Trump Isn’t the First President to Use His Postmaster for Politics - OZY | A Modern Media Company

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Trump's politicization of the postal service is an echo of almost exactly 100 years ago.

By Jacob Pagano

  • President Trump and his postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, have been making changes to the U.S. Postal Service that some call sabotage. But Woodrow Wilson did that 100 years ago.
  • Wilson’s policies, driven by a commitment to racist segregation, saw a workplace that had been largely integrated turn back the clock.

It turns out that 2020 can politicize anything. As recently as April, 91 percent of Americans viewed the U.S. Postal Service favorably, making it the most popular agency — and the only one that both Republicans and Democrats love equally. For comparison, in 2019, just 21 percent of Republicans and 14 percent of Democrats said they felt they could trust the government. But with COVID-19 pushing people away from public gatherings, 2020 is shaping up to be an election that’s more dependent on mail-in ballots than any in history — and that’s seen President Trump stoke distrust of vote-by-mail and his loyal postmaster general and megadonor Louis DeJoy institute a number of policies such as limiting overtime and removing sorting machines.

Democrats were so concerned that they called Congress back from recess to hold hearings, and DeJoy has promised to delay the policies slowing down the mail until after the election (though that won’t bring back the mailboxes and sorting machines he’s already removed). On Saturday, the House is expected to vote on $25 billion in funding for the agency, which is what the USPS Board of Governors says it needs to facilitate fair elections and daily mail services.

But if this seems like an unprecedented politicization of the mail … well, it’s not. Past presidents have used the institution not for public good but political opportunism. Trump favorite President Andrew Jackson oversaw a ban on the circulation of abolitionist materials in the South to ensure public opinion remained pro-slavery. Jackson was also known for packing postal service leadership with his hand-picked loyalists.

But for the most direct parallel to Trump, we have to go back to the last U.S. president to preside over a pandemic: Woodrow Wilson. The Democrat known for presiding over the creation of the Federal Reserve and the winning of WWI was also the first to attempt to disenfranchise voters via the mail, though he never sought to wield it as a tool for reelection. Working hand in hand with his postmaster general, Albert S. Burleson, Wilson oversaw measures that re-segregated the postal service and undermined actions taken by previous presidents to protect Black mail carriers. Meanwhile, Burleson also invoked the Espionage Act to ban circulation of anti-war materials and outlawed worker strikes, with Wilson’s encouragement.

Although the post office saw several notable improvements under Wilson, such as the civilian airmail service, his most notable impact was discriminating against Black Americans. In the early 20th century, African Americans found steady employment in post offices, settling into stable careers that helped lead to the emergence of a Black middle class. By 1912, there were more than 4,000 Black postal workers nationwide. Though these workers still faced widespread racial discrimination, parts of the federal service, such as the Railway Mail Service (RMS), were largely integrated. But when Wilson, who frequently expressed racist views, came to office, he chose segregationist Burleson as his postmaster general — and at the latter’s very first cabinet meeting, they commiserated about re-segregating the RMS.

“It was a dark chapter in the history of the post office,” says Richard John, a professor at Columbia Journalism School who has written extensively about the postal service. “In a sense, [Wilson’s administration] re-segregated the post office. He believed reconstruction was a tragic mistake, and he had a principal aversion to race mixing.” The changes under Wilson, John says, were morally degrading and contributed to the ongoing discrimination against Black Americans, including at the voting booth. 

President Woodrow Wilson Delivering Speech

President Woodrow Wilson

That’s not that different from what we’re seeing today. According to the Pew Research Center, DeJoy’s ongoing effort to shrink the USPS payroll would almost certainly have a disproportionate effect on racial and ethnic minorities (and on veterans, of which USPS is one of the largest employers in the nation). More than 40 percent of postal workers are non-white, compared to 22 percent of the general labor force.

Parallels also arise in how Wilson and Trump defend their actions. Much as Trump claimed that stopping vote-by-mail was important for election security, Wilson insisted that re-segregating the postal service was key to civic well-being, despite evidence to the contrary. In a letter to the NAACP board chairman, Oswald Garrison Villard, Wilson argued that segregation was good for Black people, saying, “We are rendering [people of color] … less likely to be discriminated against.” Neither Trump nor Wilson kept up their pretenses for long: Wilson soon reframed his policy as explicitly pro-segregationist, while Trump has now openly linked his campaign against postal funding with his vendetta against voting by mail — even though he himself will be voting by mail in swing state Florida this fall.

Despite growing opposition, some observers view Burleson and DeJoy as necessary reformers. Burleson is widely credited with establishing the “zone system” to determine mail costs, while DeJoy has been praised for his logistics-oriented approach by those who see the postal service as a money-losing bureaucratic nightmare.

Nonetheless, many legal scholars and attorneys are sounding the alarm that Trump’s postal service strategy is even more menacing to American democracy than Wilson’s racist campaign. Lawrence Douglas, a professor at Amherst College whose recent book maps out potential scenarios for a peaceful post-Trump transition of power, sees Trump’s moves as part of a broader strategy. “It increases the likelihood that he could be leading on November 3,” Douglas says. “This will create opportunities for him to litigate the count of mail-in ballots. He’s turning the USPS into a tool for voter suppression.” 

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