The conspiracy theorists who surround Trump (a/k/a the conspiracy theorist-in-chief) have issued dark warnings about the so-called “deep state.”
In this telling, there is a shadowy cabal of agency or military officials who secretly conspire to influence government policy and usurp the authority of democratically elected officials. Prior to Trump’s “democratic election,” the term was generally used to describe the politics of countries like Egypt, Turkey and Pakistan, where authoritarian elements worked within to undercut elected leaders. Trump and his inner circle, particularly the now-departed Bannon, have argued that the administration is being intentionally undermined by a network within the federal bureaucracy.
Some of Donald Trump’s most ardent supporters (and, in a different, cautionary spirit, a few people on the left) have taken to using “the Deep State” to describe a nexus of institutions—the intelligence agencies, the military, powerful financial interests, Silicon Valley, various federal bureaucracies—that, they believe, are conspiring to smear and stymie a President and bring him low.
In my City Hall days, a witty colleague opined that incompetence generally explains more than conspiracy–an observation that seems particularly appropriate here. Nevertheless, I think there is a deep state, although one that is rather different from the dark conspiracy conjured up by the Trumpsters. And we all should be deeply grateful to it.
Federal bureaucrats are routinely maligned; the word “bureaucrat” is semi-pejorative. There is an abundance of research, however, that confirms the public service motivations of people who work for government. The evidence is that public and private organizations attract different kinds of individuals, and those drawn to government have a desire to serve the public interest and are convinced of the social importance of their work.
I have a number of former students who work in federal agencies. In the wake of the election, two of them shared with me that they were torn: should they simply leave government, knowing that Trump neither understood nor appreciated the importance of what their agencies did? Or should they remain, focusing on the fact that their obligation is to serve the American people and the Constitution, not any individual President? Should they try to keep the federal government–at least, their small part of it–operating properly despite the chaos and dysfunction in Washington?
The ones I spoke with are still there. They are doing their jobs as best they can in the absence of rational policies and Presidential leadership, soldiering on despite still-unfilled senior positions and conflicting policy signals. They are the real “deep state”–the reason FEMA has responded appropriately (so far) to Hurricane Harvey, the reason Social Security checks continue to arrive on time, the reason that day-to-day American government still functions.
If and when America emerges from “Trumpism,” we’ll have the public servants of the deep state to thank.