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Is There a Deep State, and If So What Is It?

At 3:54 a.m. on May 23, 2018, President Donald Trump took to his favorite medium to do one of the things  he does best: complain about his many enemies in bloviating, histrionic terms. “Look how things have turned around on the Criminal Deep State,” he tweeted, going on to complain about the presence of an FBI informant in his campaign.  “They go after Phony Collusion with Russia, a made up Scam, and end up getting caught in a major SPY scandal the likes of which this country may never have seen before! What goes around, comes around!” Despite his profligate posting, Trump does not speak much of the Deep State (he has used the term in five tweets since becoming president), but it has become the favored boogeyman of those around him. From Steve Bannon—who refers to it as “the administrative state”—to Kellyanne Conway, the Deep State has become the administration’s catchall term for a nebulous collection of Obama-era appointees and civil service veterans who are working to undermine the Trump agenda. Mining a conspiratorial vein, Fox News—the closest thing to an official Trump mouthpiece and a profound influence on the TV watcher-in-chief—has leaned heavily into Deep State rhetoric, which is of a piece with the network’s jingoism and its tendency to periodically accuse non-white government officials, like Hillary Clinton advisor Huma Abedin or former Department of Agriculture official Shirley Sherrod, of subversion. The Deep State mania extends to the web, where a Google search for “deep state” on FoxNews.com yields more than thirty-six thousand results.

The normal course of governance—that civil servants, in the spirit of disinterested public service, would do their jobs regardless of who is in office—makes little sense to him. That also explains why, as of this spring, “more than half of the six hundred and fifty-six most critical [government] positions [were] still unfilled,” according to The New Yorker.  Trump, whose taste for firing people is matched by his utter fecklessness, cannot find enough people he trusts. Numerous other career civil servants, particularly in the State Department, have either been forced out or consigned to grunt work, like processing Freedom of Information Act requests. Those jobs that have been filled have often gone to Trump loyalists—many of them stunningly incompetent—or to graduates of the conservative think-tank pipeline. If Trump is determined to crush the Deep State, it seems he will do it with equal parts neglect and intentional malice.

Team Trump’s Deep State fixation, however, is somewhat of a red herring. Although there may be elements of the U.S. government that oppose Trump—and even actively work to undermine his policies—Trump is still the president, controlling an imperial executive office whose power has only grown in the war on terror years. And despite his repulsive manner, many of Trump’s policies are supported in parts of the federal government, such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), whose officials, even as they deported record numbers of people during the Obama administration, some- times complained to reporters that they received more criticism than support.

The turn toward a Deep State obsession makes sense for Trump, who prizes loyalty like a Mafia “Don” and sees conspiracies at every turn. Trump’s invocation of the Deep State, then, represents another ruse to hide his own misbehavior, a familiar scaffolding around which to wrap well-worn conspiracies. But the concept, with its Cold War lineage and renewed relevance, is also terribly revealing of the world in which we live. (It is worth noting that the origin of the term is often traced to Turkey, which has a lengthy history of military coups.) Taking the place of more anodyne terms like “the establishment”, the Deep State accurately captures the condition of our latter-day garrison state, which more resembles a militarized oligarchy than a democratic republic.

Trump’s invocation of the Deep State…represents another ruse to hide his own misbehavior…

Mired in a series of endless, amorphous conflicts, disfigured by inequality, and sliding toward environmental collapse, a feeling of powerlessness haunts our citizenry, a sense that we have little influence over the direction of our lives and that of our government. Beginning long before Trump took office, the trappings of democratic governance have become ritualistic, drained of meaning. For those who bother to vote, they often do so more out of a latent sense of civic guilt than any genuine feeling that one is exercising power. Neither major party excites the sensibilities of its base much anymore, despite the animating outrages of Trump. And while Republicans far outpace Democrats in the cruelty of their social policies, the parties are united on essential matters of war, surveillance, civil liberties, Wall Street, and American exceptionalism.

