What’s Up With Trump and “The Deep State”?

Photograph Source: Master Steve Rapport – CC BY 2.0

Our Commander-in-Chief has attitudes that seldom rise to the level of ideas. For the most part, they are noxious and stupid, though the ones that descend from old fashioned “isolationism” are at least less lethal than the Cold War and empire-friendly attitudes that nearly all Democrats evince. Or rather they would be if anything ever actually came of them.

There is however one attitude of Trump’s that is so deeply ingrained that it might just as well be called a “fixation,” an idée fixe. That would be that “the deep state” is out to get him.

Could he be right? This is a rare case in which he is at least not obviously wrong. There is ample supporting evidence.

It is telling, though, that even within the bowels of the Trump Party, the former GOP, Trump’s is not quite the consensus view. Or rather, since Republicans have as hard a time as anyone else tracking the booming buzzing confusion going on inside the president’s head, it is not a view that they consistently hold.

And so it is that anyone watching the on-going impeachment inquiry on television might come to think that “bipartisanship” is not dead, after all. How could it be with Republicans and Democrats alike thanking the diplomats appearing before them “for their service?”

It has been years since they or their media flacks could let pass any opportunity to thank soldiers and veterans in the same nauseating, asinine way. Now diplomats too get to bask in the glory. Even the most ridiculous Trump Party miscreants, characters like Jim Jordan and Devin Nunes, are into it.

Of course, it is all hypocrisy and pious blather. What politicians and media personalities are really thanking them for is making the world safe for American world domination. That may be a service for some, but not for the vast majority of Americans or for the peoples around the world that America dominates.

The sad fact is, though, that official Washington is full of people who do benefit from American imperialism and from military spending. Worse, Congress is full of politicians and thinktanks overflow with experts who might as well be card-carrying members of the War Party. In both cases, nearly all of their less rabid colleagues are still, in varying degrees, fellow travelers.

For some, it is a reckless and dangerous, but heartfelt, dedication to a Cold War ethos that has brought them to that point. More often, blame lies with political calculations that lead them to believe, not unreasonably, that they have more to gain by accommodating to the wants and needs of the military-industrial-national security state complex than by following a less irrational course.

Lately, Republicans, formerly more bellicose than Democrats for the most part, and also, since the demise of the Solid (Democratic) South, more racist and therefore more inclined to stand for Law and Order – in other words, for using state power to keep black and brown people down — have wavered on the final element of that ungodly triad, the national security state. But with Trump riding herd on them, they have lately found that their wisest or at least their safest course is to pull their punches.

After all, like most crooks, Trump is disinclined to heap praise upon those who cross him, especially if they are about to turn on him in the process. And, like most empowered but radically insecure leaders with authoritarian personalities and despotic aspirations, he is inclined to demand absolute obedience from underlings.

Therefore, Republicans, as always paragons of baseness and servility, willingly, though perhaps unhappily, oblige him. This makes for even more incoherence than might otherwise be.

And so, even as Republicans at all levels do all they can to enhance police power, they go along with their Leader’s disparagement of the deep state, understanding that term to designate some or all of the core state institutions that operate mainly, like police, through the use or threat of force.

Ralph Waldo Emerson famously called “foolish” consistencies the “hobgoblins” of little minds. Foolish inconsistencies sometime are as well.

The term is poisonous now, but “deep state” was, and could again become, a useful term of art for students of modern politics. Not long ago, it was used, almost exclusively, by historians and political scientists trying to explain how it is that political regimes in countries that change governments frequently remain basically the same, even when changes at the top are ostensibly far-reaching.

The concept was seldom used by students of American politics because, before Trump, differences between Republicans and Democrats, though important in the countless ways they affected people’s lives, were generally more superficial than substantive.

It was of great use, however, to investigators of the recent pasts of more robust and therefore less predictable democracies – countries with competitive elections between parties with genuinely different political orientations, and the institutional arrangements that go with them. This used to include some southern European countries, Italy especially, and, ironically in light of recent developments, Turkey.

The use of the concept to denote conspiratorial forces in American society is a recent development that only went mainstream after that day of infamy when Trump and his peerless FLOTUS rode down a gilded Trump Tower escalator to announce his run for the Republican nomination and to launch his signature war on Mexican and Central American immigrants and refugees.

Conspirators have goals; what might the goals be in this case? This is hard to say; how Trump’s words were and still are taken depends upon who hears them.

