The Real “Deep State”

The conspiracy theorists who surround Trump (a/k/a the conspiracy theorist-in-chief) have issued dark warnings about the so-called “deep state.”

In this telling, there is a shadowy cabal of agency or military officials who secretly conspire to influence government policy and usurp the authority of democratically elected officials. Prior to Trump’s “democratic election,” the term was generally used to describe the politics of countries like Egypt, Turkey and Pakistan, where authoritarian elements worked within to undercut elected leaders. Trump and his inner circle, particularly the now-departed  Bannon, have argued that the administration is being intentionally undermined by a network within the federal bureaucracy.

As the New Yorker has described it,

Some of Donald Trump’s most ardent supporters (and, in a different, cautionary spirit, a few people on the left) have taken to using “the Deep State” to describe a nexus of institutions—the intelligence agencies, the military, powerful financial interests, Silicon Valley, various federal bureaucracies—that, they believe, are conspiring to smear and stymie a President and bring him low.

In my City Hall days, a witty colleague opined that incompetence generally explains more than conspiracy–an observation that seems particularly appropriate here. Nevertheless, I think there is a deep state, although one that is rather different from the dark conspiracy conjured up by the Trumpsters. And we all should be deeply grateful to it.

Federal bureaucrats are routinely maligned; the word “bureaucrat” is semi-pejorative. There is an abundance of research, however, that confirms the public service motivations of people who work for government. The evidence is that public and private organizations attract different kinds of individuals, and those drawn to government have a desire to serve the public interest and are convinced of the social importance of their work.

I have a number of former students who work in federal agencies. In the wake of the election,  two of them shared with me that they were torn: should they simply leave government, knowing that Trump neither understood nor appreciated the importance of what their agencies did? Or should they remain, focusing on the fact that their obligation is to serve the American people and the Constitution, not any individual President? Should they try to keep the federal government–at least, their small part of it–operating properly despite the chaos and dysfunction in Washington?

The ones I spoke with are still there. They are doing their jobs as best they can in the absence of rational policies and Presidential leadership, soldiering on despite still-unfilled senior positions and conflicting policy signals. They are the real “deep state”–the reason FEMA has responded appropriately (so far) to Hurricane Harvey, the reason Social Security checks continue to arrive on time, the reason that day-to-day American government still functions.

If and when America emerges from “Trumpism,” we’ll have the public servants of the deep state to thank.


  1. It’s all about the victim mentality: ‘They’re out to get us’. It’s the mindset started by Limbaugh and perfected by Fox News. Of course, having control of the White House, Congress, the Supreme Court and most of the state legislatures, and not being able to get anything done, is quite embarrassing. Hence they had to dream up the ‘deep state’.

  2. The true deep state is the network of “think tanks” and lobbyists funded by the Koch brothers, Sheldon Addleson, and the Mercers. They own the Republican party at both the federal and state levels.

  3. Thanks for sharing this. I have worried about those who leave because their leaving opens up more slots to be filled by the Trump converts, those who would buy in to the harm being done to the American people and to the environment. There would be no checks within the system. How do we provide support for those who are demoralized and at risk of leaving? Well, like Sheila, we have to first know them and acknowledge their courage.

  4. We should all, including your students, remember that if they took an oath upon entering their positions, they took it to support the Constitution of the United States. And if no oath was required, if they are working in the civilian (as opposed to the political) side of government, they, too, are still bound by the ethics of that oath.
    And, in spite of the requests and desires of personal obedience and loyalty we’ve heard about with Mr. Trump, no one can morally take an oath to support just the President of the United States alone.
    In fact, this action may at times involve standing against the President himself.

  5. Thanks for kind words about public servants. They haven’t heard many of those since the Reagan days, when they were designated the enemies.

  6. I completely agree that this notion of deep state is way overblown and even laughable. It’s the stuff of John Le Carre novels and the product of a really immature understanding of how societies and their governments operate. That said, I DO believe the Trumpists, including former political adviser Bannon, are onto something that truly exists and is a real problem… but it is not some villainous underground power network. Rather, they are the dual threats of organizational inertia and incremental statism.

    The best example I can think of is the department of the executive branch that I have the least respect and use for” The Department of Education. It shouldn’t even exist, and the only reason it does is because congressional legislators thought it would be a good idea to provide federal funding (the carrot) to states to pass onto local school districts to help tackle some onerous problems – the biggest being discrimination on the basis of race, sex and special needs (and more recently sexual preference and identity). The alternative is much harder to pull off – that of enforcement actions by the Dept of Justice (the stick). Incremental statism created the Dept of Education by Congress and Jimmy Carter in 1979, and organizational inertia keeps it going and growing forever, with over 3,000 employees and a $12B annual budget. It is far far easier for politicians to dangle carrots (money in exchange for meeting certain conditions) than apply sticks (federal prosecution of state and local officials).

