The deep state: How a fringe foreign idea reached the forefront of American consciousness


The deep state: a concept that in this decade swelled from the margins into the mainstream, going global last year. These days it’s taken on an evolving meaning, progressing from its origins in the Middle East into an Americanized model.

So what is it?

The deep state is understood as a perceived informal coalition of powerful institutions in and out of government, but particularly in lucrative areas like defense, intelligence, financial services and tech, which steer decision making in capitals of power on a day-to-day basis, said Mike Lofgren, author of “The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government.”

Its adherents believe the deep state is the government within the government that operates beyond the reach of the electorate — a political and ideological struggle that always buffets behind-the-scenes centers of power from within.

But from the outside, it may appear to be part of a vast conspiracy.

“The term apparently began in Turkey as a designation of the permanent elements of the military, intelligence, senior government officials, business, and even organized crime, that tended to keep Turkey on the same path regardless of who was leader. I used the term because it is evocative, but the U.S. experience is a little different,” said Lofgren, a former Republican U.S. Congressional aide.

In other words, every country in the world has its own version of a deep state. Its meaning differs depending on regionalism and the powers’ delineation, said Marc Ambinder, who is editor-at-large of “The Week.”

“When you hear the words, you think of hidden forces at work, controlling things at remove. That belies its origins: in Turkey, where the term was popularized, the deep state consisted of a secret intelligence and military bureaucracy that operated separately from political leaders — and controlled their every move,” Ambinder added. “We organize our minds around the idea that the deep state here in the United States does the same thing, but that’s silly. The more broadly you define it — is it a cadre of embedded lifers in the CIA, or the universe of people with access to secret information or the larger group of government employees charged with carrying out policies — the less actual power it has.”

Hugh Dugan, who advised 11 U.S. ambassadors to the United Nations while serving as a U.S. delegate there from 1989 to 2015, added that the deep state definition resides between two varieties. The original: governmental civil service and technocratic activity without regard for democratically elected leadership. The current definition: a hybrid entity of public and private forces ruling a country without electoral accountability, able to do so because they are nimble, incentivized within their ranks, and can maintain their distance in front of slow-government reaction time.

Dugan, a visiting scholar and adjunct professor at Seton Hall University’s School of Diplomacy and International Relations, added, “The phrase ‘deep state’ has been used typically regarding Turkey, post-Soviet Russia, and the failed Arab Spring uprisings: the pretense of democracy, but the ongoing manipulation of policy by entrenched forces. These have been in the news, and suggest that perhaps there has been a spread of such to the U.S. What we must take from examples abroad is caution about such power arrangements evolving within our society as threats to liberty.”

“Deep state” has shown to transcend the concepts of left and right, as it emerged during protests from Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party. In that sense, both sides have rallied against bureaucracy preventing the will of the people.

“They are not a secret cabal, they don’t all meet together in a room to plan things, but collectively they exert outsized influence on elected leaders. They don’t use muscle or threats, they use legal incentives: contracts, political contributions, the employment ‘revolving door’ between government and business, etc., to achieve their goals,” Lofgren said about the ideology of the deep state.

Added Dugan: “It can assist in weaponizing certain candidates’ tickets toward electoral victory. Worse is its potential to become a fifth column, seeking to undermine the state in favor of foreign forces, or at least selling out bits and pieces of the state for personal gain.”

“Elected leaders can prevail if they insist on their policies, but the problem is that they tend to get captured and assimilated by the groupthink of what their senior advisers and senior bureaucrats recommend, and also the consensus among congressional leaders. Since Congress rakes in contributions from elements of the military-industrial complex, from Wall Street, from Silicon Valley, etc., and since government bureaucrats usually end up going through the revolving door to lucrative jobs with same, these contractors and other firms, guess what they tend to recommend?” Lofgren asked. “As long as there is so much money in politics, Congress and the executive branch will tend to dance to the tune of those who give the money, not the voters who put them in office.”

As Fox News previously reported, President Donald Trump sent a tweet Tuesday referencing “Deep State Justice Dept,” suggesting that federal law enforcement is part of an entrenched bureaucracy that Trump and his supporters say didn’t want him to be elected and is working actively to undermine his presidency.

The “deep state” increasingly has become the focus of Republicans who accuse such forces of trying to undermine Trump. Though many don’t use the exact label, the notion behind it has taken hold. To Trump’s critics, these assertions come off as paranoid fear of a nonexistent shadow government and an effort to create a scapegoat for the White House’s struggles. But to Trump’s supporters, this represents an overdue challenge to an elite ruling class concerned only with maintaining its own grasp on power.

