How Trump's war on USPS threatens democracy itself

Highways, the free press, the expectation of privacy — all of these owe a debt to the postal service

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published August 12, 2020 7:00PM (EDT)

Old Post Office Pavilion (Getty/zrfphoto)
Old Post Office Pavilion (Getty/zrfphoto)

Most of us think of the postal service as a mail system, and little more. Yet it turns out that highways and roads, mass media, the idea of privacy, and much more all owe a direct debt to the history of the United States Postal Service (USPS).

The recent political machinations of Trump, and the postmaster general he appointed to that post, suggest that his administration is trying to slow, or perhaps even destroy, the United States Postal Service for partisan reasons.

In the process, Trump and his allies illustrate an obliviousness for one of America's most revolutionary institutions. Indeed, in terms of its role in shaping American civilization, the postal service is on par with the internet and democracy itself. 

Last week, the Trump administration perpetrated what has become known as the "Friday Night Massacre." Postmaster General Louis DeJoy — the former CEO of a company called New Breed Logistics and a major Republican contributor to Trump — fired a number of top executives and reshuffled more than two dozen other employees. Before that, he had slashed the agency's budget so drastically that it slowed down mail service, including delivery of mail-in ballots in recent primary elections. Under his watch, the USPS has issued a new guideline that deliberately slows down the mail service, and USPS officials are now pushing to nearly triple the cost of postage for mail-in ballots. DeJoy was reportedly appointed because his predecessor was upset at how Trump was trying to discredit the Postal Service.

Because there are 30 states where ballots must be received on or before Election Day in order to be counted, DeJoy's policy could disenfranchise millions of Americans who vote through mail-in balloting this year. Trump has been personally working toward that end by spreading misinformation about mail-in ballots being susceptible to fraud, even though there is no evidence of that and he supports absentee balloting (which is basically the same thing).

There are many reasons to be concerned about these developments. Yet one aspect of this story that has been underreported is how, by debasing the Postal Service, Trump is throwing one of America's greatest achievements into a figurative trashbin. USPS's institutional history goes all the way back to the Founding Fathers, and is interwoven with our understanding of what privacy means.

"I would start kind of immediately with 1792 when James Madison and George Washington established the civic mandate for the institution," Richard John, a professor of journalism at Columbia Journalism School and author of "Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse," told Salon. He said that some of its most important traits were the "low cost circulation of newspapers," the fact that there was "congressional control — which means popular control over the designation of routes" and that "the network that would expand with the country, and [with] privacy so the government will not as a matter of principle open your mail."

In a roundabout way, the modern idea of privacy was shaped by the postal system. That e-mails are assumed to be private from the moment they are sent to the moment we open them is an expectation that derives in part from the promise of privacy in physical mail.

John argued that the act that created the postal system, known as the Post Office Act of 1792, was "more important in establishing the foundations of the information infrastructure than any other piece of legislation until the First World War."

Because the United States government was willing to invest in developing a sophisticated postal service, it became the biggest information network in the world by 1828, John explained. "The post office was so admired, lawmakers were calling [for] the government to take over Western Union and run it like the post office," he continued. 

Author Edward Bellamy's utopian novel "Looking Backward" advocated for an economy that was run like the post office; Soviet Premier Vladimir Lenin made a similar argument, and the post office was praised by historical figures from robber-baron Andrew Carnegie to marketing pioneer John Wanamaker.

David Morris, the co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and a longstanding advocate of the USPS, explained to Salon that the post office was instrumental in making American democracy work.

"Its primary goal was to knit together the country, and it did that," Morris told Salon. "The second primary goal, if you can have two primary goals, was to inform the country — that is, to build citizenship." Morris explained that, by building postal roads, the postal service laid the foundations for the national highway system decades later.

In terms of building citizenship and informing the country, the postal system achieved that, too, by delivering newspapers for free or almost free for decades. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson advocated for the distribution of periodicals on the basis of stimulating a free and robust press.

Morris said in that sense that the post office was "the creator of a democracy —the infrastructure of a democracy in terms of physical communication and in terms of intellectual communication." And because the federal government took pride in its postal service and was diligent about maintaining its quality, "it continued to be the most sophisticated [postal service in the world] until very recently. . . . at the very beginning, it was probably the most complex post office in the world."

There are clear parallels between the USPS and the internet. Both institutions exist because the American government was willing to invest considerable sums of money and human energy into making them happen, exposing the conservative lie that private enterprise alone can achieve such monumental results. Both made it possible for citizens to transmit information — whether about current events or through private messages — with an efficiency and speed that was unprecedented at the time. And both were fundamentally decentralized, making it difficult for foreign adversaries to attack them.

They are also both testaments to the American innovative spirit, one that conservatives claim to support even as Trump attempts to gut the post office today.

"I can't think of another institution that you could tell the whole history of the United States through their lens," Rebecca Brenner Graham, a PhD student at American University writing her dissertation about the USPS, told Salon. "You can tell the whole American history through the lens of the post office."

When asked about Trump's claim that mail-in balloting would lend itself to fraud, Graham told Salon that "this spirit of mail-in balloting is precisely the kind of civic participation that the Post Office has tried to advance since the Post Office Act of 1792."

John, when asked if Trump is correct in his complaints about fraud for mail-in ballots, emphatically replied, "No."

He added, "I mean, everyone has looked at. It says now it's very hard" to commit vote-by-mail fraud.

Political Scientist Edie Goldenberg writes that since 2000, there have been only 204 allegations and 143 convictions for voter fraud that involved mail-in ballots. In that span, 250 million mail-in ballots were cast. There were far more allegations of voter fraud for in-person voting in the same span

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Donald Trump Furthering Mail-in Balloting Mail-in Voting Post Office Usps