In Rohde’s account, Trump became the first American president to apply the term “deep state” to the U.S. government, in 2017. As often seems to happen these days, it began with an accusation by retweet. The president forwarded to his 60 million followers a post by Fox News host Sean Hannity, in which Hannity accused the deep state of trying to reverse the 2016 election. From that moment on, the term became “part of the Trumpian lexicon, along with ‘witch hunt’ and ‘fake news,’ ” Rohde writes. “President Trump himself increasingly invokes the term. In 2019, Trump used the phrase as at least 23 times, twice the number he did in 2018.”
To be sure, Trump came to office primed to distrust the Washington establishment. He has a deep suspicion of civil servants held over from previous administrations, convinced that they are part of a vast Never Trump conspiracy. No less contentious was his relationship with the intelligence community and the FBI, which first raised concerns about his campaign’s links to Russia. No one, it appears, was immune from his suspicion.
Even Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-diseases expert, who has become America’s Doctor in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, has been accused of being a deep state actor. The notion went viral when Fauci put his hand in front of his face in a gesture interpreted as disbelief after the president referred to the State Department as “the Deep State Department.” Fauci then found himself in a fantastical narrative in which he was accused of exaggerating the virus’s threat to damage the economy and hurt the president’s reelection chances. (The doctor’s security detail has since been beefed up.)
How did we get here?
The idea of the deep state, Rohde writes, is inextricably linked to a particular view of presidential power. There is a contingent of conservatives who have long believed “that a powerful presidency, unhindered by aggressive oversight from Congress and the courts, was necessary in order to defend the country,” Rohde writes. “Their maximalist view of executive power remained largely on the fringes of American politics. It would gain greater currency during the Reagan administration, after the 9/11 attacks, and unexpectedly, when Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016 — forty years after the Church Committee completed its work.” (That committee had investigated the misdeeds of the FBI and the CIA in the late ’60s and had helped produce the reforms establishing congressional oversight of the agencies.)
The term “deep state” first appeared in the United States in a 2007 book, “The Road to 9/11,” by Peter Dale Scott. Scott, a retired University of California at Berkeley professor, accused the U.S. military of fueling conflict both inside and outside the country from the Cold War right up until the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. In that context, the idea seemed to be fodder for a reasonable political discussion. It took conservative talk radio, Rohde writes, to add toxicity.
While promoting the book, Scott became an occasional guest on Alex Jones’s far-right radio program, and it was there that his discussion of the deep state began to be seen through a more conspiratorial lens. Rohde interviewed Scott and learned that “he regretted appearing on the show and was angered by how Jones and his audience have used the concept of a ‘deep state.’ ” Scott told Rohde, “They have vulgarized the term.”
The concept of the deep state popped up again in a Breitbart News article titled “The Deep State vs. Donald Trump,” shortly before Trump took office, Rohde reports. Writing under the pseudonym “Virgil,” the unnamed author defined the “ ‘deep state’ as all federal employees as well as their political supporters, the policy elite (the ‘chattering class’) and the mainstream media,” Rohde records, adding that the very idea that there is some secretive club working the levers of power taps into “Americans’ long-standing suspicions of government, particularly among conservatives.”
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Who Is Really Running the Government?
The FBI, the CIA, and the Truth About America’s “Deep State”
By David Rohde
The specter of a “deep state” has served as a useful scapegoat in Donald Trump’s presidency, the alleged locus of resistance to his reign. Early on in his book “In Deep,” David Rohde, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, asks “whether a ‘deep state’ exists in America.” At the start of his final chapter, he concludes, “There is no ‘deep state.’” But in the intervening pages, he raises more questions than he answers.
He begins with a brisk history of the phrase, which is rooted in Egypt and Turkey, where the military ran everything and nipped the slightest buds of democratic reform. The former Berkeley professor Peter Dale Scott first applied it to American military and intelligence elites, in a book entitled “The Road to 9/11.” The alt-right adopted it in December 2016, after an anonymous author, using the pen name Virgil, wrote “The Deep State vs. Donald Trump,” a 4,000-word article in Breitbart News. Steve Bannon had been the executive chairman of Breitbart News, and became Trump’s chief strategist. Virgil broadened the term to encompass “the complex of bureaucrats, technocrats and plutocrats that likes things just the way they are” — including the “highly politicized” intelligence agencies and the “liberal apparatchiks” installed by President Barack Obama — who were now all engaged in “a great power struggle” with the newly elected president. Trump himself first invoked the term, Rohde reports, on June 16, 2017. He was retweeting a post by Sean Hannity, his favorite Fox News host, who had hawked a segment on his show that night on the ties between the “deep state” and the news media.
Did Trump and Bannon — does anyone in power — believe this conspiracy theory? Rohde goes back and forth on the question. He notes in passing (more detail would have been welcome) that Bannon fed the idea to Trump as a way of getting him to “distrust the advice of career government officials who opposed Bannon’s policy goals.” Meanwhile, Trump soon realized its power as a narrative device, invoking it last year at least 23 times. But Rohde also writes that, especially during Robert Mueller’s probe of his ties with Russia, Trump came to believe that “a cabal of Democrats and ‘deep state’ members were trying to force him from power.”
At times, Rohde suggests there is a deep state, though he calls it “institutional government,” a term he chose “for its relative neutrality.” Its denizens don’t form “an organized plot,” but they do exhibit “bias, caution and turf consciousness.” And, he writes, “the Justice Department and the F.B.I. and senior intelligence officials proved to be the most formidable resistance” the administration would encounter from within the federal government, initiating a “struggle for power that would define Trump’s presidency.” Notice: Rohde isn’t paraphrasing Trump’s point of view here; he’s describing what he sees as an objective situation.
So, is there a deep state, though one with a more neutral name and less cabalistic motives than the conspiracy theorists portray?