Fear not: ‘Deep State’ lies undermine federal bureaucracy truths

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Since the early days of his presidency, Donald Trump and conservative media have warned that the “deep state” formed a shadow government that was bent on undermining his administration from inside the government. Initially these conspiracy theories revolved around security organizations — like the FBI. Now, they include the entire federal bureaucracy. 

As early as April, reports were that the president was slow to respond to COVID-19 in part because he worried that some of his advisors on the subject were members of the “deep state” and could not be trusted. More recently, an anonymous White House advisor reported that the president is reluctant to listen to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) because he believes it is staffed with “‘deep state’ Democrats.”

Several right-wing media influencers have echoed the president’s sentiments on the “deep state.” Specifically, Fox News personality Laura Ingram referred to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the administration’s top COVID-19 advisor,  as part of the “medical deep state” on her program.

The White House recently released a list of what it thinks Fauci ostensibly got wrong about the pandemic, though many of his alleged mistakes were quotes taken out of context or earlier positions that he had updated.

The president then retweeted former game show host Chuck Woolery, who claimed that: “The most outrageous lies are the ones about COVID-19. Everyone is lying. The CDC, Media, Democrats, our Doctors, not all but most, that we are told to trust.”

While this theory of the “deep state” has been thoroughly debunked, it builds on three truths about federal democracy.

First, the federal bureaucracy is meant to serve the citizens of the United States and not the president.  It seems Trump views the Department of Justice and the FBI as his personal legal and police force. When former Attorney General Jeff Sessions rightly recused himself from the Russia investigation, Trump incorrectly viewed Sessions actions as a personal betrayal.

Second, while heads of government agencies are political appointees, the vast majority of the federal bureaucracy is staffed by career professionals who may serve under a number of both Democratic and Republican presidents. 

Fauci, for example, served under six presidents, beginning with Ronald Regan. While the professionalization and continuity of career civil servants can provide the bureaucracy expertise and institutional knowledge, Trump and his right-wing followers are unfortunately suspicious of civil servants who served under past presidents.

Third, it can be difficult for the public to hold the federal bureaucracy accountable. Federal bureaucracies like the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency, the FBI and the Federal Communications Commission can wield a fair amount of regulatory and investigative power without much citizen oversight.

The current administration’s mismanagement of the civil agencies has demonstrated just how weak congressional checks on the federal bureaucracy can be. 

For example, Trump has skirted the Senate’s power of appointment by appointing temporary “acting” heads to various cabinet agencies. Since the 2017 inauguration, five people have served as the head of the Department of Homeland security, three of whom never went through a senate confirmation process. A February news account reveals that acting officials in cabinet level positions had served a combined total of seven years on the job.  

Even if cabinet secretaries have been approved, however, there is little recourse if they attempt to enact unpopular policies. 

Secretary of Education Betsy Devos recently demanded that all schools return to face-to-face instruction in the fall regardless of whether or not they could meet CDC health and safety guidelines. Devos then pushed the logistical nightmare of how to handle school outbreaks onto local school leaders.

This is at a time when a recent  Axios-Ipsos poll shows 71 percent of parents agreed that sending their children back to school would be a “moderate” to “large” threat to their own health, and 51 percent of respondents were “very or extremely concerned” about sending their children back to school in the fall.

The “deep state” conspiracy theories and general distrust of the federal bureaucracy has dangerously undermined this administration’s response to COVID-19. 

It is vital that congress works to re-establish citizen trust in the bureaucracy by reclaiming its oversight powers, reasserting its role in policy making, and striving to make the workings of the federal government more transparent to all citizens. 

Katie Scofield has a Ph.D. in Political Science from Indiana University, with a focus on comparative constitutional law. She was awarded a Fulbright grant to study the Ecuadorian constitution and its treatment of human rights and teaches government at Blinn College in Texas.

Tags Alt-right Anthony Fauci Betsy DeVos bureaucrats civil servant Congress conservative media Conspiracy theories coronavirus task force COVID-19 deep state Donald Trump Fake News Jeff Sessions Pandemic Right-wing media Trump administration Trump appointees White House White House leaks

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