Why Is the 'Deep State' on the Tip of So Many Tongues These Days?

Growing intelligence and military agency bureaucracies breed paranoia and resistance.

The term was first popularized by Peter Dale Scott, who cited the Watergate scandal in his 1974 book "Deep Politics."
Photo Credit: National Archives & Records Administration

The politics of the American deep state have grown more explicit in the six months of the Trump presidency.

Rosie Gray of TheAtlantic.com reports that Rich Higgins, an NSC staff director and former Pentagon official, was recently fired for circulating a memo arguing that a “deep state” of leftists, globalists and Islamic sympathizers poses a threat to the Trump administration and to U.S. national security.

His dismissal marks the latest victory by National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster in the ongoing war within Trump’s White House between those who believe that the president is under threat from dark forces plotting to undermine him, and those like McMaster who dismiss this as conspiratorial thinking.

Who's Right?

It is disturbing and unwelcome for CIA chiefs to intervene in electoral politics. But the agency didn’t write or leak Donald Trump Jr.’s emails. Michael Hayden didn’t dream up the Trump Tower meeting on the "Russian government’s support for the Trump campaign.” To favor tough Russia sanctions is not necessarily a vote for Cold War II.

McMaster, a three-star general and deep state mandarin par excellence, has a point, even if it is Washington conventional wisdom. The notion that a leftist-Islamist conspiracy is mobilizing within the U.S. government is foolish and grounds for professional disqualification.

The only common denominator among popular ideas of the deep state is the role of the secret agencies created by the National Security Act—what Professor Michael Glennon calls “double government.”

Since 1947, Glennon notes, the three branches of the republican government founded in 1789 have been joined by a fourth branch of military and intelligence organizations, which wield power largely beyond the view or control of the Madisonian government and the voting public. In my opinion, “double government” is the most precise and useful way to talk about the deep state.

In any case, the effects of secret government are visible to most voters: endless war abroad, high taxation and mass surveillance at home, contributing to declining faith in government. Secrecy breeds paranoia and paranoia can lead to nuttiness. Paranoia can also be a rational response to unseen threats.

'Deep Politics'

The term “deep state" was first popularized by Peter Dale Scott, a Canadian diplomat turned literature professor. His 1974 book Deep Politics was an original leftist take on key events in the 1960s, ranging from the assassination of JFK, to the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that justified the Vietnam war, to the Watergate scandal that brought down a popular Republican president in record time.

Scott described how networks of clandestine power running from secretive military and intelligence agencies to organized crime and speculative finance had shaped events in the 1960s and '70s. While Scott’s writing was dense and smugly dismissed as “conspiracy theory,” it had persuasive, even predictive, power.

“Deep politics” surfaced with a vengeance in the Iran-contra scandal in the 1980s. When Congress cut off funding for the Reagan administration’s intervention in the civil wars in Central America, a network of CIA officers, White House officials, arms dealers and drug traffickers made their own policy. The results were quasi-state action in support of death squads and cocaine traffickers.

It is true that some of the Iran-contra machinations were exposed by the press and Congress, but that hardly refuted the notion of a deep state in popular thinking. Quite the contrary.

The Iran-contra investigations exposed the machinations of the most secretive sectors of the U.S. government and society—and those responsible ultimately escaped accountability. In January 1992, President George H.W. Bush, a former CIA director, pardoned the indicted leaders of the Iran-contra conspiracy before they could be brought to trial.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump and the populist right adopted “deep state” as a label for their elitist enemies. The CIA and other secretive intelligence agencies are reviled for their globalism, not their militarism. Entrenched bureaucratic elites are feared for their secularism and faith in the rule of law.

On Breitbart News and Twitter, #deepstate has become a handy hashtag to slap on anybody in Washington, liberal or conservative, who yearns for an early end to the shambolic Trump presidency.

What Most Americans Think

As “deep state” migrated from leftist trope to rightist meme, it gained currency everywhere.  

In April 2017, ABC News pollsters asked Americans about the possible existence of a deep state, defined as “military, intelligence and government officials who try to secretly manipulate government policy.” A near-majority of respondents, 48 percent, agreed while 35 percent described the idea as a conspiracy theory. The belief in a deep state, it is worth noting, ran equally strong among Republicans and Democrats.

The left, the right and the center don’t agree on the particulars, but they do share a fear of secret power in Washington today, which they express with this common epithet. As long as the U.S. government maintains a global war machine and domestic surveillance apparatus shrouded in official secrecy, Americans will argue about the deep state.

Jefferson Morley is AlterNet's Washington correspondent. He is the author of the forthcoming biography The Ghost: The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster James Jesus Angleton (St. Martin's Press, October 2017) and Snow-Storm in August: Washington City, Francis Scott Key and the Forgotten Race Riot of 1835.

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