Love it or hate it, the Deep State is now a part of our lexicon. The concept emerged from modern Turkey, where it refers to a secret cabal, usually in the security services and/or military, that manipulates formal politics and political events to its own purposes. In the last decade or two, the idiom was imported into American discussion by scholars critiquing U.S. foreign policy, and especially military interventions pushed by actors inside and outside the government that might earlier have been labeled the “military-industrial complex.” Yet it’s now become a focus of Donald Trump’s ire because attacking it helps him push the clientelism he believes will keep him in power.
Whether the event being explained is the Vietnam War, the invasion of Iraq, or the 9/11 attacks, the notion that elements of the national security establishment are running a secret conspiracy to undermine the authentic will of the American people by keeping us involved in “endless wars” resonates among some folks on both ends of the political spectrum. For those suspicious of American foreign policy, the deep state explains Dick Cheney’s manipulation of intelligence on Saddam Hussein’s WMDs and also tells us why Barack Obama escalated drone use in the war on terrorism: Both men were caught in the same web of secret power that produced Vietnam and the dirty wars that were part of America’s struggle with the Soviets in the developing world. For others, the Deep State conspiracy helps link foreign policy to domestic economic grievances: The Deep-State-as-war-profiteers encompasses not just the intelligence community but also Wall Street and neoconservative intellectuals, forming a cozy elite alliance to keep working-class whites down and out. It’s not hard to see how that take on the Deep State—as an alliance between power-mad bureaucrats wielding regulatory authority and Wall Street bankers—finds adherents on the left as well: It explains the failure of a booming American economy to spread wealth more widely in our society, without the resort to the technocratic policy plans of an Elizabeth Warren.
Why is this Deep State conspiracy so seductive? When you feel like you’re losing out, it’s natural to assume that someone else must be winning, and to resent them for it. Moreover, politicians who may even have been complicit in sleeping at the wheel through our 20-year-old war on terror and our grossly unequal economic growth are happy to blame someone other than themselves. But the real resonance of the Deep State conspiracy goes much deeper into the American psyche: When Trump promises that rooting out the Deep State conspiracy will make life better, he is framing himself in a particularly American trope. He is casting himself in the role of the lonesome Marshall Will Kane going up against the evil gang leader Frank Miller in High Noon—the courageous hero, in the face of wider cowardice, selflessly leaving personal comforts behind and risking his life to serve the public good.
The Deep State entered the lexicon of Trumpworld via a California professor’s treatise on how American military adventurism had helped to generate Al Qaeda. Peter Dale Scott’s book, The Road to 9/11, was embraced by Alex Jones, the host of Infowars, who was already pushing his own 9/11 “truther” conspiracy. Academic credibility for his view that the attacks were an “inside job” by the Central Intelligence Agency, the Israeli Mossad, and the Bilderberger Group proved irresistible.
Before Trump was even inaugurated, in December 2016, Stephen Bannon’s Breitbart published an essay by a pseudonymous “Virgil” predicting a battle royale between President-elect Trump and the Deep State, and warning that “bureaucrats, technocrats and plutocrats” were bent on Trump’s failure. The ongoing FBI investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, which quickly took down Trump’s first national security adviser, seemed to neatly validate the theory. And so the Deep State, like other conspiracies, grew tendrils and took on a life of its own, including amongst many GOP elected officials, who inveigh against it regularly on Fox News, and the adherents to the bizarre QAnon conspiracies who are now such a significant portion of the Republican Party that they are running on Republican tickets for Congress and winning endorsements and praise from the President of the United States.
The Deep State is a useful enemy to Trump not only because it triggers the cowboy-hero imagery of our collective culture, mobilizing his supporters behind him and framing attacks on him as insidious, anti-democratic resistance to his agenda for the people. The Deep State is also a useful enemy because attacking the institutionalized personnel and procedures of the federal government has cleared the way for him to deploy one of the central mechanisms for sustaining populist autocracy: mass clientelism.
As Jan-Werner Müller explains in his indispensable primer, What is Populism?, populist rulers wield the instruments of the state to reward friends and punish enemies. Administrative rules, competitions for state contracts, and investigative procedures are all manipulated or overridden to ensure that the ruler’s loyalists gain preferential access to state resources, and that state authorities protect them and their activities while imposing onerous costs and punishments on those of the ruler’s political opponents. For Trump, government is not only a source of personal enrichment, but also a spoil of war, to be fought over and then enjoyed. Power is the goal, and use of the state apparatus to reward friends and punish enemies is a key means to preserving power.
The professional civil service, foreign service, and uniformed military of the United States government are formidable obstacles to mass clientelism. The role of “unelected bureaucrats” in the democratic state is to ensure that the elected leadership can carry out the people’s democratically expressed will in a democratic manner, under rules that govern democratic administration of the state (civil liberties, sunshine laws, legislative oversight, legal equality, etc.). To ensure that these professional bureaucrats do not become a power unto themselves, the American system allows each new President to install about 3,000 political appointees across the executive branch to help implement his policy agenda. But these appointees are supposed to work that agenda through existing rules. Professional federal bureaucrats can actually make an elected leader more effective in implementing his agenda for the public interest—as long as he isn’t breaking the rules.
Of course, Trump and his cronies are breaking the rules governing the neutrality of the state and equality under the law—and that is why his Administration has seen so many bureaucrats filing complaints with agency inspectors general, submitting whistleblower complaints, leaking to the media, and sharing documents and testimony with congressional oversight committees.
Like Trump himself, the Deep State narrative is not merely a pathology of its own but a symptom of a more serious illness. The Deep State narrative feeds on evident weaknesses in our democratic system: the declining public trust in government institutions; intense polarization between the political parties that stymie legislative action responding to public demands; and the understanding, articulated well by politicians like Senator Elizabeth Warren and scholars like Francis Fukuyama, that America’s open democratic system has, over time, increasingly been captured by moneyed interests that successfully bend policymaking to serve their narrow preferences rather than to produce compromises between disparate interest groups to serve the public good.
Trump’s deployment of the Deep State conspiracy identifies compromise and balance as the enemy of the public will; his denigration of the federal bureaucracy and its neutral procedures labels state neutrality and equality under law as the enemy of progress.
In a healthy democracy, such a caricature of the federal bureaucracy would find little fertile soil, but Trump’s targeting of the “Deep State” will cast a long shadow. One challenge confronting a post-Trump presidency will be how to restore the American public’s faith in the ability of the state to act in a neutral manner. If Trump’s argument was “trust me,” a post-Trump democracy will need much more transparency as the rules are made and enforced in order for the public to learn once again to trust the process. That is, if we do not want to live, like Will Kane, in the Wild West.