The three-fifths of the population that has despised the Donald since before Day One either don’t care to hear them at all, or else they listen and find themselves bemused by the inchoate, paranoid, ramblings of a deeply disturbed, but “very big and stable” mind.

For the rest, it depends on what propelled them into the Trump fold.

For some, it was and may still be the resentments that follow from the economic and social dislocations brought on by the neoliberal turn in the American economy. The problems are real, and the victims are justified in feeling burned. In the absence of an authentic Left opposition, they are even almost justified in grasping at straws.

Too bad for them and the rest of us, though, that the most easily accessible straw for them to grasp in 2016 was noxious to the core. For grasping anyway, they cannot be forgiven.

Others hear words that cause them to imagine that brown and black people, not capitalist greed or the capitalist system itself, are taking what is theirs.

This Trump-encouraged sense of things has led susceptible people to break free from liberal and democratic norms, and, in alarmingly many instances, by giving free rein to racist, nativist, and xenophobic sentiments, from the constraints of normal human decency altogether.

Thanks to the cultural and demographic changes that have been eroding traditional bases of white supremacy outside elite circles in recent decades, such genuinely “deplorable” beliefs are hard to keep down in the absence of an authentic Left opposition bent on promoting equality and encouraging countervailing social solidarities.

Even now, by militating for “moderation,” the Democratic Party establishment is still doing all it can to quash efforts to keep a much-needed Left opposition from developing. But change, real change, is again in the air; thus the forces of order that have for so long prevailed in that wretched political party may well not succeed. Even in Congress, there are now Democrats who realize that Trump and Trumpism is not the only problem; that, by pursuing a political line that made Trump and Trumpism all but inevitable, the party under whose label they ran is a problem too. It will become evident soon enough how this will play out.

As for Trump himself, it seems that he thinks that conspirators are arrayed against him personally; that they want to keep him from making America great again, and from being acknowledged as God’s gift to humankind. They also want to deprive him of the billions of dollars that he considers his by right and there for the taking.

Who might those conspirators be? Among them, are, of course, the purveyors of “fake news.” That would include all but the most blatantly rightwing media. Respectable academics and leading cultural figures are also on the list, along with good and thoughtful people from all walks of life.

But the ones who really get the Donald’s goat are the non-military folk that Democrats and Republicans, like the ones at the impeachment hearings, cannot thank enough for their “service.”

Diplomats too professional to be under Trump’s thumb are at the top of the list. It hardly matters that their “service,” like the military’s, is, for the most part, a disservice to nearly everyone who does not benefit directly from the economic exigencies and imperial depredations that have dominated and degraded American civic and political life since the end of World War II.

Their “service” sustains a perpetual war regime that squanders wealth that could be put to socially useful purposes but is instead deployed in reckless, life-endangering ways. One would think that Trump would be gung-ho for something that odious and illegal; maybe, at some level, he is.

But then why does he deride “the deep state” so relentlessly, and why does he especially target “the intelligence community,” the CIA most of all?

With Trump, there is, of course, always a chance that there is no reason. The man has a penchant for mindlessness and acting out. Perhaps his ravings about deep state conspiracies are an example.

Or to give him more credit, he may deride the deep state because Democrats champion the institutions he understands that term to denote.

Democrats have never been epitomes of political virtue, and pusillanimity might as well be their party’s watchword, but, in the past, they were at least not full-fledged Law and Order types. That was a Republican thing.

How, then, did it come to this, that Democrats are now the ones that champion the deep state institutions Trump rails against?

Perhaps it all began back when a guilty nation, determined never quite to deal with the criminality of its war in Vietnam, and eager to counter reports, veridical or imagined, of insults leveled against returning Vietnam soldiers, unabashedly took to supporting, or claiming to “support the troops.”

This seldom amounted to doing much of anything actually to help veterans, but it did result in a lot of ostensibly heartfelt, blatantly insincere words from, for example, feckless rich kids struggling with bone spurs.

Even so, for many years it remained the case in liberal circles that a CIA connection had about as much cachet as leprosy had in Biblical times. The FBI’s reputation was hardly better.

Nowadays, however, Democrats love the CIA and the FBI and other deep state institutions to pieces. Even when their love objects disappoint, as happened earlier this year when FBI man Robert Mueller failed to capture the public imagination with a well-documented but far too subtle investigation of that mountain in a molehill that was then called “Russiagate,” the love endures.

