Deep state: Is there really a secretive 'shadow government' working to undermine Donald Trump?

President quick to complain about insider collusion thwarting his agenda but is it just the invention of paranoid conspiracy theorists or something more sinister?

Joe Sommerlad
Friday 07 September 2018 01:14 BST
Alex Jones on InfoWars: There's a Deep State coup planning to kill the President

The decision by The New York Times to run an anonymous op-ed from “a senior official in the Trump administration” has once again thrown the White House into chaos.

In an article the president has lambasted as “gutless”, the unnamed insider reveals the existence of a secret resistance movement surrounding Donald Trump: “Many of the senior officials in his own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.”

The author suggests the reason for their coming forward is to reassure the public: “Americans should know that there are adults in the room.”

Doing so, however, plays into fears about the “deep state”, an anti-democratic cabal of rogue bureaucrats believed by some to work within the machinery of government undermining the policies of elected officials to serve their own ends, drawing on allies within the intelligence community, the military, industry and the media.

The Times writer addresses the concern directly: “This isn’t the work of the so-called deep state. It’s the work of the steady state.”

Previously a phrase primarily associated with the alt-right and “full moon” conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones - who worries the deep state will one day assassinate President Trump - the notion has migrated to the mainstream since the advent of the Trump presidency.

Mike Lofgren, a former Republican congressional aide, claims to have first coined the term in an essay for published in February 2014.

Here, Mr Lofgren anatomised it as “a hybrid association of elements of government and parts of top-level finance and industry that is effectively able to govern the United States without reference to the consent of the governed as expressed through the formal political process.”

He subsequently wrote a book expanding on the subject, The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government (2016).

Appearing on talk show The Zero Hour with RJ Eskow on March 2017, Mr Lofgren outlined it as, “The emergence and the culmination of illiberal elements and tendencies in our supposedly liberal democracy.”

He further suggested it had been used by former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon as an all-purpose “semi-plausible excuse” for administration failings that Mr Bannon knew would be believed by supporters “conditioned” by Breitbart and InfoWars to accept their brand of sensationalism and paranoia.

Trump himself has pushed the deep state line to attack the Department of Justice, doing so in January this year in a bid to pressure it into prosecuting ex-Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin and former FBI director James Comey.

Jack Goldsmith, a law professor at Harvard University, likewise maintains the deep state is a very real phenomenon and suggests in his essay “Paradoxes of the Deep State” in Can it Happen Here? (2018) that it is the source of damaging leaks against the president, including that which led to the resignation of national security adviser Mike Flynn in February 2017.

Edward Snowden, who famously blew the whistle on mass surveillance being carried out by the National Security Agency (NSA), offered a more measured account in March when he was interviewed by Italy’s La Repubblica.

“The deep state is not just the intelligence agencies, it is really a way of referring to the career bureaucracy of government,” he said.

“These are officials who sit in powerful positions, who don’t leave when presidents do, who watch presidents come and go, they influence policy, they influence presidents and say: this is what we have always done, this is what we must do, and if you don’t do this, people will die.”

For Mr Snowden, the deep state is more of a coalition of shared interests among experienced Washington insiders, an informal alliance closer to the “military-industrial complex” Dwight Eisenhower referred to in his 1961 farewell address than a conniving Illuminati operating in the dark, as described by Mr Jones.

Journalist Mark Ambinder called it “a major, hidden amplifier of national security policy” in The Washington Post, just the political machine kicking into gear to realise an administration’s goals, citing the military and CIA mobilising to fight George W Bush’s War on Terror after 9/11 as an example.

Others, like The New Yorker’s David Remnick, have categorically denied the deep state's existence, the latter doing so in an editorial bluntly titled, “There is No Deep State”.

Remnick traces the idea to the Turkish phrase “derin devlet”, translated as “clandestine network” and alluding to the military and intelligence officers dispatched by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk to protect the secular order of the state in 1923.

He points out that Mr Trump has a vested interested in taking “a conspiratorial view of everything from the CIA to CNN” because of the “astonishing array of individuals [who] have spoken out or acted against him”.

The suggestion that his enemies are conspiring together as part of a coherent subversion plot is a powerful message that, like “fake news”, allows the president to assure his core supporters the establishment is against him and that the errors of his administration are the fault of invisible agents busily thwarting their progress, not incompetence.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in