Inventing the ‘Deep State’ and draining the real one

Getty Images

At a campaign rally in 2018, President Trump denounced “unelected deep state operatives who defy the voters to push their own secret agendas.” Originally applied to shadowy elites in the military and intelligence services in Turkey, who, in essence, ran the country and were willing, if necessary, to carry out coups to overthrow the government, the term “deep state” has become ubiquitous in American politics since Trump became President. The term first gained currency in the United States when it was used by a Berkeley English professor, Peter Dale Scott, to refer to big oil  conglomerates. Recently, of course, Donald Trump and his supporters have employed it to mean a conspiracy within the federal bureaucracy determined to undermine his Administration.

One of many conspiracies in circulation these days, deep state allegations cheapen public discourse, corrode public confidence in government, and exacerbate partisan polarization, especially when they are used indiscriminately, as Trump and his allies have, in denouncing his own appointees (most recently, former Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer, who opposed the decision to absolve three service members accused of war crimes), and State Department officials who defied the White House by testifying to the Intelligence Committee of the House of Representatives.

Equally damaging to our democracy, and much less noticed, has been how deep state conspiracy theories — in which loyalty trumps expertise — have been used in the hollowing out of the federal bureaucracy.

With former lobbyists installed in Cabinet and sub-Cabinet positions, the Trump Administration has launched an assault on regulations related to consumer and workplace protections, education, immigration, and energy. Most of the 85 environmental rules they rolled back aim to ease “burdens” on the fossil fuel industry.

The administration’s war on expertise continues, essentially unchecked, resulting in a substantial decline in job satisfaction in the federal workforce. One-fifth of ambassadorships remain unfilled, and only one of 28 State Department assistant secretary positions is now occupied by a Foreign Service professional. As the recall of Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch and the deployment of Rudy Giuliani, the president’s fixer, to Kiev, at the start of the Ukraine scandal demonstrates, foreign policy has been conducted over, under, around, and in spite of our diplomats.

Working, as one whistle-blower put it, in “a climate of fear, censorship, and suppression,” climate scientists have become an endangered species in the federal bureaucracy. Between 2016 and 2018 search terms related to climate change on government web sites have dropped by 26 percent. A Park Service employee was pushed out after she was blocked from publishing data about how coastal parks could flood as seas rise. A State Department aide resigned after the White House refused to allow him to submit written testimony to Congress about the impact of climate change.  And the Environmental Protection Agency has dismissed many of its science advisers.

Also ominous is the lack of interest among millennials in exploring careers in government. Citing polls indicating that 33 percent of Americans age 15-34 approve of Trump, while 60 percent believe he is unfit to be president, Don Kettl, a professor of public affairs at the University of Texas, Austin, attributes the phenomenon in no small measure to a “Trump effect.”

Seventy years ago, Sen. Joseph McCarthy, assisted by attorney Roy Cohn, who became a mentor to Donald Trump, made allegations — unsullied by evidence or ethics — that the federal government had been infiltrated by communists, fellow travelers, and dupes. When he attacked the armed forces, President Eisenhower and Congress summoned up the courage to censure him, but not before 81 State Department employees lost their jobs and hundreds more were silenced. According to most historians, McCarthyism crippled American diplomacy on China for a generation. 

Donald Trump’s endorsement of a “deep state” conspiracy, his contempt for career public servants, and his indifference to knowledge are, as William J. Burns has written, a gift to our adversaries that keeps on giving — and for which we will pay a heavy price long after he is gone.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of Rude Republic:  Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century

Sidney Tarrow is the Maxwell Upson Emeritus Professor of Government at Cornell University. He is author of Power in Movement (2011) and the co-editor (with David S. Meyer) of “The Resistance: The Dawn of the Anti-Trump Opposition Movement.”

Tags Conspiracy theories in the United States deep state Donald Trump Foreign policy of the Donald Trump administration Marie Yovanovitch Presidency of Donald Trump Rudy Giuliani

More White House News

See All

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video