The Trump administration is hellbent on erasing the reality of people’s lives
Donald Trump’s authoritarian leanings are on full display nearly every day in his grandiose, paranoid tweets. The president’s anti-democratic impulses are one thing to behold — they often feel like an anomalous attack on America’s key norms and institutions.
But make no mistake: A similar strain of autocratic thinking has popped up across the Trump administration. Specifically, some of the president’s political appointees and their staffs have a habit of disappearing information they don’t like, without explanation.
Yes, I know. Jettisoning bureaucratic words or facts from public view, like the Department of Health and Human Services recently did when it removed several pages about breast cancer from its website, sounds pretty boring compared to the verbal fireworks President Trump stages every day on Twitter. Yet when federal agencies arguably resort to censorship, it tells you something about how the people who run them see the world — and how they may, or may not, see you.
The breast cancer resources, for example, included information about how low-income women could access low-cost or free mammograms through Obamacare, according to the nonpartisan government watchdog group Sunlight Foundation, which first reported on the missing pages. Though the HHS added a new page on breast cancer following media scrutiny, the information about affordable screenings is still missing.
Similarly, the HHS recently removed a page about lesbian and bisexual women’s health hosted on its site while also making related content much harder to access. The agency stayed silent about the changes until the Sunlight Foundation publicized the move. In both instances, spokespeople for the HHS insisted it never intended to suppress or censor the information — just reorganize and update it.
That sounds benign enough, but consider this alternative: While every administration injects politics into policymaking, many of those who followed Trump into the federal government seem determined to champion ideology over transparency, accountability, and public service.
In a statement, the Office of @WomensHealth confirmed the removal of lesbian & bisexual pages, & claimed the information would be integrated across the website & accessible through search. As @SunWebIntegrity documented, however, some GLBT resources remain offline or not indexed.
— Sunlight Foundation (@SunFoundation) April 6, 2018
They hope to remake reality so it reflects their religious or political views and priorities, and by doing so, they must deny that certain facts, laws, experiences, communities, and even some of their fellow Americans exist. Their role running American bureaucracy gives them the power to do just that, but on a massive scale.
The HHS’ decision to remove certain webpages, for example, might suggest some hope to limit access to information about free or low-cost cancer screenings because they’re part of Obamacare, or that some staffers don’t believe lesbian and bisexual women need a page solely dedicated to their health needs.
Elsewhere in the agency, Scott Lloyd, the director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, has spent the past several months trying to deny pregnant teenage girls under his jurisdiction access to abortion. That is not part of his official duty to aid refugees as they start a new life in the U.S., nor is it legally defensible, according to the ACLU.
Yet Lloyd, who opposes abortion rights, is so determined to impose his personal beliefs on teenagers in the government’s care, that he denied a minor’s request for an abortion — even though she said she’d been raped and would rather die by suicide than continue her pregnancy. When bureaucrats remake the bureaucracy in their own image, it’s real and it’s vulnerable people who suffer the consequences.
Susan Inman, chief counsel for federal policy and advocacy at the reproductive rights group Center for Reproductive Rights, says that some of the new agency staffers are driven by ideology and misunderstand — “to frame it generously” — what the government is supposed to do.
With Lloyd, for example, she argues that the time he takes to regularly review a spreadsheet of pregnant refugees is a distraction from the all-consuming duties of his job. He has enormous influence on people’s lives and, Inman says, “to exploit that relationship at such a direct level — I would describe it as an abuse of power.”
Inman, who served in the Obama administration in the Department of Education, is also concerned by the removal of previously available information on government websites and documents, particularly when it involves marginalized people and communities. The HHS strategic plan for 2014 through 2018, for example, identified several marginalized groups, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, racial and ethnic minorities, people with limited English proficiency, and immigrants, as well as “historically underserved populations,” and “vulnerable populations.” Such references weren’t included in the plan for 2018 through 2022.
Inman says the “vision of America being put out by the government” is an exclusive rather than inclusive one that “refuses to name certain populations.”
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University who has written about Trump’s authoritarian streak, says that while every presidential administration uses the government to reflect its worldview and political priorities, this one has a different kind of leader.
“Immediately authoritarians start attacking sectors of society, everything that depends on inquiry and evidence.”
