The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s new Census Bureau hire could give the GOP a big boost

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When Donald Trump became the Republican Party’s nominee for president, many conservatives were worried about his tenuous commitment to the party. He hadn’t built up relationships by coming up through its ranks, had little apparent understanding of conservative ideology and was prone to saying things that suggested he harbored some liberal beliefs. Who knew what he might do as president?

But not only has he not disappointed them by governing as some kind of closet Democrat, in fact, Trump may be the most partisan president in memory. And he may be doing it not as part of some kind of plan — indeed, a lot of it is happening with only the barest involvement on his part — but more by what he’s allowing the other Republicans in his administration to do.

I’m going to use the example of the census to show how this plays out, then we’ll consider it in a larger context. Let’s start with this report by Danny Vinik and Andrew Restuccia of Politico:

The Trump administration is leaning toward naming Thomas Brunell, a Texas professor with no government experience, to the top operational job at the U.S. Census Bureau, according to two people who have been briefed on the bureau’s plans.
Brunell, a political science professor, has testified more than half a dozen times on behalf of Republican efforts to redraw congressional districts, and is the author of a 2008 book titled “Redistricting and Representation: Why Competitive Elections Are Bad for America.” …
The pick would break with the long-standing precedent of choosing a nonpolitical government official as deputy director of the U.S. Census Bureau. The job has typically been held by a career civil servant with a background in statistics. It does not require Senate confirmation, so Congress would have no power to block the hire.

I’m 99 percent certain it was not Trump who found Brunell and suggested that he oversee the census. So why would people in the Trump administration seek out someone like Brunell, an academic who focuses on redistricting and has views friendly to Republican efforts to rig the electoral system in ways that make it more likely that they’ll win future elections? Because they can.

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This comes at a time when Congress has already been starving the Census Bureau for funds, leaving it behind on the preparations it needs to do for 2020. Republicans are hoping to insert a question on the form asking people about their immigration status, which has never been done before — and which could make people in immigrant communities less likely to fill out the form, given the administration’s broader crackdown on immigrants. That in turn could under-count those communities, which would benefit Republicans when district lines get redrawn in 2021.

Now perhaps Brunell will be a public servant of the highest integrity, will prove to be a capable administrator and will make no decision that winds up boosting Republican electoral fortunes. But if you look through the bios of past directors of the census, you’ll see a bunch of demographers and statisticians, most with extensive government experience, no matter which party the president who appointed them came from (Brunell will actually be the deputy director; the director position is vacant and the administration looks in no particular hurry to fill it). You don’t see much evidence of partisanship, until now.

Now let’s put this in a broader context. All across the government, this administration has been demonstrating its utter contempt for the idea of expertise, that people given great responsibility might actually want to know what they’re doing. The resentment of pointy-headed elitists has long been a resource Republicans have drawn on, and it has expressed itself to a degree in their prior administrations. But they largely accepted that you could appoint ideologues who also have relevant knowledge. In the Trump administration, however, knowledge seems to matter less than ever.

They’ll appoint a 36-year-old lawyer, blogger and ghost hunter who has never tried a case to a lifetime federal judgeship, because why not? They’ll turn the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy into a “ghost town” and not even bother to appoint a director, because who needs ’em? They’ll boot actual scientists off Environmental Protection Agency scientific advisory boards in favor of industry representatives, because they can. They’ll fill the administration with people’s relatives, because hey, to the victor go the spoils.

It’s not like none of this has any precedent. But officials seem particularly unapologetic about it this time around. Trump, to repeat, is not making these decisions. But it’s his brazenness — not just about his own ignorance and inexperience, but about everything — that gives those who work for him permission to take things a step or two farther than they might have under a different Republican president. They see not only his personal history but also his willingness to do things such as appoint members of his family to key posts, and they know that they no longer have to act with any restraint. The result is in many cases a more purely partisan and ideological set of appointments and policies, because people no longer feel that they need to pay lip service to expertise or any broad, bipartisan conception of the national interest.

And they know well that the president doesn’t really care who runs the census, or who gets appointed to the judiciary, or what the policies of all the agencies under his command are. The only thing that bothers him is when someone gets enmeshed in a scandal that makes Trump look bad. Avoid that, and you can do just about whatever you want.