Just as “fake news” is the epithet thrown around as a magic formula to justify refusing to pay attention to any fact you don’t like, so too is the “deep state” a magic formula used to justify ignoring the latest evidence of President Trump’s malfeasance in foreign policy. The formula is simple: wave any and all damaging testimony off as a political hit job by a secret cabal of unelected officials.
“Deep state” is a term borrowed from Turkey’s Kamalist dictatorship, which involved an actual large-scale conspiracy to suppress any threat to the regime. Ironically, the specter of this “deep state” has been used by Recep Tayyip Erdogan as an excuse to create a new dictatorship—which is why we should be leery of any attempt to import this terminology into an American context.
In America, there is no “deep state” in the Turkish sense. When Trump and his supporters use the phrase, it’s just an overdramatic, hair-on-fire way of whining about the mundane fact of bureaucracy.
The complaint here is not just about the impeachment inquiry. It’s also about the idea that career professionals in the bureaucracy have supposedly been blocking the implementation of the president’s agenda. But if you look at these claims, they’re really just a complaint that the president has to act through others. He makes decisions, but he has to do so on the basis of information given to him by thousands of lower-level government officials, who are then charged with implementing his decisions.
If Trump is upset that those officials are not responding to him or not telling him what he wants to hear, notice that most of the people he has been complaining about—Rex Tillerson, James Mattis, John Bolton—are people he appointed. So if he feels they have been thwarting him, that is partly because Trump is a bad manager who doesn’t know how to hire people or work with them. Communicating his policies, appointing people who can implement them, and following up on their progress is the president’s job. It’s a poor workman who blames his tools, and it’s a poor manager who blames his subordinates.
Instead of learning how to manage the bureaucracy, Trump prefers to make an end-run around them. That’s what got him into trouble in Ukraine, where Rudy Giuliani was running a parallel foreign policy outside the normal channels in order to promote a conspiracy theory that the professionals in the bureaucracy refused to embrace. Or consider David Sanger’s description of how Trump bypassed the normal national security decision-making process on Syria.
Trump’s sudden abandonment of the Kurds was another example of the independent, parallel foreign policy he has run from the White House, which has largely abandoned the elaborate systems created since President Harry Truman’s day to think ahead about the potential costs and benefits of presidential decisions. That system is badly broken today. Trump is so suspicious of the professional staff—many drawn from the State Department and the CIA—and so dismissive of the “deep state” foreign policy establishment, that he usually announces decisions first, and forces the staff to deal with them later.
Hence Trump’s penchant for announcing his decisions on Twitter and putting the burden on the bureaucrats to somehow pick up the pieces.
It is not the bureaucracy’s job to somehow make the president’s every crazy whim work. The president is not an elected autocrat. On foreign policy, he is empowered by the Constitution to make a lot of the big decisions, but then he has to work through others to implement them—through cabinet secretaries confirmed by the Senate and through lower-level officials who answer, not to him, but to the cabinet secretaries.
America’s federal bureaucracy can be annoying and sometimes infuriating, but it has its advantages. It is a reserve of institutional knowledge and expertise. It can act over the long term, across administrations, to build stable relationships with our allies and to implement policies that take many years to come to fruition. In military and foreign policy, where we need to build systems and relationships over decades and maintain a consistent long-term policy—this is especially important. We’re seeing, in the global reaction to Trump’s betrayal of the Kurds, the consequences when the U.S. government makes decisions in an impulsive and unreliable manner.
Last but not least, the bureaucracy also helps serve as a formal check on presidential misconduct. An article in TIME sums things up rather neatly: “It’s Not the Deep State That Threatens Trump. It’s the State.”
Since he took office, President Donald Trump has frequently claimed a “deep state” is trying to sabotage his presidency, denouncing a supposedly corrupt conspiracy in the U.S. government that he says is working in the shadows to undermine him. But ultimately, Articles of Impeachment against Trump may be drafted on the testimony of career bureaucrats, relying on routine skills built over decades of public service. It’s their credibility, expertise, and meticulous records that may prove the most damaging to a president who has long disparaged such discipline.
This is a point I’ve made before during the Obama administration. The fact that the president has to act through his cabinet officers and other subordinates, who are not mere lackeys of the president but are seasoned professionals with independent careers, is a key counterbalance to protect us against the abuse or misuse of presidential power.
Ours is not a system of one-man rule, and the office of the president is not the personal property of its current occupant. The job of government officials is to comply with the law and serve the interests of the United States, not the personal interests of the president. The president’s need to work through others is a part of our system of checks and balances.
To be sure, the federal bureaucracy can be a reserve of institutional inertia—some call it the “Washington Blob”—and it can be wedded to its own pet ideas and resistant to necessary change or accountability to the public. Primarily, it is the job of Congress to rein in the bureaucracy by clawing back the vast regulatory powers they have foolishly delegated to it. It is also the president’s job to reshape the bureaucracy by appointing officials who represent his vision. In both cases, President Trump and congressional Republicans would rather complain than take responsibility.
Even if Trump were a far more effective manager, it is still a good thing that a president cannot alter all of the American government every four years to suit his peculiarities. It’s good that Trump can’t do it, it was good that Obama couldn’t do it, and it will be good that Biden or Warren or whoever comes next won’t be able to do it. To reform the bureaucracy should require long-term, continuous work across administrations, which in turn requires a broad public consensus.
Any talk about the “deep state” that isn’t an outright conspiracy theory is just a complaint that the president’s whim is not taken as law. Yet that’s exactly how our system is supposed to work.