Yes, There Is a Deep State—But Not the Right Wing’s Caricature

by Mike Lofgren

The heated controversy over the right wing’s characterization of Donald Trump’s chronic conflict with the U.S. intelligence community as the machinations of “the Deep State” has inevitably generated political pushback from more establishmentarian figures. Paul Pillar on this site and David Remnick in The New Yorker have dismissed the whole notion of the American Deep State as a figment of the right’s overheated imagination. The U.S. government, operating as it does within the framework of American society, simply doesn’t work that way.

It is understandable that persons with some actual knowledge of current events and the workings of government would be exasperated by the feverish outpourings of, or Fox News’s Andrew (“Judge”) Napolitano, who depict Trump and his recently fired national security adviser, General Mike Flynn, as poor, innocent snowflakes beset by the remorseless conspiracies of a shadow government. (The Trump administration even had to issue a rare apology to the British government when press secretary Sean Spicer repeated Napolitano’s false allegation that the United Kingdom’s intelligence service spied on Trump).

As I have explained elsewhere, a far simpler explanation is that Flynn’s own malfeasance and dishonesty (including misleading the vice president, who then looked foolish defending Flynn on national TV) led to the general’s dismissal, as the administration itself announced at the time of his departure. It was only ex post facto that the Trump White House, with its addiction to bad-faith rationales, began pouring conspiratorial nutrients into the fever swamps of the paranoid right.

That Donald Trump’s problems are of his own making—meaning that they are the result of his own serial lying and the incompetence of his inner circle—is an obvious truth. Just as clearly, he is at loggerheads with elements of the intelligence community mainly because his fragile ego cannot accept their assessment that the Russian government might have been involved in hacking his opponent during the campaign. Pillar, Remnick, and others are right to harp on these matters, and I agree with them. But they overshoot the mark in saying there is no such thing as the Deep State in America. Their belief arises from the erroneous notion that such constructs must be conscious conspiracies, and that they must be sinister.

The Deep State is not a conspiracy: it is the evolution of social organizations according to chance, necessity, bureaucratic regimen, and a large dose of what psychologist Irving L. Janis called “groupthink.” At its most benign, it is simply continuity in government: aviation safety inspectors staying on the job regardless of who is president, public health officials working to keep Ebola out of the country without the need for a directive from the Oval Office, and our own trusting that the cut of Porterhouse we buy will have been government inspected regardless of whether the current fashion in Washington is to get government off our backs.

But when organizations gain outsized shares of power, money, and influence, as the Pentagon is widely recognized to have done, they begin to set their own agendas, and representative government cannot always rein them in. As President Eisenhower warned in his farewell address almost six decades ago, “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

Eisenhower’s description of the military-industrial complex, along with its associated intelligence complex, has, in some circles, become synonymous with the American Deep State, but the concept is far more diffuse and elusive than that.

Plumbing the Depths of the Deep State

The Deep State is simply the institutional culmination of illiberal tendencies that have developed in our theoretically liberal democracy, an institution that provides an extensive support network for its loyal operatives. Pillar and Remnick would almost certainly agree that the last two decades have seen an exaggerated and unnecessary militarization of U.S. foreign policy, whose results in the Middle East represent the most consequential foreign policy blunder of our lifetimes. Did the American people, with their eyes open and properly informed of all the potential outcomes, truly give their informed consent, or were they rushed into it by a combination of fear, cheerleading, and false appeals to patriotism, fed to them by national security “experts” who, career-wise, did quite well despite their abject blundering?

General David Petraeus was one such. His successful advocacy of troop escalation in both Iraq and Afghanistan merely kicked the can down the road at an increased cost of lives and treasure. If that weren’t enough, he ended his government career on a note of disgrace, quite apart from his compromising classified information. Yet now he is no less than a partner at the Wall Street investment firm KKR (despite having no known background in investment finance) and a senior fellow at the Kennedy School of Government. He was even briefly mooted for a senior position in the administration of Donald Trump, despite the fact that the latter had criticized the invasion and occupation of Iraq during the campaign.

This is quite a shift from the older practice of disgraced public officials never being heard from again. Pillar states that operatives are inwardly mortified by making bad policy calls and screwing up, and that may be so. But, at least at the more exalted levels, it doesn’t seem to hurt their career prospects, and that is all that matters in venues like the Beltway or the New York Stock Exchange.

Petraeus’s safe landing on Wall Street was no coincidence. Despite the lazy use of the term Deep State as a signifier only of the military-industrial complex, high-level finance in America is also a part of the concept, and its strategy is broadly similar to the Pentagon’s: wringing as much money out of the golden goose as possible, and, when that business model fails, adopting a “no fault” policy of blaming unforeseeable circumstances, but not themselves. And then they blithely move on as before.

