As the author who popularized this term, I’m invoking the privilege of correcting them. There is no deep state as the right imagines it — that is, a secret cabal of government insiders hellbent on undermining the White House. Rather, it is Trump himself, under the camouflage of populist rhetoric, who has overseen the open expansion of the deep state: entrenched interests gaining outsize influence and setting their own policy agenda, unchecked by the will of the people, their elected representatives or the civil servants meant to regulate them.
I wrote my book “The Deep State” to capture a phenomenon I had noticed over my 30 years as a Republican staffer in Congress. Despite the fiercely partisan atmosphere of the Obama presidency, policy largely remained on the same course as under his predecessor, George W. Bush, who had foundered on a Middle East quagmire and a financial meltdown. Barack Obama continued Bush’s misadventures abroad while committing a huge, unforced error of his own by intervening in Libya. He cleaned up the financial crash by bailing out banks but providing little relief to homeowners. Even his health-care bill, which Republicans decried as virtual Stalinism, copied the conservative Heritage Foundation’s 1990s proposal. It seemed that whichever party controlled government, a kind of GPS ensured that the arrow always pointed in the same direction: toward money.
The term “deep state” first came into wide usage in Turkey in the 1990s, and described the combination of finance, industry, and military and intelligence organizations in Turkey that made certain that policies would remain the same, no matter how the government changed. I first encountered it in the John le Carré novel “A Delicate Truth,” which describes British financial and private intelligence circles knowing secrets long before cabinet ministers did.
“Deep state” seemed to fit: On the Hill, we used to remark how corporate lobbyists always knew the inside dope, and the dirt, first. The real power-lobbyists tended to concentrate in a few sectors: the military-industrial complex, of course (which Dwight Eisenhower warned us about); financial services, supercharged after decades of deregulation; and information technology, with its trillion-dollar companies. Boosted by the revolving door that lets those industries’ executives shuttle through government policy positions, and unfettered by any meaningful campaign finance limitations, that concentration of power formed the basis of the deep state. No conspiracies in the dark of night, no grassy knoll, no Area 51. The players are known, their actions legal.
When I published “The Deep State” in 2016, it garnered favorable reviews and some affirmation on the left. But in the fever swamps of the far right, where conspiracy theories about black helicopters and FEMA concentration camps were the daily diet, the book really raised the temperature. In 2016, “deep state” appeared only 64 times in TV transcripts, according to an NPR analysis. In 2017, the phrase rocketed to 2,300 mentions, and then to almost 5,000 in 2018.
The term quickly became a cliche, spawning copycat books by right-wing ankle-biters, in which they labeled whatever they disliked the “deep state.” Former congressman Jason Chaffetz wrote that the deep state consists of “an army of bureaucrats” who shielded Obama and are out to undermine Trump’s agenda. Other authors have claimed that the deep state’s mission is to “replace our Nationalist state with a Globalist-Communist State.” Roger Stone, a longtime Trump confidant and Republican fixer, even offered it as an explanation for his car accident last year: “I am a consistent critic of the ‘Deep State’ — that’s why I think I’m targeted.” It became clear to me that political ideas, once loosed into the world, are like viruses: They spread, mutate and become antibiotic-resistant.
When Trump entered the Oval Office on a promise to “drain the swamp,” he was already the right’s avatar for the struggle against the imagined deep state. And when, in 2017, Trump adviser Steve Bannon said he suspected that something like the deep state was trying to undermine his boss, the phrase became an official Republican weapon. Trump himself has used it in a barrage of tweets and speeches, including at a rally in Louisiana last month.
The irony becomes obvious when we examine the Trump administration’s policies, which have amplified the worst features of his predecessors. His Cabinet of billionaires and centimillionaires, like Betsy DeVos, Wilbur Ross and Steve Mnuchin, makes Bush’s appointees look like a Bolshevik workers’ council. Trump’s tax cuts are overwhelmingly tilted toward the rich. The Pentagon is even more bloated than before. The president presides over rampant self-dealing (such as holding official events at his own properties and failing to divest his holdings or place them in a blind trust) that may even exceed the Harding administration’s corruption.
And it is Trump who established a shadow foreign ministry of private individuals like Rudolph Giuliani and his associates, accountable neither to the State Department nor Congress. Mounds of witness testimony suggest that these people bullied and extorted a friendly country, Ukraine, pressuring it to assist Trump’s reelection. As congressional Democrats have started investigating this abuse of the public trust, Trump allies have denounced their efforts as a deep state “coup.”
Trump, who campaigned on fighting the deep state, has instead installed the deep state 2.0: even more corrupt, more contemptuous and more in-your-face to citizens who object. In voting to throw the bums out, his supporters got the same old policies, only this time exacerbated by unbridled corruption and contempt for the Constitution. Hoping to drive the deep state away, they installed it in the seat of power, where it’s sprawled out more comfortably than ever.