Democracy & Government

The Deep State, Explained

America's Deep State is harder to find than those abroad, but could get stronger under Trump.

The Deep State, Explained

As the daily drip of information about possible links between Trump’s campaign and Russia trickles on, Democrats, commentators and at least some officials in the US intelligence community, it seems, smell a rat. CNN reported last week that according to sources, “The FBI has information that indicates associates of President Donald Trump communicated with suspected Russian operatives to possibly coordinate the release of information damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign.”

Meanwhile, White House sources continue insisting to reporters that there’s no fire behind all the smoke. The true story, they say, is a conspiracy by the so-called “Deep State” to undermine a democratically elected president.

Trump and his team are good at taking terms and twisting their meaning to suit their own ends. “Fake news,” for example. Once Trump started using it, the mainstream media, which had been using “fake news” to describe online lies packaged in the guise of honest reporting, largely backed away. “Let’s put this tainted term out of its misery,” Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote.

“Deep State” may meet a similar fate, with some anti-Trump commentators arguing that the term, while appropriate for less democratic governments abroad, has no meaning in the United States, and refers to one of many conspiracy theories that found a home at InfoWars, Breitbart, and, ultimately, in the president’s brain.

Yet despite that, the idea of a Deep State is useful when talking about the forces that drive US policy. Here’s a look at its history and use today.

 
How Trump allies talk about the “Deep State”

In Trump’s world, the “Deep State” is a sub rosa part of the liberal establishment, that crowd resistant to the reality TV star’s insurgent candidacy all along, and which ultimately was rebuffed by voters on Election Day. Although Trump has taken the helm of the executive branch, this theory goes, his opponents lurk just below the surface. “We are talking about the emergence of a deep state led by Barack Obama, and that is something that we should prevent,” Steve King, the right-wing member of Congress from Iowa and a Trump ally, told The New York Times.

Implicit is the idea that the intelligence agencies’ investigation into Trump and his campaign’s Russia ties are baseless, and that leaks about the investigation to the press are part of an effort to undermine him. “Of course, the deep state exists,” Trump ally Newt Gingrich recently told the Associated Press. “There’s a permanent state of massive bureaucracies that do whatever they want and set up deliberate leaks to attack the president. This is what the deep state does: They create a lie, spread a lie, fail to check the lie and then deny that they were behind the lie.”

The claim that the campaign was surveilled by Obama is also part of this supposed Deep State conspiracy; House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes fanned the flames last Wednesday when he suggested, based on information shared with him by the administration, that Trump advisers’ communications were likely collected during the transition, perhaps by accident. Breitbart has even started calling the wiretapping story DeepStateGate.

 
The Deep State abroad

Historically, the idea of a Deep State is an import; it has been used for decades abroad to describe any network of entrenched government officials who function independently from elected politicians and work toward their own ends.

One such network cropped up decades ago in Turkey, devoted to opposing communism and protecting by any means necessary the new Turkish Republic that Mustafa Ataturk founded after World War I. In the 1950s, the derin devlet — literally, “deep state” — began bumping off its enemies and seeking to confuse and scare the public through “false flag” attacks and engineered riots. The network ultimately was responsible for thousands of deaths.

Another shadowy entity exists in present day Pakistan, where the country’s main intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and the military exert considerable control over government, often operating independently of the country’s elected leaders and sometimes overthrowing them in military coups. “The vast majority of Pakistanis are effectively disenfranchised by this system,” wrote Daniel Markey, senior research professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. “As far as it is possible to know their views through public opinion polling and interviews, it appears that they perceive the state as generally ineffective, often even predatory, in their daily lives.”

 
America’s Deep State

Here in the United States, we have another kind of Deep State, one that Mike Lofgren, a former congressional staffer specializing in intelligence, described in an original essay for our site in 2014.

The Deep State, Lofgren wrote, was not “a secret, conspiratorial cabal; the state within a state is hiding mostly in plain sight, and its operators mainly act in the light of day.” It is not a tight-knit group, and has no clear objective. Rather, it is a sprawling network, stretching across the government and into the private sector. “It is a hybrid of national security and law enforcement agencies,” Lofgren wrote. “… I also include the Department of the Treasury because of its jurisdiction over financial flows, its enforcement of international sanctions and its organic symbiosis with Wall Street.” In Lofgren’s definition are echoes of President Dwight Eisenhower’s famous farewell address in 1961, in which he implored future presidents to “guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.”

But in his Obama-era definition of the Deep State, Lofgren also included “the White House advisers who urged Obama not to impose compensation limits on Wall Street CEOs, the contractor-connected think tank experts who besought us to ‘stay the course’ in Iraq, the economic gurus who perpetually demonstrate that globalization and deregulation are a blessing that makes us all better off in the long run.” These individuals pretend they have no ideology — “their preferred pose is that of the politically neutral technocrat offering well considered advice based on profound expertise.”

In short, by Lofgren’s conception, the Deep State is maintained by the mid-level number crunchers, analysts, congressional staffers and lawyers — technocrats who build and perpetuate the Washington consensus, leading the country in and out of wars, in and out of trade agreements, into and, if we’re lucky, out of recessions, without questioning their own judgment. The 2016 election saw voters rebel against that system, and Donald Trump was the surprising result.

 
A Deep State divided and debated

The 2016 election shook up the Deep State. It’s without question that elements within it are concerned about Donald Trump and pushing back against him. The FBI, which may have helped Trump win the election with its last-minute announcement about Clinton’s emails, is now investigating him. But some elements of the intelligence agencies may also be the source of stories fanning the flames of Trump’s wiretapping theory.

On one hand, public servants at the State Department are chafing at Trump’s defunding of diplomacy and object to his repeated attempts to put in place a Muslim travel ban. On the other, elements of Lofgren’s Deep State, including Wall Street lawyers and alumni of Silicon Valley companies that help the government surveil citizens, have become part of Trump’s administration.

We are in a moment where the intelligence community has tremendous power. Leakers continue to give to the press part, but not all of the story; declassified documents and testimony by agency heads before Congress yield few definitive takeaways.

Some on both the left and right hope the Deep State will take Trump down. But civil libertarians and such journalists as Glenn Greenwald have been imploring the media, Democratic politicians and Washington insiders to make sure that in their enthusiasm to get rid of Trump, they do not give intelligence agencies too long a leash or too much ability to shape the narrative. Once they have it, Greenwald argues, the agencies won’t want to let it go.

 
The Deep State to come

While the Russia story continues to trickle out, Trump and his minions have gotten to work trying to build their own network of loyal informants across the government, a web that resembles the deep states seen abroad more than anything America has known.

Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, reportedly has taken the reins of foreign policy from the State Department and is running it out of the White House. He’s also been tasked with overhauling, and potentially privatizing, elements of the federal bureaucracy from his perch at Donald Trump’s side. Meanwhile, Trump has installed hundreds of officials across government to serve as his eyes and ears, rooting out those opposed to his administration and pushing his agenda throughout official agencies.

If Obama’s Deep State is perceived by Trump as the enemy, his solution is to build his own Deep State to counter it.

John Light

Reporter/Producer

John Light is a reporter and digital producer for the Moyers team. His work has appeared at The Atlantic, Grist, Mother Jones, Salon, Slate, Vox and Al Jazeera, and has been broadcast on Public Radio International. He's a graduate of Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. You can follow him on Twitter at @LightTweeting.