Ben Margulies

Many democratic politicians, even in long-established and well-functioning democracies, end up clashing with the permanent bureaucracy that actually runs the state. Public officials, elected or not, periodically release technically confidential documents to the media in many countries and institutions, and this includes the federal government of the United States. At times, these conflicts between civil servants and elected officials have incited or revealed serious breaches of legal norms, most famously during the Watergate crisis.

In Donald Trump’s Washington, a new series of scandals, and the administration’s unusual style of governance, have again incited clashes between the elected executive and the federal bureaucracy, as well as with the news media. The American intelligence community publicly frets that Donald Trump, and many of his associates and officials, may have compromising relationships with Russia. Many civil servants feel that Trump’s style of government freezes them out of decision-making. Trump’s allies, in turn, allege that a “deep state” is at work to undermine a legitimately elected administration and its radical plans for change.  

Although Donald Trump has not used the term himself, a number of right-wing media outlets and Trump allies (eg, Congressman Steve King, cited here in The New Yorker) have made allegations about a hostile permanent government interest. They appear to believe that the intelligence services and officials in other federal institutions are selectively leaking information in a bid to undermine and derail his political project. In some cases, these leaks relate to his alleged relations with the Russian government and Russian interests, or those of his staff. For example, some in the Trump camp blamed “the deep state” for the revelations about Michael Flynn’s contacts with the Russian ambassador to Washington – a Breitbart columnist makes the charge here. In early March, Trump himself charged his predecessor, President Barack Obama, with tapping phone lines at Trump Tower.

Leaking is common in American politics, and presidents themselves may use the practice as part of ordinary political manoeuvring. However, in this case, some Republicans believe that portions of the state apparatus intend to frustrate his presidency as a whole, and to deprive him of the full powers normally invested in the presidency to fulfil a political programme. One blog describes this as a “Democrat-owned” deep state, “that network of embedded bureaucrats, academics and media, judicial activists, and spooks that is operating to stymie, discredit, and ultimately remove from office a president that is a threat to their mutual agenda.

Leave aside for the moment that the Republican Party currently needs little helpundermining itself. What is a “deep state”? Does one exist in the United States of America? Could it really be undermining Trump?

The term “deep state” is most often associated with Turkey; Patrick O’Neil states the concept emerged there in the 1990s. However, the term has been applied to a variety of authoritarian states and regimes across the Middle East and North Africa (for example, by Jean-Pierre Filiu) and in other parts of the world, notably in Thailand. There is no commonly accepted definition, but academics who work with the term tend to include the following features:

A set of institutions and networks which exercise some sort of claim to sovereignty, superior to any popular claim to sovereignty, which regularly claim an extra-legal authority to act, and which evade, undermine and, at times remove democratically elected institutions.

A deep state will usually include some sort of formal, bureaucratic institution, and almost always centre in some way around the state’s coercive arms – the military, the police, intelligence services, internal security or counterintelligence agencies, and so on. “Deep state” may also refer either to certain civil institutions which resist democratic control (often the judiciary or civil service), or networks within these institutions that do.

When describing Turkey, however, researchers at times mean something more specific than just the military and security services. They instead refer to an array of informal networks radiating out beneath these services, encompassing partisan militias, other paramilitaries, and organised crime. O’Neil’s definition focuses on “this nexus of state intelligence, counter-guerrilla or paramilitary, ultranationalist and criminal organizations [which] became the essence of the Turkish deep state”.           

Does the United States have a “deep state”? American leaders and critics have long worried about the power and autonomy of the armed forces, the intelligence community and their allies in the manufacturing and services sector. Famously, President Dwight Eisenhower warned in his January 1961 Farewell Address that a “military-industrial complex” with independent and pernicious political interests might emerge. Some allege that this complex has come to act lawlessly both abroad, through military action unsanctioned by Congress or law, and at home, through unconstitutionally broad and intrusive surveillance.

