The deep state is the right’s new bogeyman.
I’d wager that until fairly recently, few people had ever heard the phrase. I’d also bet that roughly 99% of those who fling the term around have no idea that it’s borrowed from Turkish politics.
The idea of a deep state, or “state within a state,” is that there are undemocratic forces within the permanent bureaucracy, the military and the intelligence services who pursue their own interests rather than those of the people or the agenda that voters desire.
Depending on the country in question, deep states are not only real, they are sometimes as devious as people fear. At various times in the history of the Soviet Union, the secret police ran the government and the Communist Party for its own benefit.
In the democratic West, the civil service and other bureaucratic institutions often accumulate enough power and arrogance that they see themselves as immune to the desires of voters or politicians. Prior to a few years ago, some people would call this sort of thing the “deep state,” and depending on the context, that was fine.
But now it’s become a partisan talking point in defense of almost everything President Donald Trump does. It’s a warrant for widespread paranoia and hysteria. People talk as if we live in a Jason Bourne or James Bond movie, with secret deep state organizations plotting to overthrow the government or something.
Impeachment, we’re told almost every day, is a “deep state coup.” When the Turkish military launched a “deep state coup,” it launched an actual, you know, “coup” — which the dictionary still defines as an extralegal violent overthrow of a government.
The sort of coup that some on the right are talking about — which, if successful, would result in the vice president lawfully becoming president and Trump’s Cabinet staying in place — isn’t a coup. It’s not particularly deep state-ish either, given that the people leading it are democratically elected legislators publicly following not just the rules but also the wishes of the people who elected them. (You can be sure that if Democratic voters weren’t behind the effort, people such as Rep. Adam Schiff wouldn’t be pushing impeachment.)
In fairness, impeachment arouses partisan excess, and it’s no surprise when partisan rhetoric gets heated. Democrats called the effort to impeach Bill Clinton a coup. And they were wrong, too.
The problem is that this deep state contagion has spread far outside of impeachment.
“Just this week, I stuck up for three great warriors against the Deep State,” Trump declared last week at a rally in Florida.
The crowd loved it, of course. But think about what Trump is saying. The three warriors Trump was referring to were three men charged with committing war crimes. He pardoned all three. One hadn’t even received a trial yet. Many great warriors put their careers in peril to testify against the two other men.
Reasonable people can disagree on the specifics of the acts, but military law experts are uniformly aghast at Trump’s decision. According to Military.com, Trump’s move has “blown a hole in the military justice system and will make it harder to prosecute future war crimes, military law experts say.”
Whatever you think of that, the idea that the military justice system is part of the deep state because it sought to enforce prohibitions against war crimes is grotesque. Military leadership wasn’t behaving like a bunch of Turkish generals conspiring against the elected government for their own selfish ends.
If anything, the selfishness runs the other way. The president now wants to campaign with the “three warriors” for political advantage.
Indeed, the impeachment witnesses defamed as deep state operatives by Trump and his defenders testified that the president was orchestrating an effort in Ukraine for his own self-interest, not the national interest. These people weren’t secretly shouting “Hail Hydra!”; they were doing what they thought the law and patriotic duty required.
Deep-staters are now those who follow the rules in ways inconvenient to Trump’s personal desires or political ambitions. It would be too confusing to say that Trump is the real deep state operative here since he was lawfully elected. But he does seem to adhere to a view of the state most famously articulated by Louis XIV: L’état, c’est moi (I am the state). And any obstacle to his unfettered rule is now the deep state and by extension illegitimate.