Ideas

Ideas | Mark Peters

Learning to love the ‘deep state’

PBS FRONTLINE: United States of Secrets (Part One) Tuesday, May 13, 2014, 9:00-11:00 p.m. ET How did the government come to spy on millions of Americans? In FRONTLINEÕs ÒUnited States of Secrets,Ó a two-part series from Michael Kirk and Martin Smith, FRONTLINE tells the inside story of the U.S. governmentÕs massive and controversial post-9/11 secret surveillance program. Credit: Courtesy of Frontline 13crit
Courtesy of Frontline

Whatever you’re doing, do it quietly. The deep state might hear you.

This term has become omnipresent during the early months of the Trump presidency, fueling columns, tweets, and think pieces. Paradoxically, many articles about the deep state explain that there really is no deep state, at least in America. A Salon headline claims, “America has no deep state, and Egypt helps prove it.” Politco explains, “Why Steve Bannon Wants You to Believe in the Deep State.” A Daily Beast article states, “FBI and NSA Grilling Proves There Is No ‘Deep State’.”

The main characteristic of the deep state seems to be questions about its existence. The deep state is the Bigfoot of government.

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Part of the confusion over whether the deep state exists involves differing ideas of what the deep state might be. In The New York Times, Julie Hirshfield Davis recently offered the most common definition: “a shadowy network of agency or military officials who secretly conspire to influence government policy.” This meaning, which originated along with the term in Turkey, is most often used in countries where shaky democracies are undermined by unelected, authoritarian forces. Trump supporters who invoke the deep state to complain about leaks and Obama holdovers are suggesting they face similar, hidden forces. Saying “The deep state did it!” is like taking a fuzzy photo of an unseen, anti-democratic foe.

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But the deep state isn’t always spoken of in such dramatic terms. Back in February, Phillip Carter described the deep state in Slate as: “influential career executives in the national security community.” In this sense, the deep state isn’t a hidden cabal buried beneath our democracy, like an army of mole people: It’s just career bureaucrats. Bureaucrats can be frustrating, but they don’t tend to be nefarious.

Indeed, many find it comforting. As author Dana Schwartz tweeted, “I desperately hope there’s a deep state secretly pulling the strings. Maybe some of those people have government experience.” If you don’t trust your elected government, the idea of a group of competent professionals working against that government is a comforting thought. Others latch onto the deep state as the latest punchline, like humorist M. Miller Davis: “I keep trying to convince my fiance that it is in fact the ‘Deep State’ who has been leaving dirty dishes in the sink.”

One concept clings to “deep state” like tinfoil to a head — the shadows. The deep state and its mysterious members are often described as “shadowy.” Mike Lofgren used a common synonym for the deep state in the title of his 2016 book: “The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government.”

As a term, “deep state” has been around since at least 1997. But it gives name to an eternal fear that there are forces out there that are beyond our control. Anyone could believe in some version of an American deep state, but its power and scope depend on how much you actually know about the US government. The Bigfoot comparison is unavoidable.

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Did a couple of wanderers see a big animal in the woods? Why not? But that doesn’t make it a Bigfoot, Abominable Snowman, or even the wonderfully named Batsquatch.

Do career bureaucrats and other unelected operators have some influence on the government? Duh. But that doesn’t mean the United States has a third-world-level deep state, nor a secret alliance with alien lizards. When you gaze into the shadows, sometimes you start seeing things. There are enough scary people in the light.

Mark Peters is the author of the “Bull[expletive]: A Lexicon” from Three Rivers Press. Follow him on Twitter @wordlust.