It's just the second week of the Trump presidency, but it's time to think about the "deep state" in America.
It's not far-fetched to suggest there is a "deep state" in Washington. Former President Dwight D. Eisenhower looked at the nexus of the Pentagon and arms manufacturers and coined the phrase the "military-industrial complex." Today's observers also point to the collusion of corporate interests and D.C. power brokers as the true guiding hand in American politics.
Leftist journalist and transparency advocate Glenn Greenwald defines the deep state as a "constellation of factions" — say, the intelligence community or big banks — that wield power with little to no public accountability.
"It's basically unified establishment power which, though unelected, can control elected officials and exploit their functions for the benefit of their own interests, usually exerting power in the dark," said Greenwald in an email to Today's WorldView.
Over 15 yrs ago some of us confronted a DeepState that used 9/11 as excuse to subvert Constitution & launch GWOT. Now committing democricide— Thomas Drake (@Thomas_Drake1) January 30, 2017
Some Trump supporters, too, invoke the "deep state" and seek its undoing. Conspiracy monger Alex Jones, who went from a fringe wingnut last year to an ally of the sitting American president this year, recently peddled theories about how "deep state" agents were out to foment a national crisis that could lead to Trump's ouster.
Trump confidant Roger Stone claimed that reports of a federal investigation into his connections to Russia were the machinations of a deep state rooting for Hillary Clinton. "The deep state needs to get over it. Their candidate lost," Stone told the New Yorker in the week before Trump's inauguration.
The Trump White House already seems to be at war with what it would say is the "deep state:" thousands of federal government bureaucrats faced with the awkward reality of working for a president who campaigned loudly against Washington officialdom and promised to "drain the swamp" when in power.
This week, almost 1,000 American diplomats signed a dissent memo against Trump's executive order on immigration, prompting White House press secretary Sean Spicer to icily declare that "career bureaucrats" can "either get with the program or they can go." And Trump's public spat with Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, an Obama appointee who sought to defy his immigration order, ended with him firing Yates in an angry, chilling memo that claimed she "betrayed the Department of Justice."
"What Trump's statement, viewed broadly, teaches us," wrote Post politics reporter Chris Cillizza, "is that this president sees only two kinds of people in the world: loyal friends and disloyal, terrible enemies."
Such a disposition is simply unhealthy for a democratic system that is supposed to be based on checks and balances, deliberation and debate. It polarizes the political conversation, creating false binaries between "the people" — only, of course, those who voted for Trump — and the machinery of Washington. And, ironically, it can give would-be authoritarians license to subvert and remold that machinery into a deep state that's more to their tastes.
That's a template familiar in a country with a much more real history of a deep state: Turkey. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan first came to power as a democrat charged with expunging Turkey's long-meddling military from the country's politics. Instead, through purges and trials, he weaponized the bureaucracy in his favor and built what seems an increasingly unassailable power base at the expense of Turkish democracy. Even then, Erdogan and the many media outlets his allies control constantly pronounce upon the shadowy threats of opponents in the deep state, aided by enemies abroad.
It still is a stretch to imagine any of this happening in the United States. But in just the space of a week, the White House has made clear it will run the country its own way. It kept key officials and members of its own party in the dark as it drafted its slate of controversial orders, making congressional staffers sign non-disclosure agreements about their work. Foreign Policy reported that White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, given an unprecedented permanent spot at the National Security Council, "is running a cabal, almost like a shadow NSC," according to one intelligence official. And if angry civil servants decide to quit rather than serve in the Trump administration, their empty posts are potential targets of opportunity for new hires who see eye-to-eye with the president (once he lifts his hiring freeze, anyway).
And, of course, Trump can count on the help of Breitbart — a de facto state media arm given the central role Bannon, its former head and perhaps the hardest hardliner in the administration, now plays in the White House — Jones' Infowars and other right-wing outlets in attacking the old machinery. "Trump is a 'blunt instrument for us,'" Bannon told Vanity Fair last summer. "I don’t know whether he really gets it or not."
We'll see if Americans do — and if the shadows of a new deep state lengthen.
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