You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Donald Trump Can Do a Lot With the “Deep State”

Even if the deep state isn't real, the idea of one could do real damage.

Pool/Getty Images

A hallmark of the Trump era is that fringe ideas are now at the forefront of American politics. Such has been the trajectory of the phrase “deep state,” which has its origins in Turkish politics (it described the entrenched secularist faction in the military that resisted, sometimes violently, elected Islamist governments) and was introduced into America by the radical left. But thanks to President Donald Trump’s ongoing feud with the intelligence community, which he has compared to the Nazis for leaking information against him, the concept of a deep state is now being widely discussed all over the political spectrum. 

Republican Congressman Thomas Massie said on CNN last week that he’s “concerned” the leaks against Trump were “an effort on those who want a provocation with Russia or other countries to sort of push the president in the direction. So I don’t think it’s Trump vs. Obama—I think it’s really the deep state vs. the president, the duly elected president.” Right-wing columnist Pat Buchanan similarly argued that the scandal that led to Mike Flynn resigning as National Security Advisor was part of a larger attempt by the deep state to spark conflict with Russia. “For the deep state is deeply committed to Cold War II,” Buchanan quipped. Meanwhile, some Trump opponents have come to embrace the deep state as a possible savor, the one force that can overthrow the authoritarian president. NeverTrump neoconservative Bill Kristol tweeted last week:

A backlash was inevitable. BuzzFeed’s Ali Watkins called the deep state “the proverbial national security boogeyman,” and reported that intelligence officials were laughing at the concept. Former National Security Agency analyst John R. Schindler, writing in the Observer, calls the deep state a “myth” while seeming to argue otherwise. “Of course, a Deep State of a sort exists in the United States, as it does in every country, even the most democratic and law-based ones,” Schindler argued. “Everybody spies, therefore pretty much every country has intelligence services.” Further, he believes the U.S. intelligence community is, in fact, in a bitter war with Trump, one that could end with his removal from office: “Behind closed doors, plenty of American intelligence experts believe that President Trump is the pawn of the Kremlin, wittingly or not, and assess that it’s only a matter of time before unseemly Moscow ties are exposed and the White House enters unsurvivable political crisis.” So Schindler’s position is that the deep state is a myth, but also real enough to be able to destroy an American president. 

Does the deep state actually exist? Possibly not. But the mere idea of one, in Trump’s hands, can do real damage.

Rafael Khachaturian, a political science graduate student, has written the most thoughtful recent critique of the idea of a deep state. “[I]nvoking the deep state implies a misleading view of the state as a monolithic, unitary actor,” he argued Monday in Jacobin. “While the deep state is usually said to be a network of individuals and agencies, it is assumed that these component parts are held together by a common will or mission (in this case, something like defending the ‘national interest’ against Trumpism). This leads to a reification of the state as an autonomous and internally coherent force.”

If we take Khachaturian’s critique to heart, it’s useful to move beyond the conspiratorial idea of a single-minded deep state and think instead of factions within the permanent government (made up of bureaucrats, military officers, the intelligence community and law enforcement officials). There are clearly factions that are hostile to Trump, but also factions that like him or think they can work with him. In the lead-up to the election, the FBI was dubbed “Trumpland” for its leaks against Hillary Clinton, possibly handing Trump the presidency. Trump himself spoke about the political divisions inside the permanent government during his January speech to the CIA. “The military gave us tremendous percentages of votes,” Trump said. “We were unbelievably successful in the election with getting the vote of the military.  And probably almost everybody in this room voted for me, but I will not ask you to raise your hands if you did.” (This may have been a subtextual warning to the CIA that even if the agency opposes him, he has much of the military on his side.)

The political opinions of individual government officials aside, it’s almost inevitable that Trump get into a protracted fight with many factions of the permanent government. His chaotic management style is already putting him in conflict with bureaucrats and military men whose entire training has been within in well-regulated systems. Whatever their personal politics, most Washington civil servants and military men are likely to be alienated by Trump’s aversion to professionalism, his preference for relying on a tight coterie of loyalists, his status as an outsider, his heterodox views on everything from vaccination to trade alliances, his tendency to run organizations by stoking rivalries among competing individuals, his preference for getting information from cable news to briefing books. It’s not just ideological differences that have caused Trump to clash with the permanent government, but rather, his entire approach to governance, which is unlikely to change since it is based on how Trump ran his family business for decades. 

Surveying scholars of nations that are said to have a deep state (notably Turkey, Egypt, and Pakistan), The New York Times concluded that the U.S. doesn’t fit that model yet but “risks developing an entrenched culture of conflict between the president and his own bureaucracy.” If that “entrenched culture of conflict” comes into play, Trump, already the most conspiracy-theorizing president the U.S. has ever had, is likely to sink ever deeper into paranoia. While Trump hasn’t used the phrase deep state, it is becoming increasingly popular with prominent followers like Buchanan and Alex Jones. Certainly Trump’s frequent tweets against the intelligence community suggest a conspiratorial fear of the deep state.

The idea of a deep state can be a potent force in itself, helping Trump shore up power. Drawing on the Turkish example, The Atlantic’s David Graham argued that an authoritarian leader can use paranoia about the deep state to rally support. “That’s the danger of the deep-state analogy, and the danger of trying to operate a deep state: It is liable to facilitate its own destruction,” he wrote. “It can place some real restraints on a government, up to a point. But if a leader can convince the public that it exists and is a real threat, he can manipulate that threat into empowering himself, undercutting the values that the deep state had pretended to safeguard. And it is a perfect foil for a demagogue.”

Backed into a corner by damaging leaks, Trump could argue that the CIA and other agencies are trying to destroy his democratically elected government. This appeal might garner support not just from Trump’s base, but also Trump opponents on the left who distrust the intelligence community.

In the end, Trump’s best-case scenario would be that the deep state doesn’t exist, but that the American public thinks it does. Such a phantom foe would provide him with a pretext for an authoritarian crackdown on dissent and a consolidation of power within the Oval Office. But if it turns out that the deep state does exist, he’ll be in deep shit.