    The Internal Revenue Service is another good example but exists in its present form for a somewhat different reason: the internal revenue code is for sale. In fact, it may be the most valuable tool that legislators can use over any other to bring in the massive campaign contributions they need to maintain office. The sell phrases to be inserted into the federal tax code to special interest groups in exchange for campaign contributions and other perks. And it’s been going on since the day the US Constitution was ratified (although then it was tariffs not an income tax, which didn’t yet exist). Nevertheless, to support all this we need a virtual army of employees to run the IRS (79,000) and a $11.2 billion annual budget. Simplify the tax code – simplify the IRS.

    But the Grand Kahuna of them all is the US military-industrial complex operated out of the Pentagon by the US Dept of Defense. Nine hundred military bases and installations world-wide and it grows every time we invade another country and leave our footprint behind. There is nothing more to say here.

    So, if there is a candidate or a movement that comes along that seeks social justice with passion but at the same time is willing to take on the evil duo of organizational inertia and incremental statism, I will THROW my money at them. The notion that freedom and social justice are somehow mutually exclusive is simply a myth created by both major national political parties for different purposes over many years. And those who dismiss the national groundswell of support against the evil duo as nothing more than the rantings of our current national disaster of a President and his rabid hard-core followers, are doing so at their own political peril in the long run.

  7. The movie, “Truth”, starring Cate Blanchett as Mary Mapes and Robert Redford as Dan Rather, gives inside information regarding the “deep state” hidden in our own military of the true story behind George W’s military record…or the lack thereof. It is also a look at the extent to which those with political clout and mega-millions of dollars can hide truth and produce actual “alternative facts” to destroy careers of others. For those who do not know or have forgotten; Mary Mapes is the investigative journalist at CBS who uncovered and made public the torture tactics used at Abu Graib, with pictures as additional proof. It is also the true story behind Dan Rather’s sudden “resignation” from CBS. Truth is; they were all fired for uncovering the truth about W’s military situation.

  8. The uses of the “Deep State” by Donald Trump and others in The Far Right, Religious Right Movement is a way of attempting to camouflage the “Deep Forces” that are an actuality.

    From Wikipedia: “President John F. Kennedy’s assassination has spurred many theories, some of which would involve a deep state. University of California, Berkley Professor Peter Dale Scott’s 1993 book : “Deep Politics and the Death of JFK” and other books claim to expose America’s deep state.”

    Professor Scott’s book was an attempt to expose the Texas oil millionaires and their subordinates working behind the scenes for their right wing causes. “Deep State” has become a mutation from Scott’s original “Deep Politics.” It is an attempt to obscure the DEEP FORCES behind the Trump election success.

    It’s not just the KOCH BROTHERS, you have to include the past activities of the BUSH FAMILY and others, mainly operating out of Texas.

  9. There is a huge difference between “public servants” and the “Deep State”. Dwight Eisenhower made it clear in 1961 what America was facing. He called on “an alert and knowledgeable citizenry”…this requires journalists willing to hold the powerful accountable. The only “free and independent journalists” today are suffering financially with alternative media. Those working for major news agencies are reporters and broadcasters. See Chomsky’s 1988 Propaganda Model for Media.

    A general and former president spelled it out for us around 60 years ago:

    “Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.

    This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence – economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

    In the councils of government, 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.

    We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

  10. Someone like you, Sheila, should write a book about the great successes our federal government has had heading up gigantic projects.

    America needs a counter to the constant allegation that the fed can’t do anything right.

    Chapter One should cover creating and managing the greatest military the world has ever known, to borrow an overused phrase.

    Chapter Two should cover building, maintaining and managing a plethora of the world’s greatest deep ports.

    Chapter Three should cover building and managing the Panama Canal.

    Chapter Four should cover the development of America’s rail system.

    Chapter Five should cover the Marshall Plan and the rebuilding of Europe after WWII.

    Chapter Six should cover the the building and management of our great international airports and the competence of the Federal Aviation Authority.

    Chapter Seven should be the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority and the building of the greatest array of dams, electric power, flood control and conservation in remote hinterland territories the world has ever known.

    Chapter Eight should cover Hoover Dam.

    Chapter Nine should cover the building of America’s highway system.

    And then the sequel could be a book about the great successes demonstrated by some projects created and managed by individual states.

  11. The Democratic Party is not the only way to fight back against the Trump regime. Continuing “DEEP DOSES” of the TRUTH is another PROVEN WAY.

    Freedom of Speech is our best weapon at this point in time.

  12. There have always been “deep state” foils as covers for a range of problems by those who were elected or have seized or been born to power, foils ranging in their application from incompetence to authoritarian control, from the et tu, Brute to poisoning of next in line pharoahs by Egyptian mothers and the rise of royal tasters prior to royal feasts. I could list a number of assassinations and attempted assassinations that would fit the deep red idea, but I think its existence is borne more out of political frustration at being out of power and influence than it is with killing, poisoning and the like, which are mere means of attempting to regain or otherwise assert or reassert such power and influence in the ensuing chaos. Yes, it does mean that there is a conspiracy to do what they do (Caesar’s assassin did not act alone), but killing is only one of the means used by such frustated assassins. I think s;uch a phenomenon more a statement of the human condition as played out in the public sphere than an organized attempt to right perceived wrongs, while I concede that such distinctions can be muddled in the course of chaos. Trump, of course, never does anything wrong and it’s always someone else’s fault when things go wrong, so the deep red idea is just another excuse he has added to his no fault arsenal to cover his gross incompetence and hope for authoritarian control a la Bannon’s view of deconstruction of the administrative state. Think 1905 Russia and 1933 Germany.