So who does exercise power in American society, and how can it be usefully conceptualized? Is Trump truly at war with America’s governing institutions, or is he in fact the fulfillment of anti-democratic trends in our country’s politics that go back generations?  For some answers, we can turn to the Deep State. While the term has no single accepted definition, in its conjuring of a shadowy power elite removed from democratic accountability, the concept speaks evocatively to our age. Like the idea of an American oligarchy, the Deep State is born out of an anxiety that major matters of policy are settled beyond public view by lobbyists, business tycoons, already-bought congressional leaders, lawyers, and long-tenured bureaucrats in the vast security apparatus. It follows that after the election of a genuine American oligarch as president—and in his murky business dealings, decadent aesthetics, and authoritarian leanings, Trump certainly fits the oligarchic mold—that the Deep State concept would find new currency. What might have been less predictable is that it was Trump who deployed the concept himself, seeking to fend off challengers to his disputed rule. A more intensive examination of the Deep State concept, however, shows that Trump is less in combat with the Deep State than gradually becoming its latest figurehead.

…T]heDeep State is born out of an anxiety that major matters of policy are settled beyond public view…

If the American Deep State has any particular time of origin, it is in 1947 and the passage of the National Security Act (NSA). Signed by President Truman in the early days of the Cold War, the NSA facilitated a thorough reorganization of the defense and intelligence communities. Out was the Department of War and the Army Air Corps; in came the Department of Defense, with separate departments for each branch of the armed services. The Office of Strategic Services (OSS)—a somewhat cobbled-together wartime special services organization that collected intelligence and conducted secret missions behind enemy lines in Europe—was professionalized into the CIA. The NSA was quietly established, a secret that would last into the next decade. A newly created National Security Council became a key body for incubating security policy and for advising the president; its influence, along with its number of employees, would only grow in the coming years.

Above all, these institutions became defined by official secrecy. U.S. governments had always kept secrets, collected intelligence, and waged war, but these elements now became central to prosecuting what would become a decades-long, undeclared Cold War fought through various proxies and requiring massive defense spending. A permanent military footing became deeply entangled with regular democratic governance. The securitizing of the homeland had begun, and there would be no end to the perceived crisis. As the radical sociologist C. Wright Mills, an early student of the Deep State in his writings on the American power elite, wrote, politicians spoke as if the country faced “a seemingly permanent military threat” while “recurrent economic and military crises spread fears, hesitations, and anxieties, which give new urgency to the busy search for moral justifications and decorous excuses.” With the policy of containment calling for U.S. action all over the globe, it was, as Hubert Humphrey once remarked, “hard to tell . . . where war begins or where it ends.”

The effort to build a nuclear bomb had all the qualities—size, secrecy, cost, and a “lack of democratic accountability”—that characterize the Deep State.

Many theorists of the Deep State are reluctant to grant it any intentionality or malevolence. The Deep State is, like Mills’ concept of the power elite, “an interpretation,” a heuristic for navigating the institutional complexities that comprise American power. It arose more by evolutionary accident than any firm direction, developing from “the coincidence between military and corporate interests, as defined by the military and the corporate rich, and accepted by politicians and public,” according to Mills. As Tufts University Professor Michael J. Glennon argues, “it has evolved in response to structural incentives rather than invidious intent.” Mike Lofgren—a former Republican Congressional staffer whose memoir of professional disenchantment, The Deep State, is a useful primer on the subject—locates the beginning of the Deep State in the Manhattan Project. The effort to build a nuclear bomb had all the qualities—size, secrecy, cost, and a “lack of democratic accountability”—that characterize the Deep State. These national defense projects, which lassoed together vast amounts of private and public resources, spawned President Dwight Eisenhower’s much warned-against military-industrial complex.

Today,… the Deep State largely operates in “plain sight,” without any shadowy plotting between evil forces inside and out of government.

