Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair
Donald Trump’s war on U.S. governance and democracy has targeted two of the oldest institutions in the country—the Post Office and the Census. The Post Office is older than the Constitution, tracing its roots to 1775 during the Second Continental Congress, when Benjamin Franklin was appointed the first postmaster general. The first Census was taken in 1790, just after the election of George Washington; it is taken every ten years in order to allocate seats for the House of Representatives. Both institutions are explicitly authorized by the United States Constitution, and no U.S. president—other than Andrew Jackson—has tried to compromise them.
The Post Office has been in Trump’s cross hairs since he was told (falsely) in 2017 that he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton due to widespread mail-in balloting fraud. The following year, Trump targeted Jeff Bezos, who owns Amazon and the Washington Post; he charged (falsely) that Bezos was “ripping off” the Post Office with “sweetheart deals” to ship Amazon’s packages. Trump, of course, is obsessed with the negative coverage he receives in the Post as well as the New York Times. In 2019, Trump named three new members of the Postal Service Board of Governors, which elects the postmaster general. In 2020, Louis DeJoy, who has donated more than $2 million to the Republican Party since Trump’s election, was named postmaster general. The day after he was named, DeJoy bought stock in FedEx and UPS, the key rivals to the postal service.
Interestingly, President Andrew Jackson, whose portrait was hung in the Oval Office by Trump soon after his inauguration, also politicized the Post Office. He replaced 13 percent of postal workers, who Jackson believed were loyal to his predecessor John Quincy Adams. Winifred Gallagher, author of “How the Post Office Created America,” is responsible for identifying Trump’s historical ties to President Jackson. Trump stated publicly that he opposed additional funding for the United States Postal Service (USPS) because he didn’t want it to have the funding needed to ensure that mail-in ballots would be delivered in a timely manner. He also tweeted that the election itself could be delayed because the pandemic made it unsafe to vote in person.
Postmaster General DeJoy, appointed in June to politicize the Post Office, immediately overhauled the corporate structure of the Postal Service. He reassigned 33 top executives, thereby compromising the institutional memory of the Service. He introduced so-called cost cutting measures, which are, in fact, designed to compromise the delivery of mail prior to a presidential election that will be decided by mail-in balloting. DeJoy has forbidden postal workers to make extra trips to ensure prompt mail delivery, and has cracked down on the overtime needed routinely to clear mail backlogs.
DeJoy’s Post Office also is deactivating essential mail sorting machines prior to the election. According to an article in Vice by Aaron Gordon, at least 19 machines have been removed or scheduled for removal at five processing facilities across the country, including New York, Pennsylvania, and Montana. The Postal Service has offered no explanation for this decision. At the same time, dozens of mail boxes in a handful of states have been removed, although a written protest from Senator Jon Tester (D/MT) may have stopped this activity at least temporarily. In addition to the deactivation of high-speed sorters and the loss of overtime, DeJoy announced that first-class postage would now be required on the mailing of ballots. On August 18, in response to a great deal of political opposition, DeJoy announced that he would suspend the removal of mail processing equipment and blue collection boxes. A great deal of damage already has been done, however, with the removal of equipment and collection boxes. Moreover, there is still the problem of fully funding the Postal Service, and the need to investigate DeJoy’s conflict of interests
In addition to the politicization of the Post Office and the attack on mail-in voting, the Trump administration has targeted the Census Bureau. The census of course is the key to representative government, which is why the Founding Fathers made the decennial enumeration of our entire population the first job of the federal government. The census is the key to state representation in the House of Representatives and to the distribution of $1.5 trillion for various public programs. As an editorial in the New York Times explained, “businesses rely on the data to plan investments;” “school districts rely on it to decide how many teachers to hire;” and “researchers use it to analyze the patterns of American life.” This is just the kind of data and intelligence that Trump abhors.
According to a research professor at George Washington University, for every person missed by the 2010 census, that person’s state lost about $1000 in federal funding for Medicaid and child welfare programs. People of color and non-citizens will be greatly effected. These are the programs and people that Trump and the Republican Party abhor.
Because of the pandemic and the difficulty of going door-to-door, this already promised to be the least accurate census ever taken. In June 2020, the Trump administration created two new top-level positions at the Census Bureau and filled them with political appointees, clearly empowered to reduce the count of immigrants and ethnic minorities. Neither appointee had experience in administration, let alone census issues. One of them, Nathaniel Cogley, the new deputy director for policy, previously had made numerous media appearances to denounce the impeachment case against Trump. Following the appointments, the Trump administration announced that the census count would end a month earlier than originally planned, another step to assure the undercount of historically underrepresented groups.
At the start of his administration, Trump tried to add a question to the census to depress the count of non-citizens, and thus benefit Republicans and non-Hispanic Whites. The Trump administration had the audacity to argue that the Department of Commerce needed the citizenship question in order to help the Department of Justice enforce the Voting Rights Act. The Supreme Court stopped that act of chutzpah, recognizing that Trump’s Justice Department has never evidenced any interest in securing voting rights.
All of Trump’s acts of politicization have overwhelming support from the congressional Republican caucus. The House of Representatives has passed legislation to extend the census through April 2021 because of the pandemic, but Senator Mitch McConnell (R/KY) predictably refuses to allow a vote. Ironically, McConnell represents one of the poorest states in the nation that would benefit the most from an accurate count.
Benjamin Franklin acknowledged to an inquiring citizen in Philadelphia in 1776 that the Founding Fathers had created a republic, but it would be up to the American citizenry to maintain it. He warned that experiments in self-government elsewhere had ended in despotism “when the people became so corrupted as to need despotic government.” Too many authoritarians have been elected, gradually seizing power in an incremental and even legal fashion. Well, Trump wasn’t popularly elected, and his moves against the Post Office and the Census are illegal, presumably unconstitutional, putting American governance and our republic at risk.