Trump, she says, has created a “culture of threat” through his behavior and language — and he’s given Republicans “carte blanche” to carry out measures they’ve been yearning to implement for a decade. Meanwhile, Trump’s rise and leadership style are centered around the “triumph of the white male.” Now is the time for his supporters — including sympathetic bureaucrats — to strike back against liberal policies and reaffirm white men as the country’s rightful stewards. Trump, and his affection for authoritarianism, have created a uniquely dangerous moment in American history.
“Immediately authoritarians start attacking sectors of society, everything that depends on inquiry and evidence,” says Ben-Ghiat. “When you have somebody like that, one of the main things that happens over time is the bureaucracy becomes ideological.”
It didn’t take long, though, for the Environmental Protection Agency, helmed by Scott Pruitt, who denies the science of climate change, to reveal its anti-science tendencies. A year ago, the agency removed decades of climate change research and data from its website. When some of the missing resources reappeared months later, an important phrase was absent: climate change. Also gone were significant resources and tools previously available to help state, local, and tribal governments plan for the impact of climate change.
Just this week, the Department of Justice announced that it intends to stop asking 16- and 17-year-olds to disclose their sexual orientation and gender identity to the National Crime Victimization Survey. That survey, which asks respondents to voluntarily and confidentially disclose such personal information, has helped provide advocates and lawmakers with critical data about the victimization of LGBTQ people, who experience higher rates of hate crimes and other types of violence.
Justice Dept is trying to stop asking 16 and 17 year olds if they’re LGBT in National Crime Victimization Survey — thereby removing a data point about a population that experiences high rates of violence.
— Dominic Holden (@dominicholden) April 11, 2018
The Justice Department wants to raise the minimum age to answer these questions to 18, “due to concerns about the potential sensitivity of these questions for adolescents.” But LGBTQ advocates say failing to collect that data threatens to erase vulnerable youth from the picture.
Toly Rinberg, director of the Web Integrity Project at the Sunlight Foundation, says the removal of facts and resources from government websites can undermine transparent and accountable government practices. What the government does with information is directly tied to the public’s ability to hold politicians accountable, and engage in vital democratic debate.
“If you don’t notify the public, but you’ve made significant changes to content of public value, that generates confusion and sows doubt in the authority of the agency and integrity of past information,” he says. Failing to provide a sufficient explanation for such a decision can also hint at underlying shifts in policy that are not transparent to the public.
Meanwhile, omissions, censorship, and ideology deprive Americans of the chance to fully inform themselves. What you get instead is an alternate state-sponsored reality in which, for example, climate change doesn’t exist, refugee minors have no constitutional right to an abortion, low-income women don’t need to know about free breast cancer screenings, and LGBTQ people aren’t disproportionately victims of violence.
And lest you think that government websites are abandoned corners of the internet, in the past 90 days, the websites of the HHS and EPA, respectively, received close to 400 million and 25 million visits. People use pages hosted by these sites to better understand regulations, healthcare plans, how to file civil rights complaints, and to check local air and water quality. Even if some of the recently amended or removed pages received comparatively low traffic, that doesn’t warrant their removal.
“We should certainly hold the government accountable when it genuinely removes or obscures the facts it compiled over numerous years with taxpayer dollars, without justification,” Rinberg says.
There is one less-than-obvious way to fight ideological creep in our bureaucracies, and it’s not necessarily protesting in the streets or writing your elected official. It’s something decidedly unsexy: commenting on proposed regulations in the federal register, the so-called journal of the United States government.
“When people can tell their personal stories, it makes it a lot harder [for the government to] justify its behavior.”
When bureaucrats want to make significant changes to policies or procedures, they must publish the proposed rule or regulation and invite the comment to public. The responsible agency is then required to read all of those comments.
“When people can tell their personal stories, it makes it a lot harder [for the government to] justify its behavior,” Inman says. “That is critical.”
Since it’s difficult for the average citizen to track most proposed changes, Inman recommends checking the websites of nonprofit or advocacy groups for updates as well as links to commenting opportunities.
You may not ultimately win the bigger battle, but you’ll create a record of your lived experience that ideological bureaucrats can’t destroy or hide, no matter how much they’d like to pretend you don’t exist.