Nowadays, it even extends into the nethermost regions of the State and Defense Departments and the National Security Council.

Thus, for the past two weeks, in televised impeachment hearings, we have seen both Democrats and Republicans outdoing themselves thanking witnesses – all of them, friend and foe alike, regardless what they testified to — “for their service.”

There were even kind words for some gone but unfortunately not forgotten golden oldies like Richard Holbrooke, Bill Clinton’s point man for international lawlessness and Zbigniew Brzezinski, the Carter advisor whose efforts to get the Soviet Union mired down in a Vietnam-like war of its own led him to become the self-declared midwife of the jihadi movement.

Most astonishing of all was the respectful invocation of the ghost of the still living and never-to-be-indicted war criminal Henry Kissinger.

The relentless, and increasingly nauseating, thanking of Cold Warriors and Cold War revivalists continued into the next round of televised hearings, with time out only for the Gordon Sondland “bombshell” testimony. No one thanked him for his service. How could they? He bought his way in.

Sondland nailed the Donald good, but, even so, not even one House member or Senator from the more odious duopoly party has yet to call for Trump’s impeachment and removal from office. Republicans may be vile and loathsome, but there is one thing for which they do deserve praise: they stand by their lack of conviction.

Is that really worse, though, than standing by the kind of Cold War mongering epitomized in the testimony of Fiona Hill, MSNBC’s and CNN’s latest paragon of right reason and political rectitude?

This is not the place to “relitigate” Russiagate, but I cannot forbear from remarking on the rank hypocrisy of anyone speaking on behalf of the world’s foremost serial meddler in the affairs of other nations taking umbrage at whatever inconsequential meddling Russia undertook in 2016 in the Trump vs. Clinton election.

This is especially galling inasmuch as Russia and, in near-total disregard of their history, geography, and culture, the former Soviet republics, have been where America meddles most.

We are supposed to know about Russian meddling because the CIA says they did, and we are supposed to think that this is monstrous beyond belief because we are supposed to believe that the whole world should be in the American sphere of influence, and therefore that not even states that lie just across its borders should be in Russia’s.

Addressing the second of these suppositions will be more urgent than it now is if and when one or another “moderate” replaces Trump and reinstalls Obama-Clinton era neocons and liberal imperialists to power, perhaps alongside others cut from the same cloth. On the other hand, addressing the first supposition is as urgent now as it will ever be.

To hear Democrats and their media, and Fiona Hill, tell it, the professionalism and probity of the CIA is beyond dispute. One would think that with so many of their talking heads coming out of the world of Bush 43, the world of weapons of mass destruction about to engulf and devour the City on the Hill, that at least CNN and MSNBC would be a tad more circumspect. That isn’t how it works, however.

In their view, the CIA isn’t just good for gathering and analyzing intelligence; it is good all the way down. No matter how dirty its hands become keeping the empire in line, the entire agency gets a pass.

On one of the very first occasions when Trump mouthed off against the deep state, Chuck Schumer famously advised him to cool it, for the seemingly obvious reason that only a fool would mess with the CIA et. al. and not expect to get burned or worse for doing it. Evidently, on this, as on so much else, Schumer was wrong; Trump is still there and still mouthing off.

What’s up with that?


It is possible, of course, that the CIA is losing it; not because they have suddenly found religion and decided to abide by moral and legal norms – that truly would be unbelievable – but because they have been around long enough to no longer be what they used to be. Such things happen to ordinary criminal operations; why not to the CIA and the others as well?

Another possibility is that there is a Trump-CIA or Trump-Deep State alliance afoot that all sides are keeping well hid.

That hypothesis fits many of the facts on the ground; “conspiracy theories” generally do. But, if nothing else, this one gives too much credit to at least one of the parties involved.

When it serves some purpose of theirs, even a much-degraded CIA is very likely capable of brushing off the derisive insults of a third-rate conman, even one who enjoys an almost cult-like following in alarmingly many benighted circles, and who is, by the way, the CIA’s nominal boss.

On the other hand, there are too many examples of even trifling disparagements setting Trump off to suppose that he could withstand insults coming from anywhere, no matter what he might stand to gain.

Therefore, for now, the wisest course is to frame no hypotheses, to wonder how it is that Trump is still around, but to let the enigma be. There is too little reliable information available in the public sphere to draw defensible conclusions.