“If the norms and interests of the deep state, however you want to define them, are seen as being threatened by some powerful actor — in this case, the president himself, it is both accurate and kind of scary to notice that people can use secrets to try and stop him.

“If you oppose Trump, you might be willing to forgive these transgressions because a greater good is served. You might. Or you might wonder what will happen if the U.S. elects a president whom you might support, but who wants to, say, cut off an important mechanism for obtaining secrets used by the NSA or constrain the military’s ability to bomb targets overseas,” Ambinder said.

“In the case of Trump, a lot of the leaks seem to be coming from within his own circle. Some obviously come from secret-keepers who are genuinely worried about his mental capacity. Others — who knows? There is no organized conspiracy, but the threshold for disclosing information to people seems to be a lot lower.”

The concept is not to be confused with a more mundane term — “executive power,” which is something better understood by the general population, Ambinder added.

“It really took off in the first months of 2017, as Mike Flynn got into trouble,” he said, referencing Trump’s former national security adviser who was fired after it was revealed he had lied to Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with Russian officials.

“His defenders said he was a victim of the deep state. I don’t think so. The deep state didn’t make him lie to the FBI, or lie to Mike Pence before Pence did an interview on national TV. Nevertheless, it became a common term,” Ambinder said.

Flynn, a former U.S. Army lieutenant general, pleaded guilty Dec. 1 to lying to the FBI, and so far is the biggest scalp taken by Special Counsel Robert Mueller in his Russia collusion probe. But Flynn had been under investigation even before Mueller’s probe, over lobbying work for Turkey and other issues.

“In the United States, the idea of a deep state offends our common notions of representative government and transparency, so it’s easy to use the term as a weapon against enemies and as a catch-all explanation when things don’t go the way they ought to. This is dangerous because we live in our bubbles, and we are less likely to accept the non-conspiratorial answer for something if it doesn’t fit for our preconceptions,” Ambinder said.

For Dugan, the notion of a deep state clearly has reached the forefront in American consciousness.

“The U.S. has always been identified with such forces operating beyond the scrutiny of its democratic institutions: the Masonic influence was regarded as a driving force, a deep state, taking root as early as George Washington with his contemporaries’ blessing and participation,” Dugan said.

He added, “Eisenhower’s warning of a ‘military-industrial complex’ was yet another example. American ambivalence about supranational organizations to include the League of Nations — the U.S. said no thanks — to the U.N. reveal an ongoing allergy to forces that appear to exist beyond accountability. Some might regard the deep state phenomenon witnessed abroad as spreading to the U.S., however perhaps we are only becoming more mindful of it in our lives, and it is becoming more acceptable to challenge it. The rise of the #MeToo movement is also revealing the deep state within industries, not only government.”

Fox News previously reported that the roots of #MeToo are in a movement started over a decade ago by activist Tarana Burke to harness “empowerment through empathy” for victims of sexual assault. In 2006, Burke founded Just Be Inc., a youth organization focused on the “health, wellbeing and wholeness of young women of color.” The hashtag #MeToo began trending on social media last month after actress Alyssa Milano asked victims of sexual harassment and violence to let their voices be heard.

As Newsweek noted, the concept of a deep state is regarded as credible by most Americans, with 48 percent believing in its existence, according to an ABC/Washington Post poll from last April.

Lofgren said, “Americans tend to believe in the idea of the deep state, even if they are unclear precisely what it means… Now, to some extent, the voters have made the problem worse — U.S. voting participation rates are among the lowest among the developed democracies. But the fact that money — defense contractors, Wall Street, Big Pharma, etc. — does drive decision-making in Washington is also undeniable. Members of Congress spend up to 40 percent of their work week fundraising — how can they be conducting proper oversight in a situation like that?”

Lofgren added, “I think the tremendous public disillusionment over the invasion of Iraq and the failed intervention in Libya, plus the mass cynicism after the 2008 crash, when the big banks were made whole but the public wasn’t made whole, must have played a role in increasing people’s cynicism and belief that the system was rigged against them.”

“There’s a deep state to fear only because Americans have been more comfortable in the shallow state — the place where they don’t vote, don’t hold their leaders accountable, and don’t know when and how to call foul on technocratic, elite self-serving actions,” Dugan said. “Perhaps there is a more general awakening in America, call it a function of populism or not, getting courageous enough to overcome its uncertainty or fear of what is swimming around the deep end of the pond, and hashtagging it into the sunlight.”

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