Assert Civilian Control of the Bureaucracy
In 1951, President Harry Truman fired General Douglas MacArthur after the two had a series of public disagreements over the direction of the Korean War. While Truman’s decision was deeply unpopular with voters at the time, it was ultimately the right choice, because it reasserted the basic principle of civilian control of the military.
Civilian control of the military rests on the recognition that in America, the military is subordinate to the will of the people. This principle is laid out explicitly in the Constitution, which gives control of the armed forces to a civilian Congress and commander in chief. Presidents have upheld the norm for most of our history.
There is an understandable case to be made for deferring to military officials—who, after all, know more about war than almost any politician—during times of foreign threat. But wise political leaders have always recognized that allowing military leadership to become too powerful in relation to the civilian government is the first step on the road to an American Caesar or Napoleon. However much we might dislike our politicians, at least they are directly accountable to the voters.
But the military is only one of a number of unelected government agencies, any of which, if given too much power, could pose a similar threat to public sovereignty. In modern America, we must assert a new, complementary principle: civilian control of the bureaucracy.
The career apparatchik Dr. Anthony Fauci cuts a less striking figure than General Douglas MacArthur. But in the last year of Donald Trump’s presidency, Fauci became to Trump what MacArthur was to Truman: a public critic of the president’s policy approach, and a cult figure to those who opposed it.
As early as March 2020, Fauci was speaking wistfully to the media about his inability to “jump in front of the microphone and push [Trump] down.” By the time of the election, he was saying that America was positioned poorly and “in for a world of hurt” during the winter season. And although Fauci never gave the sort of “old soldiers never die” speech that defined MacArthur’s legacy, he did become the subject of votive candles and sinister songs of praise.
Once Fauci began publicly contradicting the president, he should have been summarily fired, just like MacArthur was. His job was not to editorialize on the president’s pandemic plan, but to put that plan into action. Any disagreements should have been aired privately. If Fauci wished to exercise his First Amendment right to publicly criticize the president, then he ought to have quit—as James Mattis did when his differences with Trump proved irreconcilable.
It does not matter whether Fauci was right, any more than it mattered whether MacArthur was right in wanting to expand the war in Korea. Donald Trump was the duly elected president, and Anthony Fauci was not. Our system of representative democracy is based on the notion that the people get a say in how we are governed—not a complete say all of the time, but a very strong say much of the time. If the people sometimes make the wrong choice, it is a risk we must accept as the price of freedom. America was not designed to be an oligarchy, either of generals or scientists.
Of the many decisions that Donald Trump made during his presidency, his greatest mistake may have been refusing to fire Anthony Fauci. It will set a deeply concerning precedent for the future of bureaucratic power. If Truman had not fired MacArthur in 1951, then the military leadership would have been given license to unilaterally direct foreign policy over the objections of the president. Unfortunately, we find ourselves in a bureaucratic version of that scenario today.
Trump had good political reasons for not firing Fauci, as doing so would have given the doctor freedom to attack Trump even more openly during a hotly contested election cycle. But strong leaders must sometimes make costly political choices. Truman’s decision to fire MacArthur cost him greatly. Trump might have lost the election—in other words, he would be where he is now—but he would have won a more important victory over what he termed the “deep state.”
For all his rhetoric about strength and toughness, Trump did not have the gumption of Truman, or even of President Obama, who rightly fired General Stanley McChrystal in 2010 after the latter disparaged him publicly. As they decide whether to select Trump as the party’s standard-bearer again in 2024, Republican primary voters will have to take this into account.
A few years ago, most of us had never even heard of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases or its director. We could have never dreamed he would exert such vast power. But while public-health bureaucrats have been the most powerful force of late, they are not the only source of danger in the bureaucracy. A bureaucratic tyrant could well arise from among the two million workers (and several million more contractors and grantees) who comprise our vast, teeming federal government.
In the future, we may find ourselves equally beholden to any number of federal departments as we now do to the NIAID, depending on the crisis or social issue du jour. (Pete Buttigieg’s Department of Transportation could be a contender amid the current energy crisis.) And while most federal employees likely lean left, it is perfectly plausible that one could begin exerting power in such a way as to give liberals cause to regret their embrace of the Fauci precedent.
To prevent this, Americans should implement reforms to reestablish civilian control of the bureaucracy. No unelected public employee must ever again be allowed to gain Fauci-level power. If we fail, then the groundwork will remain in place for more bureaucratic MacArthurs to arise, culminating, perhaps, in the unimaginably horrible spectacle of a bureaucratic Napoleon.
Jason Garshfield is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Townhall, RealClearPolitics, and numerous other publications.