Who rules? Behind the shiny façade of a monarchy or a presidency — behind all the pomp and ceremony — who really pulls the levers of power?
The idea is an ancient one that there are two layers of power, one brightly visible, the other in the shadows. A standard figure in the royal courts of the early modern era was the éminence grise.
The advance of democracy was supposed to do away with grey eminences by requiring that governments be elected by the people. And yet history played one of its usual, ironic tricks on humanity. No amount of voting could rid our minds of the suspicion that real power was still being wielded behind the scenes.
Just over half (51 percent) of 1,000 Americans surveyed in 2011 agreed with the statement that “Much of what happens in the world today is decided by a small and secretive group of individuals.” Fully a quarter of a larger sample agreed that: “The . . . financial crisis was secretly orchestrated by a small group of Wall Street bankers to extend the power of the Federal Reserve and further their control of the world’s economy.” And nearly 1 in 5 agreed that “Billionaire George Soros is behind a hidden plot to destabilize the American government, take control of the media, and put the world under his control.”
This kind of thing is the stock-in-trade of professional conspiracy theorists such as Alex Jones. Last week was a bonanza week for Jones. Not only did Twitter join the other social media companies in banning him. (Infowars headline: “EMERGENCY: DEEP STATE FASCISM KILLS FREE SPEECH.”) Better still, in an anonymous op-ed in The New York Times, the Deep State revealed itself to be actively thwarting the will of Donald Trump. Usually Jones has to make this stuff u p. Last week there was no need.
Yes, it turns out that there really is a conspiracy to shut down Alex Jones: The big tech companies have been planning it for some time, and Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey was just the last hold-out. And there really is a conspiracy to prevent Donald Trump carrying out the policy pledges he made on the campaign trail in 2016.
The man (yes, we know it’s a man) Infowars calls “the White House saboteur” was quite explicit. This, he wrote, is “a two-track presidency. . . . Take foreign policy: In public and in private, President Trump shows a preference for autocrats and dictators, such as President Vladimir Putin of Russia. . . . [But] the rest of the administration is operating on another track . . . [F]or instance, the president was reluctant to expel so many of Mr. Putin’s spies as punishment for the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain. . . . But his national security team knew better. . . . This isn’t the work of the so-called deep state. It’s the work of the steady state.”
Further evidence of the “steady state’s” activities can be found in “Fear,” the new book by veteran presidential chronicler Bob Woodward.
There are two possible reactions to all this. The first is the Infowars reaction: Time to get the pitchforks sharpened and the semiautomatics loaded. Trump needs reinforcements from the heartland. It’s time to “Storm the Swamp!”
The alternative is to put on a poker face, in the style of Captain Louis Renault of “Casablanca,” and echo his immortal words: “I am shocked — shocked — to find that gambling is going on in here!” Yes, I am shocked — shocked — to find that bureaucracy is going on here.
The dichotomy between populist leadership and actual government is far from a uniquely American phenomenon. I was in Italy on Friday, where I heard a speech by the new Italian foreign minister, Enzo Milanesi. According to most English-language media, the government in which he serves is a coalition of wild-eyed populists, the League and the Five Star Movement. But Milanesi’s speech was scarcely distinguishable from those that his predecessors used to give.
As the former prime minister, Paolo Gentiloni, explained to me: “This is a coalition between the left populists, the right populists, and the technocrats.”
The new coalition was formed in mid-May. Its program was so radical that jaws dropped around the world. It is now early September and most of the radical stuff has been quietly dropped.
To British eyes, none of this should be surprising. We saw the funny side of our two-faced politics nearly 40 years ago, thanks to the creators of “Yes, Minister.”
The civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby’s speciality was to blind the inexperienced minister Jim Hacker with circumlocution. In one memorable episode, Sir Humphrey is forced to make an admission of responsibility. “The identity of the official,” he says, “is not shrouded in quite such impenetrable obscurity as certain previous disclosures may have led you to assume; but not to put too fine a point on it, the individual in question is, it may surprise you to learn, one whom your present interlocutor is in the habit of defining by means of the perpendicular pronoun” (in other words, “I”).
I don’t suppose those are quite the words the anonymous senior official will use when he confesses or is outed. But it’s the same general idea. And you know what all the other senior officials will say when Trump orders his execution, don’t you?
“Yes, Mr. President.”
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford.