Trump Versus the Deep State

Photo by Toxic5 | DeviantArt

Photo by Toxic5 | DeviantArt


The Trump presidency is fraught with contradictions.  Among the most notable is the degree to which the Steve Bannon war on the “deep administrative state” is at odds with a presidency aimed at making America great again.  To achieve that goal–whatever it means–it requires the Trump administration to take control of the political machinery of the state to secure policy goals, not seek to destroy it as Bannon and many Republicans aspire.

There is an old adage that the skills need to become president are different from those to be president. Presidential campaigns depend on media skills, crafting narratives and messages, and on fund raising among other things.  While some of these skills might also apply to being president, campaigning is different from governing.  Governance is more than words and rhetoric; it is formulating public policies and setting agendas.  It requires the coordination of multiple agencies and officials, working with Congress, proper use of discretion, implementation, and the oversight of programs.

Campaigning is easy, but governing is hard.  Fortunately there are careerists and a civil service in Washington that transcends presidents to maintain institutional knowledge about how to run things.  There are the 3,000 or so members of the Senior Executive Service–the most senior careerists who  run the major government agencies and programs.  There is the foreign policy establishment that generally directs the US national security and diplomatic functions of the country.   All of this is what makes the federal government work and gets things done.   It assures stability, consistency, competence.  This is the real  deep state–not the deep state of those conspiracists who  think the CIA is secretly running everything or who believe in a second shooter in Dallas in 1963.  Trump needs the real deep state–the administrative state– but he is at war with it.

Trump’s presidential campaign as an outsider was not atypical of many recent candidates.  He ran as the outsider, as someone who would “drain the swamp” of Washington.  Yet the Trump candidacy and now the Trump presidency went further.  It saw a virtue in no government knowledge or experience.  It naively believed that a bunch of real outsiders with no government experience could simply come in and get things done, such as building a Mexican wall, crushing Isis, imposing tariffs, forcing renegotiation of trade agreements, and demanding changes to health care.   To accomplish any of these tasks a president and his staff have to have a plan, and people who can execute it.  So far it does not appear Trump has either.  He is literally a man without a plan–except for one–to also destroy the current administrative state, if Steve Bannon is to be so understood.

The entire foundation of anything the Trump wants to do rests upon the deep or the administrative state.  Executive orders in part get their power from administrative law and regulations.  The ability to move on any of the issues that Trump says he cares about requires there to be a strong and viable administrative state.  His ability to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is about using the machinery of the state to make policy change. Yet this is the very state Bannon wants to see wither away.  Take away the administrative state and Trump will be weak, ineffective president.  That appears where the Trump presidency is now.

The efforts to destabilize the government only weaken it.  The failure to get hi appointments named and confirmed weaken the state.   The failure to listen to those who know better or how to get things done weakens the state.  Trump may simply not realize that his tactics are at odds with policy views.  Or perhaps what Trump wants and what Bannon wants are two different things.  Trump may want to build, Bannon wants to destroy.

Back in the 1960s when people were still waiting for the revolution to occur political scientist Robert Dahl wrote a book called After the Revolution?  He pointed out that after the revolution someone would still have to pick up the garbage, make sure the streets are paved, that sewage goes down sewers, and that all the other functions that we cherish as part of civilization would go on.   Revolutions to improve the quality of life still require authority, structure, and organization, unless of course you are a complete anarchist and either don’t want that or think that a modern society can spontaneously govern and structure itself.  Maybe that is what Bannon thinks.  However the track record of complex systems simply self-ordering themselves in ways that are beneficial to all is not very good.  Free markets and capitalism are the most notable failures in that aspect.

The point here is that contrary to the simplistic view that the state is going to wither away and  allow Trump to be a strong and effective president, the two cannot stand together.  The Trump presidency is actually pursuing policies that will largely make it less effective and competent than many hoped or feared.  The contradictions of the Trump style of anti-governance doom his presidency, and perhaps setting it up to be crushed by the deep state that it resents but needs.

More articles by:

David Schultz, Professor in the Department of Political Science at Hamline University and editor of the Journal of Public Affairs Education (JPAE). His latest book is Presidential Swing States:  Why Only Ten Matter.

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