Just as failure in Iraq and Afghanistan resulted in fat budgets for the Pentagon and a continuation of most senior personnel in their career tracks, the greatest global financial meltdown in 80 years, caused by the irresponsibility and malfeasance of Wall Street banks, netted them a taxpayer bailout as millions had their homes foreclosed. Nearly a decade later, virtually all the major Wall Street bank CEOs remain, unprosecuted, in their corner offices. Could it just possibly be that Wall Street, like the military-industrial complex, has gained an undeserved share of resources and influence in our society because it has captured the policy-making process through campaign finance laws that constitute nothing more than legalized bribery?

As for the conspiratorial angle that so many obsess over, virtually all of this goes on in plain sight, and we know the names of the major players. Dark-of-night conspiracy as a systemic explanation for complex events is like Intelligent Design, a pseudo-explanation that relies on a deus ex machina to make it vaguely plausible. That is not to say, however, that there is no distinctive attitude among the players.

Pillar says that whatever the partisan loyalties of the operatives of government bureaucracies, there is an overriding ethic of public service and doing a proper job. Yes, it is certainly that: virtually everybody is a patriot according to his lights. But at the senior levels they are also more than that.

The preferred pose of these people is that of the politically neutral technocrat offering well considered advice based on profound expertise. But in reality they are deeply dyed in the hue of the official ideology of the governing class, an ideology that is neither specifically Democrat nor Republican. Domestically, whatever they might privately believe about essentially diversionary social issues such as abortion or gay marriage, they almost invariably believe in the “Washington Consensus”—financialization, outsourcing, privatization, deregulation, and the commodification of labor. Internationally, they espouse 21st-century American exceptionalism: the right and duty of the United States to meddle in every region of the world with coercive diplomacy and boots on the ground.

Combined with what Max Weber called “the iron cage of bureaucracy,” this attitude results in a cliquish, we-know-best mentality, as Elizabeth Warren vividly described her 2009 meeting with Larry Summers, then director of the National Economic Council:

Larry leaned back in his chair and offered me some advice. I had a choice. I could be an insider or I could be an outsider. Outsiders can say whatever they want. But people on the inside don’t listen to them. Insiders, however, get lots of access and a chance to push their ideas. People—powerful people—listen to what they have to say. But insiders also understand one unbreakable rule: They don’t criticize other insiders.

Trump and the Deep State

True, Donald Trump ran as a populist, a supposed foe of the elites exemplified by Summers. And it is also true there is something about Trump that senior operatives, either within the Beltway or in their corporate bastions, don’t like. His disgusting vulgarity and unhinged ranting embarrasses people who like to think of themselves as professionals. And, of course, the caterwauling about the Deep State by White House trolls may deceive people into thinking that the Deep State, however one defines it, and Donald Trump are in mortal combat.

A glance at Trump’s policy choices shows that this theory is nonsense. His cabinet, filled with moguls from Big Oil, mega-banking, investment, and retail, makes George W. Bush’s cabinet look like a Bolshevik workers’ council. Even Steve Bannon, Trump’s alt-right ventriloquist, is an alumnus of Goldman Sachs, whose stock has surged 38 percent since the election. The fact that America’s poster child for ruthless corporate raiding, Carl Icahn, will be special advisor on regulatory reform, and that Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin was a Goldman executive for 16 years, does not inspire confidence that economic management will be different from that which piloted us into the 2008 crash.

Candidate Trump’s criticism of the invasion of Iraq and promise of better relations with Russia appealed to the growing populist backlash against the foreign policy elite’s practice of military intervention. He was regarded as less hawkish than his opponent, Hillary Clinton, which led some to regard him as the default peace candidate of the two major party nominees. But this premise was spectacularly mistaken and ignored what lay in plain sight.

Trump had always claimed, in line with conventional Republican dogma, that America’s military was “depleted,” and that he would increase its budget to “rebuild” it. No matter that this “depletion” was a myth, as the Pentagon in 2016 spent, in constant dollars, comfortably more than the Cold War average. And, sure enough, after the election defense stocks rose in the expectation that Trump would open the money spigot even wider—an expectation fulfilled by his proposed 10 percent budget increase for the Pentagon. The military-industrial complex, a core component of the Deep State, will grow even fatter.

Trump surrounds himself not only with billionaires, but with generals: He needed a legislative waiver to appoint General Mattis as secretary of defense, and General Kelly now leads an ostensibly civilian agency, the Department of Homeland Security. He supposedly even wanted Flynn, a retired general, to wear his old military uniform as national security adviser! General H.R. McMaster, Flynn’s replacement, will wear his uniform.

