A month before Donald Trump was inaugurated as the forty-fifth president of the United States, the alt-right website Breitbart published a 4,000-word article bearing the ominous title “The Deep State vs. Donald Trump”. The unnamed writer, who used the pseudonym Virgil, described a vast network of forces that had already allied themselves against the president elect. These included “George Soros and his ilk”– presumably the dark powers of cosmopolitan Jewry. Domestically, Virgil posited the existence of a huge shadowy state that “stretches across the whole of the federal government – indeed, the entirety of the country.” This so-called “deep state”, Virgil claimed, included “not only Democrats but also Republicans. And oh yes, the MSM [mainstream media] and the chattering class”. What united this “complex of bureaucrats, technocrats and plutocrats” was a determination to sabotage Trump’s radical populist promise to “drain the swamp” and return power to the people. The Deep State was prepared to do anything and everything to bring Trump down. Its credo was “elections be damned”.
“Virgil” did not coin the term “Deep State”. A decade earlier, a retired Berkeley English professor named Peter Dale Scott used it to catalogue a pattern of covert and criminal acts committed by US officials in the name of American foreign policy. Scott himself had appropriated the coinage from analysts describing the militaries in Egypt and Turkey – powerful entities that worked to undermine democratic reforms in order to keep political power firmly in their hands.
The invocation of a network of subterranean power allied against Trump also tapped into deep undercurrents of American right-wing thought. In 1964 the great American historian Richard Hofstadter wrote an essay for Harper’s titled “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”, which described a strand of right-wing thought that saw “conspiracy and betrayal” in every corner of American government. Hofstadter called the adherents of this belief system “pseudo-conservatives” because they showed less interest in conserving the status quo than in radically purging it. Convinced that America had “been largely taken away from them and their kind”, these pseudo-conservatives viewed government as the workings of a “sinister conspiracy, a gigantic and yet subtle machinery of influence set in motion to undermine and destroy a way of life”. Hostile to most basic institutions of government, the pseudo-conservative saw himself pitted in a struggle against an “omnipotent, sinister and malicious” plot to dispossess him of his America.
The political style that Hofstadter described sixty years ago as distinctly fringe now sounds disturbingly familiar. In June 2017, six months after taking office, Trump became the first president to use the term “Deep State”, retweeting a post by Sean Hannity, perhaps the most powerful megaphone of today’s brand of pseudo-conservatism. Since then, the US president has decried the malevolent workings of the Deep State on dozens of occasions — and with potent effect. Staunch loyalists, such as the California congressman Devin Nunes and Trump’s senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, have stridently attacked the investigation by Robert Mueller into Russian interference in the presidential election and the impeachment proceeding as machinations of the Deep State. With such ideas now part of the American political mainstream, it should come as no surprise that a poll in 2018 found that nearly three-quarters of Americans believe a “group of unelected government and military officials” are definitely or probably “secretly manipulating or directing” national policy.
And yet, not all conspiracy theories are false. The CIA, it turns out, did for years secretly administer LSD to unsuspecting subjects to see if psychoactive drugs could be used as a means of mind control. Is there, then, any truth behind the myth of the Deep State?
That is the question that the investigative journalist David Rohde sets out to answer in his new book, In Deep: The FBI, the CIA, and the truth about America’s “Deep State”. His answer is no, at least “not in the conspiratorial way that Donald Trump uses the term”. True, government bureaucrats tend to be inertial beings, intent on protecting their turf, budget and influence; but the idea that they constitute a shadowy cabal determined to subvert democracy is, Rohde insists, simply nonsense. Rather, the civil servants we encounter in the pages of In Deep are highly competent professionals, dedicated to serving the good of the nation and prepared to implement the policies of whomever occupies the White House.
But that is only half of Rohde’s discussion. In 1976 a Senate select committee chaired by Frank Church, a Democratic Senator from Idaho, issued a six- volume, 2,695-page report documenting decades of clandestine and illegal actions by the FBI and CIA. In a nation still reeling from the Watergate scandal, Congress toiled to increase oversight of the executive branch. It created the Foreign Intelligence Service Court to subject clandestine intelligence-gathering to judicial scrutiny; it established its own intelligence oversight committees; and it passed the Inspector General Act, creating a dozen dedicated overseers empowered to investigate allegations of fraud and abuse brought by whistleblowers in various federal agencies.
In many cases, Rohde observes, these efforts effectively curbed some of the worst abuses practised by the likes of Richard Nixon’s executive branch. Jimmy Carter’s Justice Department, led by the outstanding Edward Levi, re-established itself as an even-handed steward of the rule of law. Under Carter, the CIA and FBI also found excellent leaders – Stansfield Turner and William Webster, respectively – who accepted and even embraced congressional oversight.
Other presidents have proven less inclined to embrace the spirit of reform. Reagan’s CIA director, William Casey, helped to orchestrate a brazenly criminal scheme to arm Contras fighting the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua and instructed his subordinates to lie about it to Congress. In the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, George W. Bush presided over an illegal campaign of mass surveillance of American citizens and the torture of terror suspects in CIA “black site” prisons. Barack Obama enthusiastically embraced so-called “kill lists” and the assassination of state enemies by drone. And then there is Trump, whose White House has ignored subpoenas, invented wildly elastic notions of “constitutional privilege” and replaced experienced Inspectors General with loyalist hacks. Trump has simply rejected oversight altogether.
In pursuing his renegade politics, the current president has found a bullish champion in the person of Attorney General William Barr, rightly described by Rohde as Trump’s “shield and sword … [the] most feared … and effective member of Trump’s cabinet”. Not since Nixon’s John Mitchell prowled the halls of the Justice Department has the country’s senior law enforcement officer used his office so aggressively to investigate the president’s perceived enemies and to protect his friends. It may be recalled that Mitchell remains the only Attorney General in US history to end up in federal prison.
Much of Rohde’s granular history of the struggle to subject the executive branch to oversight is all very interesting, but it sits uncomfortably with his professed interest in the Deep State. Indeed, many of the acts of executive branch abuse that Rohde describes, such as the arming of the Contras, were not very deep at all – they were planned and authorized at the very highest levels of government and put into action by the President’s own hand-selected appointees.
It is only when the author gets to Trump that the two disparate threads of his narrative come neatly together. Here Rohde skilfully makes clear that it is precisely by pedalling the myth of the Deep State that the President has been able to undermine efforts at oversight. Whether Trump himself believes in the conspiracy is, effectively, irrelevant – the point is that any prosecutor, inspector general, lawmaker or journalist who seeks to lay bare the President’s abuses of office will be defamed as a member of this cabal. In the hands of Donald Trump and his minions, the idea of the Deep State has come to define his own renegade administration.
Lawrence Douglas is the author, most recently, of Will He Go?: Trump and the looming election meltdown in 2020. He is the James J. Grosfeld Professor of Law, Jurisprudence & Social Thought at Amherst College