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Should We Have a Deep State?
America now has a deep state, but not in the way Steve Bannon thinks.
If you had informed me ten years ago that you had access to the future and that the term “deep state” would become ubiquitous in American political discourse, I would have called you crazy. And I probably would have been right.
For better or worse—but mostly worse—the “deep state” was born in the Middle East, primarily in Turkey and Egypt. It was rarely used to describe the United States. As someone who focused on deep states over there, it never occurred to me that it would be applicable over here, at home. But the concept was “imported” and given a new life in Trump’s America. Introduced by former White House advisor Steve Bannon and his acolytes, what at first might have seemed like an odd or obscure affectation became a mainstay of American polemics.
But the “deep state” is only one example of a growing phenomenon. The term “identity politics” has traveled, but in the opposite direction, from west to east. The term was rarely, if ever, used to describe developments in Muslim-majority contexts. It was a seemingly American centric phenomenon tied to what we today call “wokeness.” But, as it turned out, it could be repurposed. And it could be repurposed because it was in the interest of governments to use catchy, resonant frames. I recently met with an Indonesian Islamist who described to me at some length how the Indonesian government has increasingly weaponized the idea of “identity politics”—using the exact translation of that term in Indonesian—to suppress dissent.
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Democratic dilemmas—in other words the tensions that arise when democracyproduces “bad” outcomes—have become a universal preoccupation, with old and new democracies alike facing ever-intensifying polarization and self-doubt. So it makes sense that there would be more conceptual borrowing, with activists, ideologues, and politicians alike drawing inspiration from otherwise distant developments. By sheer coincidence (or was it?), I had another meeting that same day with a Jordanian writer, who in discussing her country’s predicament vis-vis the West Bank, referred to “replacement theory,” a riff on the Arabic phrase al-watan al-badeel, or “replacement homeland.” I was intrigued.
In this sense, the American repurposing of the Middle Eastern deep state was a harbinger of things to come, and not necessarily a good one.
* * *
Before Donald Trump became the Republican nominee, I wrote an essay in The Atlantic imagining worst case scenarios of a hypothetical Trump presidency:
It is possible to imagine a president so reckless as to activate state institutions against him or her, in a way that makes the notion of an American deep state more meaningful and relevant. … One can also easily imagine left-of-center (and right-of-center) civil servants in the Departments of State and Defense working against the president from within to mitigate his effectiveness and even his authority.
I thought, somewhat naively at the time, that it would be difficult for Americans to conceive of their own government as a “regime.” But that notion, like the notion of the deep state, began gaining traction in relatively mainstream right-wing intellectual circles.
The deep state can be broadly defined as the constellation of autonomous and self-perpetuating institutions, namely the judiciary, military, and security services, which operate outside the glare of the public and are insulated from or even immune to the electorate’s whims. The deep state, acting as the guardian of national identity, puts limits on what elected politicians can hope to accomplish.
Bannon and his friends were not good faith actors. And so they wielded the term indiscriminately to claim that the elected president, in this case Donald Trump, was being undermined by entrenched bureaucracies with their own vested interests. Cynical as it may have been, the term did have some utility, particularly in the light of what we know now. The Russia investigation and all the surrounding innuendo—Jonathan Chait’s 8000-word conspiracy theoryabout Trump being an actual Russian asset since 1987 was only the most egregious example from a mainstream commentator—was the center-left’s contribution to a cycle of de-legitimation that the right then took several steps further in 2020. These forays into magical thinking reflected, on the part of a certain kind of Trump obsessive, a desire to use, and misuse, state institutions to undermine the president’s perceived and actual legitimacy— despite having been legitimately elected through the existing rules of the game.
The comparisons with the Middle East have their limits, of course. Unlike in the Middle East, American institutions were (and are) inculcated in democratic norms, as one would expect in any long-established democracy. Still, the concept of a deep or “wide state” can be helpful in thinking about how unelected, and at least partly unaccountable, leaders and institutions confront democratically elected ones. As the political theorist Faheem Hussain notes: “Latent in every democracy [is] the permanent bureaucracy’s capacity to subvert the elected administration, by virtue of permanence and knowledge.”
Ideas travel across time and geography, adapting themselves to new contexts. The details may differ considerably, but the basic tensions seem to be universal, because they speak to an unresolved tension within the democratic idea (the subject of our first ever live audience episode of Wisdom of Crowds). It’s only a question of when the latency that Hussain refers to takes on a more tangible form. The puzzle is why, and how, this process of becoming tangible occurs.
When there exists something approximating a bipartisan elite consensus on foundational questions—the founding, meaning, and character of America and the American idea, for example—there’s no real need for the deep state to “activate” itself. Until the 2010s, Americans could hold on to an idea of innocence. But the consensus crumbled, and so democracy began to reflect a wider range of views and options, including those on the further-left and those on the far-right. In a two party-system, both parties had little choice but to incorporate previously radical (or ridiculous) ideas into their governing structures. If we had lived in a fragmented parliamentary system with proportional representation, it might have made more sense to have distinct parties reflecting these new, or latent, currents.
But we are who we are. And so the Republican Party itself became an existential threat, certainly a perceived one at least and perhaps even an actual one according to some commentators. And to the extent that this became the prevailing narrative among left and centrist anti-Trumpers, this heightened sense of threat would activate the permanent bureaucracy to one degree or another.
I’m not using these terms in a pejorative sense. The interesting thing is how a previously far-right trope became more accepted and normalized across the political spectrum. On the center-left, it became repurposed to describe brave, if faceless, bureaucrats who were able and willing to resist from within, doing God’s work in contravention with the desires of a democratically-elected crazy person. As The New York Times’ Michelle Cottle wrote: “President Trump is right: The deep state is alive and well.” But as she saw it, they were not a cabal but rather public servants doing their patriotic duty. Part of me was sympathetic to some version of this argument, conveyed in more detail and with more academic grounding, most recently by Francis Fukuyama in a series titled “Valuing the Deep State.”
The deep state isn’t a conspiracy. It’s not a cabal. It’s about the reality of democracy when the stakes become existentially high, as they were during the Trump presidency. Inevitably, there will be internal resistance when radical ideas threaten to spread throughout the state through elected officials and political appointees. My preference is that we make ourselves aware of the tradeoff—because good things don’t necessarily go together—and proceed accordingly. Because I prioritize democracy over liberalism and have become more adamant about this position in recent years, I’ve become more nervous about the role of permanent bureaucracies. I would prefer that we err more towards the elected over the unelected, while still acknowledging that there is a place for the latter in a healthy democracy. That place should be carefully circumscribed, however.
For those who prioritize liberalism over democracy when the two are in tension, on the other hand, they may very well come to a different calculus about the appropriate balance. That doesn’t mean that they’re wrong; it just means that they have decided to privilege certain outcomes over others. Understanding this is a first step towards a more productive reckoning with America’s very real democratic dilemmas. And we better get started now, because the deep state isn’t going away. It may very well return, in 2024, and beyond.
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