Trump will not dismantle the extra-constitutional power structures that have grown more pervasive in the last decades of near-perpetual war, increasingly intrusive surveillance, financial deregulation, and widening inequality. He will further entrench them. This has confounded those in the media, who once regarded him as a vulgar but basically harmless jackass who probably wouldn’t win but who in any case increased ratings and circulation, as well as those Americans desperate for silver linings who saw him a change agent who would shake up a polarized political system and slaughter a few sacred cows.

The powers-that-be probably never liked Trump’s vulgarity, but they had in any case a hedged bet during the campaign: Hillary Clinton, a firm friend of Wall Street and widely considered a militarist, was denounced as such by an opponent who was an even bigger friend of the Street and an even more unbridled militarist. It was a no-lose proposition.

In the post-2008 age of populism the elites have flexibly adapted to the angry rhetoric of anti-establishment politics while expanding the very same policies that led to that populism in the first place. Trump’s tastelessness and complete lack of qualifications, which at first seemed like serious defects, may in retrospect have been his tactic to save their political agenda by masking it in a façade of fake populism and reality-TV stage management.

The Deep State is an outgrowth of illiberal tendencies in liberal democracy, tendencies that have given disproportionate influence to a militarized foreign policy, secrecy and surveillance at home, and entrenched disparities of wealth. It has been a grave defect of our governmental system, a system that the venerable Economist now rates as a “flawed democracy.” But it is not the worst imaginable permutation of that system. The naked, authoritarian power grab that is now evolving in the West Wing under the troika of Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, and Jared Kushner, is something much more sinister.

Mike Lofgren is a former career congressional staff member who served on the House and Senate budget committees. His latest book is The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government. Photo of David Petraeus courtesy of the CIA via Flickr.

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  1. This astute, temperate analysis of the myth and reality behind the so-called Deep State makes me all the more eager to read Lofgren’s book on the subject. One passage in particular from Lofgren’s commentary stood out, because it concerns something we don’t typically associate with the Deep State:

    “Despite the lazy use of the term Deep State as a signifier only of the military-industrial complex, high-level finance in America is also a part of the concept, and its strategy is broadly similar to the Pentagon’s: wringing as much money out of the golden goose as possible, and, when that business model fails, adopting a “no fault” policy of blaming unforeseeable circumstances, but not themselves”

    Of course, this also sounds like the modus operandi of both major political parties. The question then becomes, what DOESN’T constitute a part of the Deep State?

  2. Thank you, Mike Lofgren. How could anyone possibly dismiss the presence of a Deep State whenever presidents and presidential appointees offer those astonishingly flimsy excuses for failing to do something that is clearly within their purview? Obama wanted to “move forward, not backward” and therefore refused to hold the Bush-Cheney administration to account for its war crimes: authorizing a torture regime, extraordinary rendition, drone assassinations, secret detention centres (or “black sites”), massive and warrantless surveillance of American citizens.

    Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder’s excuse for not holding Wall Street bankers to account for abandoning their fiduciary obligations was that it would be too hard to get any of the charges against them to stick. Clearly he had never heard of the prosecutions in the aftermath of the “junk bond” bubble, the savings-and-loan scandal, the widespread accounting frauds of the 1990s (think Enron and WorldCom) — all of which saw prosecutions right up to the highest level figures involved. According to Holder, Wall Street bankers had done “nothing strictly illegal” by ruining their banks, severely damaging the world economy, triggering a recession, and engaging in outright fraud with respect to derivatives and mortgages.

    But it’s not accountability per se that the Obama administration has a problem with, for neither Obama nor Holder appeared to have any trouble hounding, prosecuting, financially ruining, and/or jailing all those whistleblowers who had picked up the slack of a feckless administration by delivering some of the transparency Obama had promised to the American public.

    One hopes in vain that one of those presidents or high-ranking appointees will eventually write a memoir telling the whole truth about why they had to back out of 90 percent of their campaign promises, but that never happens because once they’ve sipped the Deep State’s Kool-Aid, they’re addicted for life.

  3. Having read prior essays by Lofgren on this topic, I was so pleased to see him on this blog addressing this issue, especially after the myopic ‘there’s nothing to see here, just keep moving…’ denial by Pillar earlier this month. This essay is an excellent definitive, yet concise, description of the Deep State and how it functions and should be mandatory reading for anyone thinking about politics. And, without specifically describing it as ‘evil’ or subversive, he points out exactly how the Deep State subverts democracy. What might be added though is that the multinational corporations and convergent political interests of the ruling elites in most countries make the Deep State more than a national entity; it is a global network of convergent interests acting in concert to promote those interests to the detriment of those not privy to the ‘secret handshake’. The global ‘austerity’ epidemic being a prime example.

  4. It doesn’t help that academics like Krugman teach that banks don’t matter to macroeconomic theory because they merely intermediate between savers nd borrowers. Wrong. They create money by lending. The GFC was a banking crisis. These academics gave cover to venal bankers.

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