Writers, bloggers, commenters, and pundits nearly exhausted the dictionary in the runup to the president’s July 4th Trumpapalooza™. With his tanks, parades, flyovers, and personal address, Donald Trump’s appropriation of America’s Independence Day rightly earned descriptions ranging from inappropriate, disgusting, and self-serving to grotesque, Orwellian, and masturbatory. But word that the Republican National Committee was distributing special reserved-seat tickets to GOP megadonors and VIPs to a taxpayer-funded event produced a qualitatively different reaction. As conservative columnist and Never-Trumper Jennifer Rubin put it, “This is the mother of all Hatch Act violations.”
Writing in Slate, legal analyst Dahlia Lithwick offered a primer on what types of July Fourth hijinks could indeed constitute violations of the Hatch Act, the 1939 law “that bars virtually all federal employees from engaging in partisan political activities.” But whatever Hatch Act transgressions may have emerged from Donald Trump’s autodeification in D.C. last Thursday, one thing is certain: Trump’s right-wing media enablers and Republican allies on Capitol Hill will defiantly brush them under the rug. As the record-setting Hatch Act lawlessness of Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway shows, today’s Republicans have no problem with politicizing the operations of the federal government and politicizing crime itself.
As University of New Mexico professor Jason Scott Smith explained this week, the good government legislation pursued by Senator Carl Hatch sought to prevent possible partisan political abuses by a Democratic president. While fascist regimes in Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany were turning government programs into massive propaganda operations to cement the dictators’ personal power, Hatch wanted to forestall the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration from doing the same in the United States. While congressional investigations in the 1930s found that attempts to coerce WPA workers were rare and ineffective, concerns lingered about the potential for “politics in relief.” Writes Smith, “As a result, section 9(a) of Hatch’s proposed law declared, ‘No officer or employee in the executive branch of the Federal Government, or any agency or department thereof, shall take any active part in political management or in political campaigns.’”
Sixty years later, taking “active part in political management or in political campaigns” is precisely what Kellyanne Conway stands accused of doing.