Joseph McCarthy; Rex Tillerson (AP/William J. Smith/Patsy Lynch)

What's the state of State? Trump plans to run foreign policy without the professionals

Right-wingers have hated the State Department since the days of Joe McCarthy, but never has it been so abandoned


Heather Digby Parton
March 7, 2017 6:10PM (UTC)

Salon's Matthew Rosza reported on Monday on the incredible shrinking man, Rex Tillerson, the formerly larger-than-life Exxon CEO turned secretary of state who — despite the world's high level of interest in the Trump administration's new foreign policy — has barely been seen since he was sworn in. Nobody knows whether Tillerson is just keeping out of the eye of the Trump tornado or if he's been sidelined by the White House in favor of the "shadow secretary," President Donald Trump's 35-year-old son-in-law Jared Kushner. Whatever the case, it's unusual. The department is said to be rudderless and demoralized, carrying on without any sense of direction or purpose.

Monday was supposed to be the first State Department briefing since former President Barack Obama's final day in office, but it was canceled because of the announcement of Trump's new travel ban. One would think that would be an excellent day to begin, but apparently the administration doesn't want the Department of State meddling in foreign affairs. The lack of these briefings is one more oddity in the new Trump regime. They were held at the State Department every day since the Eisenhower administration and for a specific purpose. Such briefings are the main method of disseminating the government's diplomatic agenda abroad. There may not be more than a handful of American reporters and C-SPAN junkies paying attention, but they are closely watched all over the world by foreign governments. It's been radio silence since Jan. 19.

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The administration says the briefings will begin again and has hired Heather Nauert of "Fox & Friends" to lead them so perhaps all this is nothing but more inefficiency and bad management. Reports coming out of the department are dismal.

The Atlantic's Julia Ioffe wrote an in-depth piece about the current state of the State Department and it's rather shocking. She described a department where people wander around without any work to do, no visitors arrive at the building, key staffers are left out of the loop and no requests for analysis or information have been forthcoming from the White House. People spend their days sending out résumés in anticipation of Trump's promise to deliver a cut of more than 30 percent to the department's staff.

In some ways, this should not be such a huge surprise. Trump is clueless, of course. He can't run the Oval Office much less oversee the executive branch. But modern conservatives have long been skeptical of the State Department and have sought to limit its influence for many decades.

The famous espionage case of Alger Hiss, who had been a high-ranking diplomat involved with the Yalta Conference (a right-wing bugaboo), and the creation of the United Nations after World War II focused anti-communist attention on the State Department in the late 1940s. That set the table for the next phase of the Red Scare in 1950, when Sen. Joseph McCarthy launched his famous crusade in Wheeling, West Virginia, by waving around a piece of paper and declaring that it was "a list of 205" State Department employees known to the secretary of state as communists. In later public pronouncements, McCarthy's number would vary: Was it 57 commies, 81 or maybe just 10? He never produced a name.

McCarthy went on to smear much of the rest of the government and even the military before he was through, being helped every step of the way by his ally Richard Nixon as well as his lawyer Roy Cohn — who also happens to have been Donald Trump's mentor. What a small world!

Throughout the Cold War the right-wingers remained suspicious of the State Department with its squishy mandate for treaties and diplomacy, which they believed was a weak way to face the Evil Empire. When the Soviet Union broke up, they lost that rationale but quickly replaced it with new ones.

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After the war in Iraq started to sour in the summer of 2003, disgraced former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, being the cunning propagandist he is, wrote an essay for Foreign Policy called "Rogue State Department," which placed the blame where the right always places it. The subhead was this evergreen conservative riff: "Anti-American sentiment is rising unabated around the globe because the U.S. State Department has abdicated values and principles in favor of accommodation and passivity."

The Christian Coalition's Pat Robertson even got into a spot of trouble for musing on his show, "Maybe we need a very small nuke thrown off on Foggy Bottom to shake things up like Newt Gingrich wants to do," referring to the Washington neighborhood west of the White House where the State Department has long had its headquarters.

By the time of the 2016 campaign the conservative movement had gone back to its roots with conspiracy-theory claims that the State Department had been infiltrated by the Muslim Brotherhood, led by Huma Abedin, Hillary Clinton's aide. It's always something.

One might assume that this pattern informs the Trump administration. But even though the president is weirdly smearing for President Barack Obama for alleged McCarthyism (while simultaneously planning to purge the government of suspected disloyal employees), Trump doesn't really operate by the normal right-wing playbook. As much as conservatives have battled with the State Department for being too passive, no Republican administration ever shut it down.

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Trump has no idea what the State Department does, and in any case he's too busy ranting on Twitter to bother with it. His close associates are almost all novices without a deep connection to conservative movement history or philosophy, so the abandonment of the State Department is most likely attributable to Tillerson's lack of experience and Steve Bannon's chilling if half-baked plan for the "deconstruction of the administrative state."

Ioffe quoted a midlevel State Department officer in her Atlantic article who said, "They really want to blow this place up. I don’t think this administration thinks the State Department needs to exist. They think Jared [Kushner] can do everything. It’s reminiscent of the developing countries where I’ve served. The family rules everything, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs knows nothing.”

But this isn't a developing country. This is the U.S. State Department, and these are career government employees who have gone through many transitions and never seen anything like this. The planet's only superpower and guarantor of global security for more than 70 years has abruptly withdrawn from its diplomatic role in the world, without any plan to replace it.

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Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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