In Eisenhower’s era, the Deep State was often a cudgel wielded by right wingers and John Birch society types to warn of communist infiltration or of a budding government plot to establish a police state. While these Cassandra warnings still emanate from the fringes of the political spectrum, what distinguishes the Deep State now is how it has become overt. Secrecy is still the byword of American governance, especially in the realm of national security, but we all seem to accept as fact what Mills called “the governmentalization of the lobby” and “the shift of corporation men into the political directorate.” These forms of everyday corruption no longer surprise us. Lobbyists and inter- est groups write the bills and fund the politicians who vote on them. War is a permanent condition less because of a particular threat than because it is good business. Bankers pass seamlessly into regulatory positions and back again. A range of public concerns—from climate change to universal health care—is neglected because powerful interests would rather it be that way. On these questions of influence, there is little dispute, nor does rank hypocrisy—as when Trump, rather than draining the swamp, asks its habitués to join his cabinet—rate more than a brief outrage cycle on cable news.

Today, according to Lofgren, the Deep State largely operates in “plain sight,” without any shadowy plotting between evil forces inside and out of government.  This makes more sense if you do not view the United States as a democracy and if you see its leaders as something other than devoted public servants. Lofgren seems to agree, arguing that the United States has become “a political oligarchy maintaining the outward form, but not the spirit, of constitutional government.”  In his view, “ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States.”

Whether oligarchy or not, this notion of the United States as a democracy in name only has a powerful explanatory effect. It accounts for much of the disappointment of American politics in recent decades, along with the country’s disastrous imperial drift. For Michael Glennon, the Tufts political science professor, governance has been bifurcated along these lines. While he avoids using the term “Deep State” his book National Security and Double Government is essentially a taxonomy of the same. Glennon divides government officials into two categories, Trumanite and Madisonian. The Trumanites are the national security officials who owe their authority to the 1947 NSA (along with more recent innovations like the Patriot Act) and who increasingly  wield  a  kind  of  custodial  power over the security state, ensuring the continuity of policies from one administration to the next. Madisonians are those elected officials, like senators and the president, who are charged with ensuring democratic governance and acting out the will of the people. But the Madisonians are in hock to the Trumanites, who behave like clerics bearing the sacrament of official secrecy. And it is these priestly Trumanites who wield a coercive influence, convincing a conflict-averse president like Barack Obama, say, to recommit the nation to the war on terror and even double down on some of its policies, such as targeted killing.  If you do not continue these policies, they preach from their pulpit of classified experience, Americans will die—and the Madisonians will be the ones to blame. (I would argue that John Brennan, the counter-terrorism advisor- turned-CIA director, played precisely this confessor role for Obama.)

Recalling Mills’ observation of more than a half-century ago, Glennon explains that “the fundamental driver of Trumanite power has been emergency.” America has a double government because of the ongoing “perception of threat, cri- sis, and emergency”—first about Soviet communism, now Islamist terrorism. In their regal bearing and claims toward long-tenured expertise, Trumanites present themselves not as drivers of official policy but as trusted guarantors of it, professionals who will guide Madisonians through the permanent state of emergency. “Trumanites are, above all, rationalists,” Glennon writes. “They appear at all costs sound, responsible, serious, and disinterested, never extreme or sentimental, never too far ahead of policy or too far behind it, creative but not too creative, never boringly predictable, and, above all, never naive.” This posture is particularly useful when assigning blame. “If the policy fails, the embarrassment is someone else’s.”

All too often, “someone else” is either a lower- rung official who might be easily cut loose or simply no one at all. Witness, as a stirring example of democratic oversight, the inability to pin responsibility, much less prosecute, CIA or Bush administration officials for torture. That the only person to go to jail for the torture program was a CIA officer, John Kiriakou, who helped expose it remains one of the signal ironies of the war on terror. (That one of the implementers of torture, Gina Haspel, became director of the CIA is a blaring sign of the war’s inherent immorality.) It is also a revealing instance of the Deep State’s logic, which operates under a sort of omertà that punishes whistleblowers and leakers as if they were traitors. The highly bureaucratic state has no shortage of congressional oversight commit- tees, whistleblower hotlines, and inspector generals, but these are Madisonian trappings meant to insulate hidebound institutions from genuine critique. At the end of the day, these mechanisms remain dependent on, if not captured by, the organizations they oversee. And as long as the United States blithely ignores international law—invading and bombing sovereign nations, kidnapping and rendering terrorism suspects incommunicado, assassinating Americans without trial— who can expect it to respect law at home?

