On September 22nd, with an uncharacteristic lack of fanfare, President Donald Trump signed executive order 13950 into law. Titled "Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping", it was, in classically Orwellian doublethink, designed to do just the opposite.
Not that most people even noticed. It didn’t make any of the network news bulletins on television that night. They were too concerned with the supreme court vacancy and Trump’s bizarre claim he did a fine job protecting the country from coronavirus to focus on something specifically intended to copperfasten inequality of all kinds.
Within days, however, companies and institutions all over America were reacting to it. They immediately cancelled all programmes supposed to promote diversity in hiring practices, to improve equality of opportunity for minorities, and to battle sexual and racial harassment in the workplace. Those, apparently, can longer be tolerated. Any organisation found to be using phrases such as “white privilege”, “systemic racism” and “unconscious bias” in their training of employees would be contravening the president’s wishes and liable to lose lucrative government contracts or, in the case of schools, colleges and universities, crucial federal funding.
After a summer of extraordinary social discontent, yet more police shootings of unarmed black people and violent street protests that caused even corporate America to finally wake up to the need to address racial inequality, this was payback time by Trump and his administration. Among other things, the order prevents any institution that receives public money from discussing historical events such as slavery in a way that causes an individual to “feel discomfort, guilt or anguish”. A tip line has even been established for aggrieved employees or students to report such incidents to the authorities.
Executive orders are not legislation, do not require congressional approval and can only be overturned by a sitting president. Every incumbent since George Washington has used them, and Franklin D Roosevelt used one to send 100,000 Japanese-Americans to internment camps during the second World War.
Barack Obama was a fan of the device, especially by 2014, when it became clear that the Republican-controlled House was going to frustrate his every attempt to legislate in the normal way. Even his supporters point out his fondness for these very orders showed Trump and his handlers exactly how much could be achieved with a swoop of the pen.
He has issued 56 so far this year and 193 in total since his inauguration, a strike rate far outstripping Obama, Bill Clinton and the two Bushes. In his first month in office back in 2017, he set the tone, showcasing his determination to bypass Congress in order to implement controversial initiatives designed to play well in the more extreme caverns of talk radio.
In quick succession he used his unilateral power to ban citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries, including refugees, from entering the United States, to try to emasculate Obama's overhaul of the healthcare system and to remove protections afforded transgender students who want to use school bathrooms corresponding to their gender identity.
More recent executive orders have ranged from ridiculous (trying and failing to put manners on Tik Tok) and ineffective (an unenforceable, attention-grabbing attempt to lower the cost of prescription medicines) to downright sinister. Witness this month’s executive order 13957, On Creating Schedule F in The Excepted Service, a spectacularly dull title disguising more malevolent intent.
Effectively, it created a new category of permanent civil servant, allowing those in that classification to be fired at will for releasing information or producing data contradicting the administration’s policy goals. Aside from controlling the message, pundits interpret it as Trump giving himself power to sack troublesome truth-tellers such as Dr Anthony Fauci or those in the Center for Disease Control whose scientific findings undermine his own narrative about the virus.
While Trump claims he just wants a way to eliminate underperforming workers, he has removed all employment protection from swathes of long-serving civil servants and given himself the ability to replace them with political cronies. That was the reason cited by Ronald Sanders, chairman of the Federal Salary Council, when he tendered his resignation to the White House last Monday.
“The executive order is nothing more than a smokescreen for what is clearly an attempt to require the political loyalty of those who advise the president,” said Sanders, “or failing that, to enable their removal with little, if any, due process.”
Distracted by the circus
One of the fundamental issues with this presidency is that the media often get distracted by the circus act, so swept up in the daily Twitter storms that they fail to notice his administration assiduously working to remake the fabric of the country. While his first couple of executive orders garnered huge publicity and, in the case of the travel ban and healthcare, ensuing lawsuits, very few people even knew about him declaring war on diversity and inclusion or introducing a type of “loyalty to the leader” clause in the civil service.
The problem is that the frequency with which he resorts to these orders can make it hard to keep up. Some are diversionary, such as establishing the environmentally friendly One Trillion Trees Interagency Council earlier this month while simultaneously opening up 9.3 million virgin acres of Alaska's Tongass National Forest for logging.
Others are presumably concocted to convince him his reality show remains top of the ratings. Think of the forgettable summer night at his New Jersey golf club when he signed a whopping four executive orders supposedly solving the economic problems caused by the pandemic. Largely cosmetic measures, they did get a hearty round of applause from the watching members in their polo shirts and shorts,
This past week, it emerged that, for his next trick, Trump is considering an executive order to protect and to promote fracking with an eye to figuring out how to expand it using new technology. A lot of countries have moved away from the practice due to the adverse impact on the environment and water quality, but the president believes it might be enough to get him the win in Pennsylvania next Tuesday. And that is, ultimately, all that matters.