Like a George Lucas Death Star or one of those planet-eating monsters in Star Trek, the Deep State has crashed into the national consciousness. Suddenly, it’s not just an obsession of those who inhabit the fevered, conspiracy-laced dream world of Alex Jones or Breitbart, but also the subject of countless news stories and headlines of all stripes across the media spectrum—bigger than anything imaginable, undermining the elected president of the United States, threatening the fundaments of our democracy.
Like the Death Star, the American Deep State does not, of course, exist. An appropriation from countries such as Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan and Algeria, where real networks of intelligence, defense and interior ministry officials exercise real power to drive policy, sideline elected officials and eliminate opponents, the American Deep State is nothing more than an invention of President Donald Trump and his allies—the convenient enemy from within that they blame for their frustrations. The leaks that undid former national security adviser Michael Flynn? That was the Deep State. Reports of extensive contacts between the Trump campaign and all manner of other smears? The Deep State. The president is said to be irate about this rearguard action led by, in the words of White House press secretary Sean Spicer, Obama administration holdovers who have “burrowed in” and “continue to espouse the agenda of the previous administration.” Trump’s unshakable certainty that his Trump Tower phone has been tapped seems to be rooted—disingenuously or not—in this belief.
Many, including Loren DeJonge Schulman, Max Fisher and David Remnick, have written insightfully on the fatuousness of these charges, and there is plenty more to say: For example, that there may be only one Obama appointee left in the two premier Deep State institutions, the FBI and CIA. That’s FBI Director James Comey, whose unprecedented intervention in the presidential election would give Hillary Clinton a much a better basis for complaining about the political manipulations of unelected officials than Trump. At the CIA, all four Obama appointees have left, and it is unlikely any Obama people remain at the National Security Agency and the passel of other intelligence agencies, where there were never more than a handful. The problems that plague Trump have nothing to do with former President Barack Obama, or some covert “opposition.” Like it or not, leaks abound when career people feel their agencies are being unfairly attacked, as they did after Trump accused the intelligence community of politicization and fabrication, or when they fear that an administration is dangerously undermining U.S. interests, a worry engendered by Trump’s denigration of traditional U.S. allies and lionization of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
What has been lost in the discussion of the Deep State, however, is that even if it is fiction, it is a profoundly useful one for the White House. As Trump takes a wrecking ball to the federal bureaucracy—what Steve Bannon has called “the administrative state”—an illusory enemy like the Deep State is exactly what is needed to justify the destruction. Repetitive allusions to sinister officials and administrators will expand and energize the constituency for a radical downsizing and weakening of government agencies, especially among Republicans, who appear to believe Trump’s utterances no matter how much the media debunks them. However thoughtful the New York Times or the New Yorker criticisms of the Deep State rhetoric may be, the White House seems to have plenty of reasons to stick with its new myth.
Indeed, the Trump administration seems to be enjoying the brush fire building in the right-wing press. It’s probably not a coincidence that Breitbart, Bannon’s former domain, has put out a string of tales about Deep State infestation, including at the Commerce Department and Environmental Protection Agency. This is the sort of allegation that would brings tears of laughter to a true Deep Stater—say a Pakistani ISI officer—who would never imagine that an agency dedicated to the environment would be worth penetrating. But it makes sense when you recall that the EPA has been identified as a key target of the administration. The “skinny budget” just released by the White House shows EPA targeted for the biggest budget cuts of any agency, 31 percent in all.
The Deep State fiction also fits well with the White House’s apparently deliberate strategy to leave such traditional behemoths as the State Department almost without any leadership. On Mahogany Row, the department’s seventh floor power corridor, 7 of 9 of the top positions are empty—only Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Undersecretary for Political Affairs Tom Shannon, a career Foreign Service member, are in office. There are no assistant secretaries for the different regional bureaus, or for such functional powerhouses as the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, which spends billions a year on what one would have thought was a top Trump issue. More astonishing, there are no nominations for any of these posts.
In that light—and given the whopping 29 percent budget cut for State, second only to EPA—it is a good bet that the White House’s top priority for the State Department is not any particular policy goal. Instead, it is to make good on Spicer’s riposte to the thousand or so Foreign Service Officers and civil servants who signed the famous Dissent Channel cable objecting to the first abortive executive order on immigrations and refugees: “These career bureaucrats have a problem with it?” he said during his daily news briefing. “I think they should either get with the program or they can go.”
State’s not the only agency with empty offices. Nearly two months into the new administration, the lack of interest in filling some 4,000 open jobs across the government with political appointees is stunning. Even if one factors in Trump’s extreme reluctance to hire anyone who ever criticized him—which takes plenty out of the running—this can no longer be attributed to growing pains or incompetence. It’s intentional: The administration aims to cripple many agencies and eliminate them as independent power centers, thus giving more power to the president.
It’s a fact of life within the executive branch that agencies wield considerable power and pursue their own bureaucratic interests. That’s why ordinarily we have political appointees to ensure that the bureaucracy for the most part follows the policy leadership of the White House. Still, doing battle with the bureaucracy has driven presidents to distraction. It has also at times provided a brake on rash actions coming from the White House.
This administration has taken a different tack, effectively ensuring that the departments have next-to-no leadership of any kind; the gears that usually mesh so agencies work together have been sawn off, and there is just a lot of spinning going on. The exception, of course, is the Department of Defense, whose ability to work Capitol Hill and the massive industries that depend on it, is being enhanced.
The Trump team appears intent on changing the nature of American government so that power can more comprehensively be centralized in the White House. With State cut down to size, for example, there will be fewer pesky demands that we adhere to international law in counterterrorism, uphold our treaty responsibility to accept refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention or even pay attention to Arab objections to moving our embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. This is a big problem. Those kinds of initiatives are frustrating to plenty of citizens who’d like to see more decisive action, but they are also the heart of the brand of deliberative policymaking that has usually kept our government on track. Slow and steady government works. And yet that is exactly what Trump and his minions seek to demolish.
How far will this incautious power grab go? It’s impossible to say, but there is a campaign in the making. Trump adviser Newt Gingrich has said he has spoken with Bannon about the issue and made clear he is on board, declaring, “Of course, the Deep State exists. 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.” Sean Hannity has called for firing “deep state, Obama holdover” officials, adding, with characteristic delicacy, “It’s time for the Trump administration to begin to purge these saboteurs before it’s too late.” A variety of House Republicans, including Duncan Hunter of California, Steve King of Iowa and Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania have echoed these charges: Kelly went to so far as to charge that Obama had stayed in Washington to “run a shadow government,” a remark he later retracted.
These are the sounds of a myth taking to flight. It would be a mistake to underestimate its durability or its potential power.