Our Constitution Vs. the Deep State Run by Intelligence Agencies and the Pentagon - Only One Will Survive
It is virtually impossible to read a newspaper or a blog analyzing the politics of America in 2017 without thinking "disaster." Since Donald Trump became president not just the United States, but the world, has become unstable and liberal democracies in general are under assault by antidemocratic authoritarian forces. In fact, a growing number of heretofore optimistic writers are worrying out loud about not only the end of America but the entire product of the Enlightenment: western civilization as a whole.
This dire commentary cannot be the result of one man. And, in fact, there is an accompanying system of organizations, individuals, traditions and practices over a long period that have worked together to bring us to this point. This “administrative state” is what is often referred to as the Deep State: all the permanent institutions of government, once augmented but now in most cases captured (or at least powerfully influenced) by private, for-profit corporations, from defense to intelligence to science.
Still the chief executive, or president, has historically been our symbol of national unity, and Americans have been accustomed for over two hundred years to placing enormous trust in his judgment.
It was not always so, particularly at the founding of our nation. In the late 18â€‹thâ€‹century the dominant concerns of most citizens were about faction and party and whether they would destroy liberty and a democratic republican government. They knew a constitution was written to limit, divide, separate and check political power but they were under no illusions that ‘parchment barriers’ would be sufficient to protect their rights.
They realized how complex society had become based on their historical understanding of human nature going back to the Greeks and Romans. This was how they studied politics.
They read Lord Bolingbroke, an English statesman, who claimed a “party is a political evil and faction is the worst of all parties.” He demonstrated how party leaders pretended to have the public in mind but when they began to “influence men’s conduct” the party became a faction. “In all cases,” he said, “there were revealed reasons” and “reserved motive[s].” The latter were “THE THIRST FOR POWER,” and “the lust of dominion….which flows in fact from avarice, self-interest [and] resentment….”
James Madison, the ‘Father of the Constitution,’ was perhaps more explicit than Bolingbroke: “the violence of faction is the MORTAL disease under which popular governments have everywhere perished.” The English language cannot be more clear. Washington, John and John Quincy Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe – all presidents – made statements descrying party and faction, even calling for their elimination.
Jefferson had a special reason for criticizing party and faction. He believed members of parties abandoned the principles of a free society and he realized, more than most people in his generation, that no republic, no democracy, could endure if the constitution which embodied its principles was ignored or neglected on the altar of party or faction. Jefferson believed strongly that members of parties and factions were so corrupt (forever engaged in conspiracies to seize political power) that he once said if there were political parties in heaven he would not want to go there at all. Jefferson was willing to burn for eternity than be associated with anything having to do with party corrupted by faction.
Unfortunately we’ve forgotten those hard-earned lessons of the 18â€‹thâ€‹century. After World War II, we created factions that would ultimately culminate in the Deep State whose components comprise every branch of government and the sub-divisions within it: Departments of State, Homeland Security, Justice, Treasury, NSA, CIA, FBI and all agencies supervised by the executive Branch, among others. In addition, both Houses of Congress and recently the Supreme Court must be considered part of the Deep State.
This Deep State trespassed almost invisibly on the boundaries of the Constitution for a half century, particularly when it came to the military-industrial complex (that Eisenhower warned us about), secrecy and surveillance, the regulation of the economy (markedly during the Great Recession of 2007-8), and the continuation of our Middle East wars to control world oil prices.
Money is driving the Deep State’s quest for power and both the drive for money and power are insatiable if not controlled by government answerable to the people. Both money and power regularly corrupt human beings, and often do so “absolutely” as Lord Acton warned us in the late 19â€‹thâ€‹century. Thus we ignore the political wisdom of two centuries by condoning a president who flaunts his wealth and power on a daily basis with disdain for other branches of government (like “so-called judges”).
And we’re faced with a conundrum when we consider the problematic nature of the Deep (“administrative”) State over the past 6 decades, and then consider that Steve Bannon has essentially declared that it’s the intention of the Trump administration to disassemble it. In the presence of a stable president, diminishing the power of the Deep State and returning much of it to elected officials is arguably a good thing. But when the executive (president) has accumulated so much power, when the legislative branch has surrendered so much power, and what there is of a functional legislative branch has been so badly corrupted by petro-billionaires and transnational corporate money (thanks to a corrupted Supreme Court), an argument could be made that the Deep State is the only thing standing between us and a Turkey-like executive-branch takeover.
Almost unexpectedly Trump stalled, if not reversed, all progress on climate change. He insulted China, Mexico and the Arab world. Dropped bombs on Syria (without consulting Congress) and threatened North Korea. He allied himself with totalitarian leaders in Egypt and Turkey, shook NATO to its core, and managed to insult the leaders of our allies Germany and the UK – all within 100 days.
There was more drama at home. The symbolic leader of the nation has no visible domestic agenda beyond cutting taxes (for the wealthy) and providing jobs (which seems to have stalled). A majority of his cabinet appointments have indicated they intend to destroy the agencies they are supposed to supervise, while virtually everything else he has proposed is creating polarization.
When his party failed to destroy the Affordable Care Act in Congress he promised to bring it to an end himself. He’s begun arresting the first of possibly 4 million immigrants and threatening to cut federal aid to cities that resist detaining them until federal marshalls pick them up. He’s attacked the press, accusing them of printing “fake news” and criticized federal judges who disagree with him. He’s re-condoned torture and extended Guantanamo Bay as a holding center for prisoners. He’s approved oil pipelines from the Tar Sands in Canada, disregarding their impact on the world’s climate or danger to America’s main water supplies. By direct and indirect inference he has attacked science itself and stated repeatedly that its findings on climate change are a hoax.