That the only person to go to jail for the torture program was a CIA officer . . . who helped expose it remains one of the signal ironies of the war on terror.

That is the slightly antiseptic version of the Deep State. It is staffed by hundreds of thousands of mostly good-hearted professionals with genuine patriotic intent, who sometimes are forced to do unsettling things. There are a few proverbial bad apples, but the problems are mostly systemic, institutional—and   all   the more pernicious because responsibility is so easily evaded. Yet there is no larger conspiracy, no scheming by those in high office, only the plodding inertia of an empire succumbing to its own imperial overreach.

This line of thinking comes freighted with a certain naiveté. Foregoing individual responsibility, it treats all people as equally honest, with no obligation to refuse orders or protest injustice. Even in times of crisis—such as when the government launches an illegal war in Iraq, or when Russia meddles in a presidential election—this Deep State public servant keeps his head down and follows established procedures. Later, as in the cases of Colin Powell and James Comey, he may offer pursed-lipped reservations about past conduct, for which he is suit- ably rewarded on the talk show and speaking circuits. Touting his own moral awakening, the Deep State official profits from his expertise, while never challenging the corrupt conditions to which he owes his elevated position.

There is another more sinister, personality driven theory of the Deep State that deserves scrutiny. This is the Deep State of J. Edgar Hoover, counter-intelligence guru (and notorious paranoiac) James Jesus Angleton, the Dulles brothers, and Richard Bissell, a senior CIA official who during the fifties made a habit of kicking aside unfriendly foreign governments. You need not get into the swamps of conspiracy-mongering to marvel at the power these men wielded, perhaps in a way that has not been replicated since. By turn, these Deep State mandarins tapped the phones of senators, accused high officials of communist subversion, made secret deals with Nazis, and over- threw heads of state. Under Hoover, the FBI acted with impunity, conducting a veritable reign of terror against civil rights activists, culminating most infamously in a letter urging Martin Luther King Jr. to commit suicide, lest his blackmailers release evidence of his affairs. The acts of these men offer a chilling look at how individual Deep Staters might exercise their power.

Although there may be analogous figures in today’s intelligence establishment, it is better if we remove the personality element, the layers of myth-making that have accreted around people like the notoriously vicious Hoover. Instead, let us consider what our security and military establishments actually do. They still over-throw governments, run targeted killing pro- grams, launch wars under false pretexts, and maintain hundreds of military bases (to say nothing of intelligence stations or black sites) around the world. They are received with over- whelming deference from those Madisonians charged with overseeing them. The last presidential election was influenced, if not swung, by a late-in-the-day intervention from James Comey, the head of the country’s secret police. In his principled Jesuitic approach to law and justice, Comey may not be Hoover, but the FBI still targets civil rights activists from Black Lives Matter and other organizations with surveillance, and since 9/11 it has been corralling vulnerable young Muslim men into terrorism plots rigged by Bureau informants. And then there is the country’s vicious deportation machine  and  its  enormous carceral system, more quotidian examples of state power that perpetuate the American traditions of systemic racism and criminalizing poverty.

While Americans must bear some responsibility for the abuses their government commits abroad and at home, the situation with domestic policy is murkier. The two principle facets of the Deep State—permanent war abroad and oligarchy at home—share common methods and interests. But Americans, we are often told, could vote their leaders out of office, ostensibly overthrowing the domestic Deep State in favor of more democratically minded representatives. (This argument tends to overlook   gerrymandering, voter ID laws, and other Republican-led voter- suppression efforts.) This, of course, is the populist pitch made by Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, albeit each one set to a different tune. Sanders’ was the genuine populism, a program that would challenge entrenched interests and redistribute wealth. While Trump also employed populist rhetoric, his candidacy was not a threat to the Deep State and its right-wing, pro-big business interests, which is why he was supported by some of its most powerful elements. Trump was only a challenge to the status quo on the level of aesthetics—a garish imposter who would still cut taxes for the rich and let the CIA do what it wants. On both the domestic and foreign policy fronts, Trump has not disrupted the Deep State; he has become one of its instruments.

Trump’s rantings also belie the fact that he has stocked his cabinet with numerous products of the Deep State…

Donald Trump has claimed since his election that Deep State elements in the FBI, CIA, and Obama administration were working to under- mine him. No matter that Comey’s reopening of the Clinton  email  investigation  benefitted Trump, that many employees of the traditionally conservative   FBI  supported   Trump,   or  that Trump himself is linked to all manner of shady characters. The splenetic commander-in-chief is prone to projection, and his tendency to see conspiracies everywhere reflects both an intrinsic paranoia and his own scheming against rivals. Trump’s rantings also belie the fact that he has stocked his cabinet with numerous products of the Deep State—generals, spies, bankers, lobbyists, CEOs, and alumni of well-connected think tanks. Sure, some of these people may be incompetent, even singularly unimpressive—Michael Flynn comes to mind—but that only underscores that the Deep State is far from a meritocracy.

Armed with this supporting cast of Deep Staters, what is Trump doing? Despite occasional claims to the contrary, Trump has, like Obama before him, continued much of his predecessor’s foreign policy.  He  has  given even more latitude to military leaders in the field to bomb targets at will—part of shifting rules of engagement that have led to increased civilian casualties in Iraq, Syria, and else- where. Under Trump, the United States has boosted  drone  strikes,  especially  in Yemen, and has made no effort to pull out of the various  other  disastrous  wars  that  he  inherited. And perhaps most important, Trump has used the Department of Homeland Security to accelerate deportation measures that already reached record highs under Obama. As a purveyor of state violence, the power of the Deep State seems unbridled.

That makes it all the more depressing that the election of Trump has served to not only rehabilitate the administration of George W. Bush— whose  lawlessness   helped  bring  us  Trump, along with a recession and other intervening disasters—but to overlook the injustices perpetrated under President Obama. Trump’s brutish behavior, his obvious idiocy, and his endless chauvinism have laundered the reputations of past presidents, making everyone look good by comparison. Similarly, the Deep State has emerged as a perceived bulwark against Trump’s excesses. Our moldering institutions are now expected to be a check against a man who would be happy to see them burn. Cable news, best- seller lists, and op-ed pages are filled with contributions from former CIA and FBI officials who are seen as the last best hope to stymie Trump’s agenda. Those responsible for warrant- less mass surveillance, targeted killings, and harassment of Muslims are inexplicably seen as guarantors of liberty—a turnabout as unrealistic as expecting a billionaire huckster-developer to pass policies to help the working class.

Those responsible for warrantless mass surveillance, targeted killings, and harassment of Muslims are inexplicably seen as guarantors of liberty…

For one chapter’s epigraph, Mike Lofgren reaches back to James Madison, who in 1795 wrote, “No nation could reserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” One of the tragedies of the post-war world order is that the United States never truly converted itself back into a peacetime nation. War—and all the often- corrupting forces that must be mustered on its behalf—became an atmospheric condition, part of the texture of daily life. So it is today, with this latest forever war. We are trapped in a permanent state of emergency that enables some of the most illiberal forces among us. Whether a discrete cabal or a smattering of influential officials, the Deep State has wrested our country’s resources away from the common good and given them to the church of militarism. It is not just the environment, cultural pluralism, or civil liberties at stake. Our suffering is material; a new gilded age asserts itself, as the average American life expectancy declined in 2016 for the first time in twenty years. While the power elite lards itself with defense contracts and plum cabinet gigs, the rest of the country can only look on dumbfounded. It hits like a bad epiphany: These are the people who rule our nation, the ones who stand pofaced behind Trump as he rants again on television about draining the swamp. There they are, arrayed together, the supporting cast of our pitiful oligarchy. They won.

Photo credit: Destruction of Leviathan, Gustave Doré (1832-1883), WikiCommons

Author Bio

Jacob Silverman is the author of Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection (Harper, 2016). He is a contributing editor for The Baffler and has written for the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, the New Republic, and many other publications. His website is www.jacobsilverman.com.