How Bureaucracy Will Stop Trump

by / Feb. 1, 2017 12am EST


Rumors are flying that Donald Trump will be impeached within months. That is, I am pretty sure, wishful thinking. Even if this Congress had any interest in ethics—there has been no indication that it does—impeachment is not a rapid process. Charges must be drawn up; they are answered; hearings must be held; there must be a trial in the US House of Representatives. If the trial results in conviction—impeachment—then the whole thing moves to the US Senate, where it starts all over again. It’s possible, but even if it happens, it won’t be fast. Bill Clinton’s impeachment and trial took years, and that was over a simple blowjob.


But there is another force in government that may minimize, or at least slow, the damage Trump and his Svengali, Steve Bannon, seem bent on doing: the bureaucracy.

What people hate about bureaucracy is how long it takes to get from here to there. The great film representation of it is the sequence in Akira Kurosawa’s Ikuru: A dying man is shunted from office to office to office, only to finally be sent to the place he started. But it may be the dysfunctional power of bureaucracy that will mire Donald Trump in the governmental mud. 

Bureaucracies exist to control flow. A request is made. It is approved or disapproved. If approved, something happens: A desk is bought, a bridge is built, a war begins. All along the way are people who might be called traffic managers: Officially or unofficially, they have the power to move things quickly or move them slowly, or to move things in ways that nothing happens or in ways that the process will go awry a step or two further on. 

Administrations come and go, but the bureaucracies remain. Donald Trump will not be able to fire everyone in the Postal Service or the Air Force or State Department or Justice Department.


There is no one in his senior staff, including Trump, with any experience in government. Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush had been governors; George H. W Bush had been a vice president and, in many capacities, a bureaucrat; Barack Obama had been a state legislator and a US Senator. They understood how government functions.  

Running a government is not like running a business, where if a project goes sour you can just declare bankruptcy, walk away from it, and stick other people with the bill. Nor is it like running an online news service that caters to the rabid right, that preaches to the choir. Governance requires impulse control because its goals are always longer than an hour from now.

The Muslim ban fiasco illustrates this. There was no consultation with Homeland Security (which had to implement it), the Department of Defense, the State Department, or other agencies that would have to deal on a blanket ban on 200 million people, many of whom had green cards and jobs in the United States. There was no consideration of the impact the ban would have on higher education and industry. 

(The ban is shadow-play anyhow: It’s just a sop to Trump’s base and Steve Bannon’s Breitbart readers. None of the Muslim countries in which Trump does business were covered by it, nor were the home countries of the 9/11 terrorists.)

Playing Ball

The Trump inner circle’s attitude is, if you don’t agree with us, go. They fired the Acting Attorney General for refusing to follow orders. The White House spokesman said that the 100 members of the State Department who were signing a letter saying that the Muslim ban was not at all in America’s best interests “should either get with the program or go.”

That may work in an absolute monarchy or a dictatorship. We’re not there yet. Just saying things are so doesn’t make them so. God can say, “Let there be light,” and there is light. But if a president wants to do it, he needs electric power, a lighting system, people to screw in the light bulbs.

That is, he needs a bureaucracy. Trump can fire those at the top; he can’t fire everybody. 


The bureaucrats have already learned they cannot reason or argue with Trump. He seems impervious to data. I don’t know if that’s grounded in ego, narcissism, stupidity, or something more fundamental. 

Trump doesn’t seem smart enough to be cynical with such consistency. He may not be lying all the time; he may believe the things he says. 

My late friend Ira Cohen, longtime professor of psychology at University at Buffalo, used to say that psychopaths never lie. To lie is to say something you know is untrue. For psychopaths, Ira said, what they say is true. Facts cannot impact that belief. If the facts contradict, then the facts are “bad.” For the psychopath, the only thing that is real is their own perception. You can’t, Ira pointed out, argue with a psychopath, because reason has no place in a world in which all the things the rest of us call “facts” are reduced to matters of belief.

I think of Ira a lot when I listen to Trump talk.

Going Rogue

The bureaucrats have other devices at their disposal if reason is not a viable option, facts can’t influence policy, and long-term consequences are of no interest. 

And as long as people are in those jobs, they will have the power to minimize Trump’s damage, to slow him down. He may get up in the dark of night to Twitter with great velocity and no thought, but the process necessary to make things happen in the daytime go by a slower clock.

I’ve watched bureaucracy at work in two institutions: the university and prisons. It isn’t much different. It’s easy to fire a warden, but it’s difficult to fire an assistant warden, the shop managers, the clerks, the entire staff; In the university, it’s easy to change a president or a dean, but it’s impossible to dump everybody who thinks you’re wrong-headed, ill-informed or nuts.

One device bureaucracy has is going rogue. The Trump administration recently ordered NASA, EPA, and the National Park Service to stop providing information to the public via Twitter accounts. All three of those agencies, and at least fifteen others, immediately set up alternate or rogue Twitter accounts outside of government channels. They’re operated by non-government employees. They post information Trump would prefer hidden. They argue Trump policies even more forcefully than would have been possible had not Trump applied the muzzle. 

A recent National Park Service posting, for example, introduced us to “Santos the Ocelot.” Santos is beautiful. The posting described the damage that would be done to animal life along the Mexican border if Trump’s wall were to be built. It went viral. What kind of shitheel would murder Santos the Ocelot?

Bucks and Slow-bucks

There is another technique bureaucrats have for undermining administrators. The best name I’ve heard for it was in Texas prisons: “slow-buck.” Convicts could slow-buck and so could guards.

When a bad order came down, convicts or staff could overtly defy it. The convicts could riot or just sit down; the guards could refuse to act. That was called a “buck” and it usually resulted in immediate reprisals: solitary, beating, gassing for the convicts; job loss for the guards. 

We just saw that when Trump fired Acting Attorney General Sally Q. Yates because she told Justice Department lawyers not to defend Trump’s anti-Muslim order. (When she was confirmed, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions wanted to be sure that if she got what she thought an illegal order from the president she would refuse to act on it. He’s been very quiet this week.) The rogue Twitter sites are another kind of buck: the boss says shut up; the staff finds another way to keep talking.

The slow-buck is far subtler. An order would be given or would come down, and people would set about carrying it out or following it. But, somehow, nothing would happen, nothing got done, or what got done was so screwed up it might as well not have been done. 

No one said, “No!” No one defied anyone. “Yes, boss,” the convicts said. “Yes, sir,” the guards said. There was motion, but nothing moved. At the end, things were pretty much where they were at the beginning. 

Trump has been in office not much more than a week. We’ve seen the start of bucks. There will be more. Slow-bucks take more time. But they’re coming.

It would be nice if Congress had the cojones or sense of responsibility to stand up and confront what is going on. It doesn’t. Not yet, anyway. In the absence of backbone on the Hill, bucks and slow-bucks in the enormous government bureaucracy may turn out to provide our best chance for getting through this nightmare. 

Bruce Jackson is an American folklorist, documentary filmmaker, writer, and photographer. He is SUNY Distinguished Professor and the James Agee Professor of American Culture at the University at Buffalo. He write for us a lot.