  13. Thank God for the deep state. People in government who understand and accept that the current federal government, all three branches, is completely inept and misdirected, and yet pledge to keep the wheels turning despite that, are the heroes of the day.

    However we are operating on a knife edge. The better job they do of protecting us from our mistakes the greater the odds are of us repeating them.

    It’s an old parenting dilemma. Consequences are the best teacher but the saddest part of being a parent.

    The failure has to come. It’s what will set us free. Please God make the pain tolerable but memorable.

  14. It seems to me that the so-called “deep state” might have a point: Saving our democracy from the ravages of those paranoid, right-wing radicals who work so hard to destroy every hint of progress…except for one thing: They have NO intention of saving the country, but rather to subjugate its people to serve the Orwellian notions on “1984”.

    From Trump to Bannon to the Koch brothers to Mercer, et. al., we have the cabal of our own destruction as a democratic republic. For those who don’t recognize the real peril our freedoms are in, I suggest they re-read “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”.

  15. I happen to believe there is a Deep State. There is no one “Godfather” rather It is like a large diamond with many facets. The latest estimate is there are 250 million people in the voting age population. 250 million people that are crow-bared into two political parties. There are areas of the country where there is only one choice.

    There is this Gem: This election cycle, 393 of 435 House representatives, 29 of 34 senators, and five of 12 governors sought reelection (several of the governors were prohibited from seeking another term). Of those, 380 of 393 House members (97%), 27 of 29 senators (93%), and four of five governors (80%) won another term. These members of Congress and governors not only won renomination, but also won in November.

    A 97% reelection rate in the House and 93% in the Senate is something you might expect in the old Soviet Union. The DNC has designed a system -Super Delegates so the establishment Corporate Democrats can keep their fingers on the scale.

    Essay: Anatomy of the Deep State
    February 21, 2014
    by Mike Lofgren has written on Bil Moyers Website: The Deep State does not consist of the entire government. It is a hybrid of national security and law enforcement agencies: the Department of Defense, the Department of State, the Department of Homeland Security, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Justice Department. 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.

    Lofgren goes on to say: Invisible threads of money and ambition connect the town to other nodes. One is Wall Street, which supplies the cash that keeps the political machine quiescent and operating as a diversionary marionette theater. Should the politicians forget their lines and threaten the status quo, Wall Street floods the town with cash and lawyers to help the hired hands remember their own best interests.

    Mike Lofgren is a former career congressional staff member who served on the House and Senate budget committees.

  16. Louie,

    Mike Lofgren and Bill Moyers in 2014.

    Bill Moyers knows exactly WHERE the real “deep state” is. He exposed the deepest forces in a full page exposee back in 1988 in “The Dallas Times-Herald” and was fortunate to have a career left after the RETALIATION he received by an article in “The New Republic Magazine” a short while afterwards.

    He pulled back for almost thirty years to protect his career.

    In the case of dealing with the real “deep state,” any cure will probably hurt much more than the disease.

  17. I hope to heaven there is a deep state (underground government), and I hope Barrack Obama is running it!

  18. I’m hoping some of them ‘deep state’ employees are actually some of our better angels out there in human land and employed by government. They go into hiding because they don’t want the recognition or are just protecting their family, or just doing their job because that’s how it’s supposed to be, maybe. I don’t know about these dark forces or mysteries…maybe we humans read too many novels. I’m just glad that there are better humans out there making sure it gets done right for All of Us.

  19. Question: How does the deportation order, yesterday, by D.J. Trump differ from the deportation order of all Polish Jews from Germany by A. Hitler in 1938?

    My answer: Not much, if any. What’s yours?

  20. After 25 years of government services at the Director level and over 40 in politics I can assure you there is a “deep state”.
    There has always been leaders and politicians that want to usurp the systems for their own benefits, and there is always a network of dedicated public servants that figure out a way to appease their aspirations without violating departmental policies that could get them fired.
    It has taken hundreds of years sense our founding fathers, to develop operationing policy and procedures, and no one person can come in and just change them at will without other policies and regulations that guide the administration of the departments and the jobs policies & procedures everyone follows in doing their day to day jobs.
    So Yes there is a “Deep State” and its creation is for each department to continue to function in the event of a disaster, and I believe the Trump Adminstration is just one of those disasters that the “Deep State Public Servant employees” will function thru and survive.
    This is especially true with the rapidly revolving door at the White House, and believe me the public service employees are well aware of it.

  21. @Ray R Irvin, thanks for sharing your story re: the Deep State, that seasoned group of employees who manage rather well in keeping the government, whether Federal, State, or Local, running right on time despite the elected officials, their bosses, who occasionally don’t know the difference between a sewer line and a sirloin.

    Your name sounded familiar, and here’s why.

    Thank you for your work in bringing the Monon Trail to fruition along with the connecting trail systems in Hamilton County, including the Midland Trace Trail, and the countless other trails in the DNR Indiana State Trails Plan.

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