The lists could go on and on, but obviously they reflect a radically new approach to governing this country. Virtually all Trumps “actions” have been executive orders, made without consulting Congress or (apparently) even lawyers serving the executive branch, but they coincide perfectly with the interests of the Deep State, particularly its corporate/billionaire arms.
And therein lies a problem. Our new president has exhibited a near total lack of knowledge about the Constitution, its history, the reasons why we have a separation of powers doctrine, checks and balances, even the rule of law. He never refers to American history for guidance. It’s all about the ‘art of the deal,’ never conceding that his power is limited by the Constitution, and that this is the way it should and must be if our nation is to continue as a constitutionally limited representative democratic republic.
Yet he is presiding over a nation wracked with conflict between bitterly contending parties and factions. They have paralyzed government because they are incapable of compromise. Numerous factions within each party have put their interest above the interests of the nation, and the president is no exception.
This is a situation fraught with danger as those factions and parties – following these new policies – will become increasingly polarized: between rich and poor, young and old, liberal and conservative, religious and secular, and even between the educated and those without a college degree.
Unfortunately there seems to be no one group or leader who has the economic and political power to challenge this corrupted Deep State in a way that might avert this tragedy.
Ironically, for forty years the stabilizing force has been the invisible Deep State. It did what was necessary within government to ensure policies were carried out and goals were met. This stability however, depended on the factions and parties not contending against one another with absolute obstruction, but being willing to work together and share power. When the GOP dropped all pretense of such flexibility for 8 years, the core institutions of our republic began to tremble.
The subtlety of the Deep State depended on a general respect for constitutional norms or at least the appearance of them. But as party violence spread throughout the system --- think of Trump’s repeated urgings to “lock Her Up!” without charges or a trial or any legal process or of Majority Leader McConnell’s personal initiation of over 500 filibusters to ensure absolutely not one piece of legislation sponsored by the Obama Administration would become law --- the Deep State’s methods became less democratic and more authoritarian, and thus destructive to the Constitution.
We now have an entire generation that has never seen Congress stand up and enforce its war powers, while we’ve been continuously involved in multiple wars “declared” and run exclusively out of the Executive Branch. The emphasis upon secrecy increases every day. Our new president now refuses to disclose how many troops are fighting our wars to the press or the public. Meanwhile the faction that brought the new leader to power, the Republican party, remains silent.
For eight years the Republican faction refused to meet Obama halfway and usually not at all. They obstructed, delayed and destroyed virtually every legislative initiative taken by the then-president, thus eroding their responsibility to govern under the Constitution. The consequence has been a citizenry who looks upon the federal government with dismay, if not contempt.
Factions, pursuing power at all costs, created a situation where President Obama, realizing he could get nothing through Congress because of the opposition of factions, relied heavily on Executive Orders. That, in turn, set precedents that warped our constitutional system and concentrated power in one branch of government. This trend of expanding executive power at the expense of the other two branches is historically how – in substance as well as form – popular governments often fall victims to revolution.
This is not our first crisis as a nation where a president and a compliant legislature threatened the founding principles of constitutionally limited executive power. The year 1798, for example, was a crisis year for democracy as Jefferson struggled to preserve liberty in the election of 1800. That “peaceful revolution,” captured the essence of how citizens in a republic should view their political situation when parties become factions and attempt to destroy constitutional principles.
"This is not [a] new," [situation] Jefferson stated in a letter to his friend John Taylor, "it is the old practice of despots; to use a part of the people to keep the rest in order. And those who have once got an ascendancy and possessed themselves of all the resources of the nation, their revenues and offices, have immense means for retaining their advantage.
"But," he added, "our present situation is not a natural one." Jefferson knew that the theocrats and the rich did not represent the true heart and soul of America’s political institutions.
"I repeat," he wrote to Taylor, "this is not [our] natural state."
Our new nation's then-wisest political commentator noted the problem of politics. "Be this as it may, in every free and deliberating society, there must, from the nature of man, be opposite parties, and violent dissensions and discords; and one of these, for the most part, must prevail over the other for a longer or shorter time. Perhaps this party division is necessary to induce each to watch and relate to the people the proceedings of the other."
"But," Jefferson asked rhetorically, "will the evil stop there?"
Apparently he thought so, and his next paragraph to Taylor gives progressives a reminder for these times.
This must be our mantra, even as we work harder every day:
"A little patience," Jefferson wrote, "and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolved, and the people recovering their true sight, restoring their government to its true principles. It is true, that in the meantime, we are suffering deeply in spirit, and incurring the horrors of a war, and long oppressions of enormous public debt. ... If the game runs sometimes against us at home, we must have patience till luck turns, and then we shall have an opportunity of winning back the principles we have lost. For this is a game where principles are at stake."
It is time, now, for us to once again follow Jefferson's wise advice. Hope and work for the best, organize for a better America, and recognize the evil unleashed by politicians who believe that campaign lies are defensible, laws gutting the Bill of Rights are acceptable, and that the ends justify the means.
America has been through crises before, and far worse than Donald Trump. If we retain our vigilance and political activism, we shall prevail.
Hopefully, we can soon clarify whether or not this administration has any principles other than an obsession with money and power, and have a meaningful conversation about the size and scope of the Deep State. Meanwhile we must insist on honoring the principles of our Constitution, and pray that congress will take back (at the very least) its power over our nation’s ability to declare war. For the simple reason that, underneath it all is Jefferson’s very serious warning: “[for] this is a game where [our] principles are at stake.”