President Trump and some of his aides are convinced that they are the victims of a conspiracy, an effort by what they call the Deep State to discredit his presidency.
In response, there’s been a resurgence in media interest in the Deep State. Does it exist at all? And if it does exist, what are the implications?
There’s no doubt in my mind that the essential elements of what Donald Trump calls the Deep State exist. At its most basic, the Deep State is a group of unelected people who manipulate or control government. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is immaterial. Like it or not, the Deep State is here to stay.
Trump and his supporters blame the Deep State for a cascade of leaks from intelligence agencies since the beginning of the Trump presidency. The leaks have revealed details about the ties between Russia and Trump presidential campaign staffers –and Trump himself. The president is reportedly obsessed with these leaks and has accused the media sources that report the leaked information of distributing “fake news.”
Whether the leaks are fake news or not is beside the point. The fact is that during his presidential campaign, Trump repeatedly criticized the competence of US intelligence agencies. And it’s coming back to haunt him.
No, the Deep State is not just a right-wing conspiracy theory. Liberal Democrats are just as convinced of the reality of the Deep States as Trump is. Here’s how Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer described it a few weeks before Trump’s inauguration:
“You take on the intelligence community, they have six ways from Sunday at getting back at you.”
At the other end of the political spectrum, consider NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s comments about the Deep State:
What we’re talking about is a mass of government that survives beyond administrations, but that is not responding to the politics of the people. This belongs to not a particular political party, but it serves across parties… across administrations.
But the Deep State has many more tendrils than the intelligence community alone. When a new president takes office, the vast majority of America’s 2.8 million federal employees stay put. They are part of the civil service, a civilian workforce with lifetime tenure. Civil service employees can be dismissed only for gross misconduct (and sometimes not even then) or if an agency doesn’t have enough money to pay them. That’s why more than half of the IRS employees that the agency caught intentionally cheating on their taxes in 2016 kept their jobs.
The Deep State exists to perpetuate itself. Take the so-called military-industrial complex, for instance. In 1961, President Eisenhower warned in his farewell address that a military-industrial complex had acquired influence in a way that had caused a fundamental shift in the way the US was governed.
He warned that “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist.”
A military-industrial complex comes into existence during every war. Until World War II, it was largely disbanded at the end of each conflict. But in 1945, when World War II concluded, the US did not demobilize. Instead, it engaged in an ever-escalating Cold War with the Soviet Union. For the first time in its history, the US maintained large and expanding military forces during peace time.
This phenomenon militarized our society, putting it on a permanent wartime footing. Construction of an industrial infrastructure to supply the military, with economic clout in every state, gave it staying power.
Short of shutting down the federal government permanently, there is no way to dismantle the Deep State, because it pervades every segment of American society. What politician would risk the loss of jobs in his or her district, however desirable the long-term outcome might be? And what politician would question the consensus view that curtailing civil liberties and the rule of law is an acceptable price to pay to fight terrorism?
Top officials with lucrative positions in the private sector after leaving government service are another sign of the Deep State’s longevity. Once part of the private sector, they use their political connections for the benefit of their well-heeled clientele.
A wonderful example is Robert Gates, who served as Secretary of Defense in the Obama administration. Today, Gates is a principal, along with Condoleezza Rice (who served as the second President Bush’s Secretary of State) of RiceHadleyGates LLC, a strategic consulting firm.
The firm works “with companies to develop and implement their international strategic plans and help them expand in major emerging markets.” If I represented a company that required this service, I wouldn’t hesitate to hire this firm. I suspect business is brisk.
To be clear, I’m not criticizing Robert Gates or Condoleezza Rice. If I were in their shoes, I would take advantage of my connections and experience to do the same thing. The Deep State is far more pervasive than any one or two government officials.
It’s also a mistake to associate the Deep State with one political party, as the Trump administration appears to. The Deep State transcends politics. It exists no matter who is in power. Trump opponents may take comfort that recent leaks from intelligence agencies have derailed his political agenda. But the Obama administration was also plagued by leaks. Indeed, the Obama administration punished more political whistleblowers than all previous administrations combined.
Whether it’s leaks to the media to undermine a president or a gradual descent into authoritarianism, the lack of accountability that comes with the extreme job security of civil servants creates a structure that ensures the Deep State will be here for a very long time.
Nor will the Deep State save us from dictatorship, as some wish to believe, pointing to whistleblowers like Edward Snowden who expose outrageous abuse of power by federal agencies. That’s because disclosing abuse of power and doing something about it are very different things. Despite these revelations, there is little appetite in Congress or the White House to reduce the size and scope of government. And since the Deep State only exists to perpetuate itself, at its core, niceties such as rule of law and civil liberties don’t concern it.
Our only choice is to learn to deal with the Deep State and to set up a Plan B. Today wouldn’t be too soon to begin.