There are, however, some very salient, though little-noticed, matters of fact that are undoubtedly relevant to figuring out eventually what is going on that do bear mention even now.

Those matters of fact are most evident in the continent to our south, a part of the world about which most mainstream journalists know little and care less, leaving most Americans seriously uninformed.

A fortunate side-effect of Bush and Cheney’s and later Obama’s wars on the historically Muslim world was that, with hardly any of the empire’s stewards paying close attention, South America got a temporary reprieve of sorts. Thus, for a while, democratic and socialist forces flourished there.

Now that the level of overt warfare in the Middle East has diminished somewhat, those days are gone. The historical norm in Washington had always been relentless opposition to any and all hints of progressive politics south of the border; that norm has now come back with a vengeance.

So too has the timeliness of Hugo Chavez’s quip that the reason why we in the United States do not have to contend with coups d’états is that we have no American embassy.

Chavez had plenty of personal experience upon which to draw in support of that contention, and he was as well-positioned as anyone to attest to the fact that the CIA is still very much in the coup d’état business.

As everybody who pays any attention at all knows, the CIA was quite good at that sort of thing in the Eisenhower era; witness, Guatemala and Iran. In the Vietnam period, there were conspicuous examples too — in Indonesia, Brazil, Greece, the Dominican Republic, Chile, and elsewhere.

But as the American military and diplomatic corps settled into a war of revenge in Afghanistan and a war of choice in Iraq, the CIA came to be less out front in efforts to maintain and expand America’s imperial reach in other parts of the world. That situation did not change fundamentally under Obama, at least not right away. Between the first few years of his administration and the last few years of Bush’s, there was considerable continuity and very little change.

Then, halfway through Obama’s first term, Madam Secretary Clinton and her cohort of liberal imperialist advisors set out, with Obama’s acquiescence, to change all that – in Honduras first, later in Libya, and then, as the Arab Spring unfolded, throughout the greater Middle East.

As could have been predicted, these efforts of Clinton’s, like most of what she has attempted throughout her many years in public life, largely went awry. They also produced refugee crises which, in addition to exacting huge tolls in human misery, generated or exacerbated instabilities in all the places refugees went.

Predictably too, this energized rightwing populist political entrepreneurs, and all but assured their success.

Now, those chickens too are coming home to roost: all over South America, but especially in Brazil, where they have achieved some considerable success, and in Chile, where they are so far mainly just threatening. Venezuela has had to endure perhaps the greatest onslaught, but the Left there, though severely damaged and, to some considerable extent, knocked off course, has so far managed to hold on.

Ground Zero now is Bolivia.

True to form, mainstream media, obsessed with the Trump impeachment saga, and with the waxing and waning fortunes of contenders for the Democratic nomination, provide little if any useable information.

What was the role of the CIA and other U.S. intelligence services? And what about the State Department bureaucracy?

It looks like they are all back in form, but who really can say? It can be said, though, that even if local bourgeoisies have taken the lead some or all of the time, they probably would not have gotten as far as they have without the help – silent but deadly – of the “deep state” professionals anti-Trump media now venerate, proving, yet again, that our enemy’s enemies are not necessarily our friends, that they can sometimes be on a wrong, but different, side too.

And so, the question remains: if the CIA and the rest of the so-called Deep State really has, so to speak, gotten its mojo back, then why the hell is Trump still alive and well, or not nearly unwell enough?

Were Democrats not quite so besotted with the Forces of Order as they have become, perhaps now, instead of endlessly thanking the empire’s servants “for their service,” they would be sowing conspiracy theories of their own – about a Deep State -Trump alliance, a good cop-bad cop story, coming together, each in their own way, not quite to “make America great again” but to maintain its place as the global hegemon, and to keep its economic might on the side, not, except incidentally, of the American people, but of their military and capitalist masters.

No doubt, this conspiracy theory is as false as the Trump Party conspiracy theories floating about. But, insofar as the goal is to make sense of what the available evidence suggests, it is at least, unlike them, not a full-fledged non-starter.

Perhaps someday, if and when Trump era miasma finally clears away, we will know the answers. For now, it must remain, like Russia itself – not according to Fiona Hill or Hillary Clinton or others of their ilk, but according to Winston Churchill, a far more eloquent, admirable and astute defender than any of them of the overripe capitalist system and still essentially bourgeois and dangerously ruinous world order that rests upon it: “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).