck might have been more appreciated than a pepperoni slice with extra cheese.

During this week in 1996, Bill Clinton tried to appease the Newt Gingrich Revolution by declaring twice in his State of the Union address, “The era of big government is over.” Since then, there have been few full-throated defenses of government from Democrats in the White House.

But maybe the hidden genius of Donald J. Trump, master negotiator, is that he alone has found a way to remind Americans how much they want and need an activist, functioning, competent government. That sea change in public attitudes may prove to be the only positive legacy of the most destructive presidential temper tantrum in modern history.

Watch: 12 demonstrators arrested outside McConnell’s Russell office

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