However, even if the armed forces, intelligence services and law enforcement agencies exercise too broad a field of power and discretion, that fact alone does not make them identical to a “deep state.” Many political systems contain loci of power which should be better monitored by democratic bodies. The difference between these and a deep state are that:

  1. The deep state claims, in some way, to have a legitimacy and authority beyond the constitutional order, one necessary to the survival, continuity and proper order of the state, and;

  2. The deep state has a very high degree of autonomy from democratically elected officials.

It is perhaps the first condition that makes it most clear that the US does not possess a deep state. Few can deny that American intelligence and security agencies, and other parts of American government, have acted outside the law in the past. However, they do not claim to be sovereign, to embody the essence of the nation. Nor do they claim to be autonomous from elected officials; the intelligence services submit their budgets to Congress like any other agency, and the Pentagon doesn’t draw up national security plans without the White House. Ultimately, American public servants, civil or military, still see themselves as upholding an order rooted in the Constitution, not one above it. Even when they are engaged in widespread surveillance, this is often authorised by law, not contrary to it, as Marc Ambinder notes.

Even if we accept that the CIA, FBI and NSA have vast or excessive powers of surveillance, that does not make them part of a deep state. A true deep state commits large-scale kidnapping and murder. As Zeynep Tefekci wrote, the Turkish deep state was (or is) “a shadowy, cross-institution occasionally *armed* network conducting killings, etc.” Real deep states don’t simply impede or embarrass elected governments that they don’t like; they actively, and often violently, work for their removal.

Perhaps the closest parallel to what Trump means by the “deep state” is 21st-century Thailand, where a populist leader, billionaire businessman Thaksin Shinawatra, first came to power in 2001.  Thaksin, his allies and his successors have engaged in a 15-year-long battle with certain permanent institutions – the armed forces, the judiciary, the state administration, the professions, and above all the royal court. Thaksin and his political machine won rural and lower-income voters with promises of comprehensive welfare and state support, and with an aggressive anti-crime program.

But the Thai deep state did not leak against Thaksin and his movement. It mobilised middle-class voters to occupy government buildings and airports; fired pro-Thaksin premiers through questionable judicial actions; interfered with attempts at elections; and ultimately, mounted two coups d’etat. And it justified it all through a claim to specifically non-popular, supra-constitutional sources of sovereignty, resting in the monarch. No American institution would dare claim any such source of legal authority, or try to confront the elected executive and legislature head on.

Both Thaksin’s followers and Trump’s are populists, and when populists talk of the “deep state,” what they are really doing is extending Trump’s earlier condemnation of the “elite,” which is immoral, self-interested and hostile to “real Americans” and their leader. This is the language of populism – there are a pure people and a wicked elite, and the will of the pure people must be fulfilled without obstruction. Populists tend to dislike formal institutions (a tendency I’ve noted in Trump before), and indeed Thaksin worked to disable formal checks on his powers too.  The difference is that Thaksin really did face powerful elites that don’t believe in democratic norms.

American institutions, from the intelligence agencies to the press, act against Trump out of very different ideological and ethical motives. They believe he is transgressing the procedural and legal norms that govern American institutions. They might be bending some of those procedural rules in their resistance, but ultimately they are not doing so because they feel they are above the constitutional order or the electorate, but precisely because they feel they are defending the interests of both, in a country where the political culture has a strong suspicion of majoritarian government. Again, the parallel of Watergate comes to mind; government officials engaged in leaking in service of an overarching constitutional order and the sovereignty of the people.           

So is there an American “deep state”? Well, there is certainly a permanent government, and its agencies have their own policy preferences and interests. And at times these agencies have acted unlawfully, or supported the deep states of other countries. But the key differences are a) that no part of American government claims to be sovereign above or beyond the people or the Constitution, and b) the Trump campaign itself has, from the beginning, stressed the illegitimacy of “elites” and the superiority of “the people” and their concerns to those of law and convention. The deep state is just the same, mostly visible state Americans have lived with since World War II; it is Trump that is different, and very likely the greater danger.


Ben Margulies is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Warwick, where he works on the ERC Diasporas and Contested Sovereignty Project. He earned his PhD from the University of Essex in 2014. He tweets @chequeredfuture.

Image: The White House