This seems like a strange moment to be writing about “the deep state” with the country entering a new phase of open and obvious aboveground chaos and instability. Just as we had gotten used to the fact that the president is, in effect, under congressional indictment, just as we had settled into a more or less stable stalemate over when (and if) the Senate will hold an impeachment trial, the president shook the snow globe again, by ordering the assassination of foreign military officials and threatening the destruction of Iran’s cultural sites. Nothing better than the promise of new war crimes to take the world’s attention away from a little thing like extorting a U.S. ally to help oneself get reelected.
On the other hand, maybe this is exactly the moment to think about the so-called deep state, if by that we mean the little-noticed machinery of governance that keeps dependably churning on in that same snow globe’s pedestal, whatever mayhem may be swirling around above it. Maybe this is even the moment to be grateful for those parts of the government whose inertia keeps the ship of state moving in the same general direction, regardless of who’s on the bridge at any given time.
However, that sometimes benign inertia is not what the people who coined that term meant by deep state.
What Is a “Deep State”?
The expression is actually a translation of the Turkish phrase derin devlet. As historian Ryan Gingeras has explained, it arose as a way of describing “a kind of shadow or parallel system of government in which unofficial or publicly unacknowledged individuals play important roles in defining and implementing state policy.” In the Turkish case, those “unacknowledged persons” were, in fact, agents of organized criminal enterprises working within the government.
Gingeras, an expert on organized crime in Turkey, has described how alliances between generals, government officials, and “narcotic traffickers, paramilitaries, terrorists, and other criminals” allowed the creation and execution of “policies that directly contravene the letter and spirit of the law.” In the Turkish case, the history of such alliances can be traced to struggles for power in the first decades of the previous century, following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
The interpenetration of the drug cartels and government in Mexico is another example of a deep state at work. The presence of cartel collaborators in official positions and in the police hierarchy at all levels makes it almost impossible for any president, even the upright Andrés Manuel López Obrador, to defeat them.
The term “deep state” has also been used to characterize the role of the military in Egypt. As Sarah Chayes has written in Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security, Egypt’s military has long been a state-within-a-state with its own banking and business operations that constitute 25%-40% of the Egyptian economy. It’s the country’s largest landowner and the ultimate maker and breaker of Egyptian presidents. In 2011, at the height of the Arab Spring, a popular uprising forced President Hosni Mubarak, who had run the country for 30 years, to resign. The military certainly had something to do with that resignation, since he handed over power to Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
When, however, a nascent democracy brought their longtime opponent, the Muslim Brotherhood, to power with the election of Mohamed Morsi, that was too much for the generals. It helped that Morsi made his own missteps, including the repression of peaceful protesters. So there wasn’t much objection when, in 2012, his own minister of defense, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, led a military coup against Morsi. Sisi and the Egyptian military have run the country directly ever since, making the state and the deep state one and the same.
Donald Trump and the “Deep State”
From his earliest days in the White House, Donald Trump and his officials have inveighed against what the president has regularly labeled the “deep state.” What he’s meant by the term, though, is something different from its more traditional use. Rather than referring to a “shadow or parallel system of government” operating outside official channels, for Trump the deep state is the government—or at least those parts of it that frustrate him in any way.
When, for example, the judicial system throws up barriers to government by fiat, that’s the deep state at work as far as he’s concerned. Want to proclaim “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” but the courts put a hold on your executive order? Blame the deep state.
Did anonymous government officials tell the press that your National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, lied about his contacts with Russian officials? Blame the deep state for the leaks.
As early as March 2017, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer acknowledged that the administration did indeed believe in the existence of a deep state, a shadow operation that had infiltrated many of the offices and activities of the federal government. A reporter asked him, “Does the government believe that there is such a thing as a ‘deep state’ that is actively working to undermine the president?”
“I think that there’s no question when you have eight years of one party in office that there are people who stay in government—affiliated with, joined—and continue to espouse the agenda of the previous administration, so I don’t think it should come to any surprise that there are people that burrowed into government during the eight years of the last administration and may have believed in that agenda and want to continue to seek it.”
In other words, for the Trump administration and its supporters, the deep state is any part of the apparatus of government itself that doesn’t do their absolute bidding.
The Huffington Post has assembled a convenient list of some of Trump’s tweets invoking the “deep state.” Here’s a summary:
- In November 2017, he blamed unnamed “deep state authorities” for a failure to continue investigating Hillary Clinton’s emails, calling those authorities “Rigged and corrupt.”
- That same month, he tweeted that the FBI and the Justice Department were withholding information about “surveillance of associates of Donald Trump.” This was, he said, “Big stuff. Deep State,” and he demanded that someone “Give this information NOW!”
- In January 2018, he accused Hillary Clinton’s former aide Huma Abedin of putting “Classified Passwords into the hands of foreign agents.” Did this mean, he asked, that the “Deep State Justice Dept must finally act”? If it were to “finally act,” he added, it should be “Also on Comey & others.”
- In May 2018, he accused the “Criminal Deep State” of going after “Phony Collusion with Russia, a made up Scam” and “getting caught in a major SPY scandal the likes of which this country may never have seen before!” Apparently the president was referring to a conspiracy theory of his that the Obama administration had embedded a spy in his campaign operation in order to ensure a Hillary Clinton victory.
- In July 2018, he was ruminating about a supposedly missing Democratic National Committee computer server that the FBI, he believed, had failed to impound. Was this failure, he wondered, an action of the “Deep State”? (Yes, this is the same nonexistent server he later asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to look for in his country as a precondition for releasing U.S. military aid.)
