They are watching, they are listening

Deep opposition

Who is out to get Donald Trump? Paul Demarty goes in search of the American deep state

“May you live in interesting times” - so goes the apocryphal Chinese curse,1 and so it appears on the lips of all sensible bourgeois journalists and functionaries in the present situation.

Donald Trump’s administration has come to the end of its first month in total chaos; this is undeniable. The only question is how much he himself is its author. He first of all suffered the loss of his national security advisor, cracked army general Michael Flynn, after his communications with the Russian embassy were leaked. The saga stretched on and on, over the several days which cliché has it is a long time in politics, at the end of which Donald Trump gave a press conference that rapidly itself became a news item, such was the extent of the venom he directed at his interlocutors.

Flynn’s case is exemplary, in that barely a day goes by without some exceptionally public-spirited public servant snitching on the commander in chief. The frequency of the leaks is striking. Still more striking, of course, is the almost total absence of controversy about them. No - these leakers are motivated, so far as the world outside the Trump administration and its hard-core support is concerned, only by the loftiest of motives; compare Edward Snowden, denied a pardon by that old softie, Barack Obama, even as it became clear that the latter’s successor would hang him without blinking an eye, but who exposed state overreach that a naive sort of patriot could easily call ‘unAmerican’.

As for Flynn himself, while he is superficially in a terrible position, talking to America’s enemies like some kind of traitor, we must introduce a note of scepticism. Between election and office, presidents are busy men, and busy also are their nominees for various cabinet positions. Are we to imagine that no soon-to-be Obama underling talked to the Russians, or Iranians, or whoever else you like in the winter of 2008-09? However deep his affinity for the Putinites - hard to divine, in truth - it is vanishingly unlikely that his conversations are terribly remarkable, except in that they were unacceptably cordial. The decision was made to do Flynn, and do him on the Russia issue. By whom, and why?

Well, on the first point, we know that Flynn’s conversations were recorded as part of the snooping on foreign diplomats that is the meat and potatoes of intelligence work in America and everywhere else. The civic-minded snitches, in this case, are all part of the shadowy espionage and counter-espionage apparatus of the US state core. Revelation after revelation poured out from these moral titans, until Flynn’s position was found untenable, and thus terminated.

This and related cases has led to the entry into US domestic politics of the term ‘deep state’, which is more commonly used in reference to societies with a long history of direct military involvement in politics. Turkey is the exemplary case, with the army, of strong Kemalist coloration, intervening sometimes bloodily in the national life frequently. (Perhaps now, after Gülen and then Erdoğan’s purges, those days are done.) The deep state persists between elections - it consists of those who watch things very carefully, so that events do not ‘get out of hand’. Spooks, generals, top civil servants: the coalition of the sensible, of the grown-ups. Hegel’s account of the modern state - that it transcends the competing interests of civil society to have a fuller, more concrete interest in civil society as such - is realised not in the state itself, but in the self-image of the deep state.

Such an arrangement is hardly unique to countries on the global periphery. Michael Glennon remarks, in his influential pamphlet National security and double government, that

US national security policy is defined by the network of executive officials who manage the departments and agencies responsible for protecting US national security and who, responding to structural incentives embedded in the US political system, operate largely removed from public view and from constitutional constraints.2

Not clear cut

It would be easy to imagine liberals in irreconcilable opposition to such phenomena, which surely are incompatible with general liberty. Yet things - to put it mildly - are not so clear cut. One reads, between the lines of many a liberal think piece, either the hope that the deep state will divest the American government of its crackpot commander in chief, or the fear that it will not.

A recent New York Times feature comes to mind, calling America’s new ‘deep state’ politics “disturbing” without actually siding with the administration against its saboteurs, whose actions are understandable: with the president shooting from the hip with his executive orders, “officials, deprived of the usual levers for shaping policies that are supposed to be their purview, are left with little other than leaking”.3 Can we imagine the New York Times paralysed by similar equivocations if there had been similar machinations against Obama or George W Bush?

In truth, this should not surprise us. Liberalism demands a state that can ‘defend liberty’ - which is to say, one strong enough to defy tyrants and mass movements alike (there is no difference to the liberal). The ‘night-watchman state’ is nothing without a night-stick.

This aspect of the question is posed very sharply by some of the more traditional ‘deep states’. The recent history of Egypt is a clear example: the elected Islamist government of Mohammed Morsi was overthrown by a counterrevolutionary coup in 2013, but the coup was widely welcomed among the secular, liberal population, who had so enthusiastically pursued revolution in the first place. They preferred, in the end, a military strongman to religious rule, even if the latter had some sort of democratic mandate, and the former came with the inevitable wave of imprisonments and executions. A similar phenomenon occurred in Algeria, when the secular-nationalist military pre-empted the electoral victory of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in 1991, again with the grudging support of liberals.

Can the deep-statists win? That is a rather thornier question. The Turkish deep state, though likely not yet vanquished, is plainly too weak to act against Erdoğan and his cronies, whose position seems secure in spite of escalating tensions. The Algerian coup of 1991 sparked off an exceptionally bloody and brutal civil war, with the ‘moderate’ Islamists of the FIS supplanted ultimately by gangs of fanatics quite as shockingly murderous as Islamic State, massacring entire villages (likely with covert government support; certainly it was the latter that ultimately benefited from such outrages and their effect on popular support). The war only formally concluded in 2002, and skirmishes continue today. The Egyptian story is a little too recent for a balance sheet to be drawn, but we cannot imagine that the military’s enemies are permanently subdued.

As for the American case, there are additional complications. The Egyptian military has its own political party, and had governed the country continuously for decades by the time Hosni Mubarak was deposed. The same was true for the Algerian National Liberation Front in that case; and while Kemalist-military rule in Turkey was not continuous, there was a continuous political tradition to the deep state that cohered it together. If the deep state must do explicit politics, a political tradition must inevitably be the result.

What, on the other hand, is the ideology of the American deep state? Kissingerite realism or neo-conservatism? Technocratic ‘good governance’ or Randite hyper-capitalism? The competition of all of these has both allowed peaceful political transitions and moderated their effect; now, however, the hour is come for a swift impeachment, and the question is whether the chafing but overlapping doctrines and interests of the US state bureaucracy have the gumption to take the nation’s destiny into their own hands.

None of this is to say that there is not an American ‘deep state’ capable of ‘sorting things out’; merely that we cannot be certain, as in the case of other countries named, that there is; whether it possesses the will to truly shake down the Oval Office or will settle for the ‘strategy of tension’ pursued hitherto is another unresolved question.

Interesting times indeed.


1. Like so many other things in our day and age, this attribution is almost certainly an ‘alternative fact’, apparently stemming from the astute Tory prime minister, Joseph Chamberlain, and his son, Austen.

2. Available here: http://harvardnsj.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Glennon-Final.pdf.

3. New York Times February 16.