There’s a showdown coming between Trump and the ‘deep state’ — and none of the outcomes are good
Ah, listen to that ominous phrase, the “Deep State.”
You hear the words hissing from the fur-lined rat hole of Breitbart. They ring from the pulpit of Greenwald. They sound in the silos of Salon and The Atlantic and Foreign Policy. And over on Twitter, the white nationalists are Jew-baiting the hapless Bill Kristol because he prefers the Deep State to the Trump State.
In other words, the situation is hopeless, but not serious. In a sobering interview with the German daily newspaper Suedeutche Zeitug, Yale history professor Tim Snyder recently suggested that American democracy has less than a year to live. Is it really possible that the Madisonian republic, founded in 1789 and renewed in 1865, is about to die?
Yes, says Michael J. Glennon, professor of international law at the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University.
I turned to Glennon for answers because he has stomped a few grapes in the vineyards of Washington. He worked on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and thought big thoughts at the Brookings Institution before taking refuge in academia.
Glennon is the author of National Security and Double Government, one of the most acute assessments of American government you are ever likely to read. If you need to lose sleep, buy Glennon’s tome. Whether you like President Trump or hate President Trump, Glennon’s book will wake you up to America’s current reality.
Jefferson Morley: Has President Trump exposed the undemocratic character of our “double government”?
Michael Glennon: The façade was crumbling before Trump appeared, but he’s removed the frontage and unveiled the power exercised by the national security bureaucracy.
JM: What do you mean, “the facade was crumbling”?
MG: In earlier U.S. presidencies, that power was largely concealed because it would have undermined the legitimacy of the constitutionally established institutions—the Executive, Congress and the courts—if the public understood the extent to which those three branches had ceded authority over national security to an unelected bureaucracy. So they had an incentive to pretend they were in control.
But the open split between Trump and the intelligence community has made clear that the security managers have an agenda of their own, and pursue it with very few checks. This was concealed from the public during the Obama administration because Obama largely embraced their agenda as his own and when they screwed up, he took responsibility, as had other presidents. Trump is different.
JM: Can/should the Deep State rescue us from Trumpism, as Bill Kristol recently mused?
MG: Bureaucratic checking by the security managers won’t work and is a dangerous idea. It won’t work because, unless the security managers deliver a knockout blow and force Trump out of office within the next few weeks, he’ll use divide-and-conquer tactics to root out the opposition and claim their organizations as his own.
The playbook for dismembering a disliked bureaucracy is widely known to organizational theorists, and it’s only a matter of time before Trump will be able to employ those methods to get control of these agencies. Factions within them will align with Trump to do his bidding and ultimately will come to dominate rival, opposing factions. Trump can then declare victory, as he must do so as to restore public confidence in his own judgment—he is, after all, forced to rely upon their information and analysis in making national security decisions; where else can he look?
At that point the rivalry will cease and the “deep state” will emerge front-and-center as Trump’s overt partner in governance. That’s the more likely scenario.
JM: Sounds positively Putinesque.
MG: An alternative scenario is no more comforting. Under it, a continuing series of leaks and challenges to his authority either drive him from office, through resignation or impeachment, or leave him so enfeebled that he is in effect a ceremonial president taking orders from the security bureaucrats, who operate more or less in plain view.
The managers are in this scenario so widely understood to wear the crown that it’s no longer necessary to hide the fact. Of course, this would represent a very different form of government, and given the historical record of abuse of power by these agencies, there is little reason to believe that their rule would represent a “rescue” in any meaningful sense of the word.
JM: Is it possible to oppose both the Deep State and Trump?
MG: My own sense is that a happy outcome is unlikely and that American democracy is now confronting an abyss. The root of the problem is that, as the result of widespread and pervasive civic, political and historical ignorance, the aspirations of the polity to participate in governance vastly exceeds its capacity to do so responsibly.
In recent days, activism and engagement have spiked, but the base of knowledge needed for effective democratic governance still is not present, and it’s hard to see why or how or when that will change.
If it takes reading 1984 to realize we’ve got a problem, chances are it’s too late to do anything useful about it. I may be wrong, and I hope I am. But the realistic answer, I’m afraid, is that people are waking up too late.