- In September 2018, he inveighed against the deep state in general, suggesting that it and its allies were upset at his policy achievements. This time he suggested that the deep state does have its extra-governmental allies, “the Left” and “the Fake News Media”: “The Deep State and the Left, and their vehicle, the Fake News Media, are going Crazy—& they don’t know what to do. The Economy is booming like never before, Jobs are at Historic Highs, soon TWO Supreme Court Justices…”
Trump, in other words, sees the U.S. government as infected by “Unelected, deep state operatives who defy the voters, to push their own secret agendas.” Those “operatives,” he told a rally in 2018, are “truly a threat to democracy itself.”
Does the United States Have a Deep State?
The November House impeachment hearings brought us the testimony of a number of career diplomats and civil servants like Marie Yovanovich, the former ambassador to Ukraine, and Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, a Ukraine specialist on the National Security Council. Their appearance led John McLaughlin, a former deputy director of the CIA, to exclaim in a speech at George Mason University, “Thank God for the deep state.”
He meant it as a joke, but he was also pointing out that their dignified testimony might serve as a reminder of the value of government service. “Everyone here has seen this progression of diplomats, and intelligence officers and White House people trooping up to Capitol Hill right now,” he explained. Those who watched that progression, he said, certainly recognized that “these are people who are doing their duty.” McLaughlin told National Public Radio’s Greg Myre and Rachel Treisman that he had received some “blowback” from his joke, and added:
“I think it’s a silly idea. There is no ‘deep state.’ What people think of as the ‘deep state’ is just the American civil service, social security, the people who fix the roads, health and human services, Medicare.”
I’ll give one cheer for that kind of deep state: not a secret, extra-official shadow government, but the actual workings of government itself for the benefit of the people it’s meant to serve. Personally, I’m all for people who devote their lives to making sure our food is as safe as possible, the cars we drive won’t kill us, our planes stay up in the air, and roads and railways are built and maintained to connect us, not to speak of having clean air and water, public schools and universities to educate our young people, and a social security system to provide a safety net for people of my age—all of which, by the way, is in danger from this president, his administration, and the Republican party.
But there’s another way of thinking about the deep state, one that suggests an ongoing threat not to Donald Trump and his pals but to this democracy and the world. I’m thinking, of course, of that vast—if informal, complex, and sometimes internally competitive—consortium composed of the industries and government branches that make up what President Dwight Eisenhower famously called the “military-industrial complex.” This was exactly the “state” that I think President Obama encountered when he decided to shut down the George W. Bush-era CIA torture program and found that the price for compliance was a promise not to prosecute anyone for crimes committed in the so-called war on terror. January 2009 was, as he famously said, a time to “look forward as opposed to looking backwards.”
Here is Mike Lofgren, a long-time civil servant and aide to many congressional Republicans, writing in 2014 about that national security machine for BillMoyers.com. In “Anatomy of the Deep State,” he described the power and reach of this apparatus in chilling terms:
“There is the visible government situated around the Mall in Washington, and then there is another, more shadowy, more indefinable government that is not explained in Civics 101 or observable to tourists at the White House or the Capitol…
“Yes, there is another government concealed behind the one that is visible at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue, a hybrid entity of public and private institutions ruling the country according to consistent patterns in season and out, connected to, but only intermittently controlled by, the visible state whose leaders we choose.”
Lofgren was not describing “a secret, conspiratorial cabal.” Rather, he was arguing that “the state within a state is hiding mostly in plain sight, and its operators mainly act in the light of day.” This has certainly been the experience of those who have, in particular, opposed U.S. military adventures abroad. They discover that many of the lies, deceptions, and crimes of that “state within a state” are openly there for all to see and are being committed in the equivalent of broad daylight with utter impunity.
This, by the way, creates certain obvious problems for those of us who oppose the presidency and the striking new militarism of Donald Trump—if, at least, it means embracing such representatives of Lofgren’s deep state as that old war criminal, John Bolton. He has not become a progressive hero just because he’s suddenly proclaimed himself ready, if subpoenaed, to testify in the Senate impeachment trial of his former boss. If Bolton chooses to do so, you can be sure that he will not be motivated by a devotion to democratic government or the rule of law
Trump’s own relationship to the national security deep state has been ambivalent at best. It’s clear that many of those officials initially thought he might be a weapon they could aim and shoot at will, but he’s turned out to be far more bizarre and unpredictable than any of them expected. There’s evidence, for example, that the assassination of Iranian Major General Qassem Suleimani was presented to Trump as the most extreme option possible—in a bid to convince him to act against Iran, but in a less drastic way. As the New York Times reported recently, “Pentagon officials have often offered improbable options to presidents to make other possibilities appear more palatable,” but they don’t expect presidents to choose the decoy. Donald Trump is clearly not one of those presidents.
There is a sense, however, in which the United States under Trump does resemble the original Turkish conception of a deep state, that “kind of shadow or parallel system of government in which unofficial or publicly unacknowledged individuals play important roles in defining and implementing state policy.” That’s a pretty apt description, for instance, of the actions of the president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, in relation to U.S. policy towards Ukraine, which he’s been coordinating and in some sense directing for some time.
The only difference in this case is that Trump has been fool enough to acknowledge his personal lawyer’s role. May that foolishness get him turned out of office, one way or another. In the meantime, I’ll keep giving my one cheer for the civil servants who keep the wheels turning. I suspect, however, that as the world awaits developments in the Middle East now that Trump has followed 18 years of U.S. state (and deep state) disaster there with his own impetuous intervention, few people will be offering many cheers for the United States of America.
Rebecca Gordon, a TomDispatch regular, teaches at the University of San Francisco. She is the author most recently of American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes and is now at work on a new book on the history of torture in the United States.