Public Comment

Probing the Deep State

Joanna Graham
Friday April 21, 2017 - 11:31:00 AM

On March 20th, David Remnick pointed out in The New Yorker that the term “deep state” comes from the Turkish derin devlet, where it refers to a clandestine network of military and intelligence officers whose mission is to protect the secular state established by Kemal Atatürk. This was in an opinion piece asserting that the U.S., contrary to dark mutterings emanating from the right, has no “deep state.”

Unaware of the Turkish connection until alerted by Remnick, I first encountered the term a few months ago in Mike Lofgren’s book of the same name which many on the left have also apparently read. Lofgren worked for nearly 30 years as a (Republican) congressional aide, with special expertise in budgetary matters. The job placed him in the heart of the action, but more as an observer than participant. His book is meant to be a report on how Washington actually works (starting with a fascinating survey of who lives in which suburbs). His argument is not that there is a conspiratorial cabal but, rather, an unstoppable inertial force created by the sum total of each person who is engaged directly or peripherally in the process of government looking out for number one. He specifically states that it makes no difference who is president, because the same policies will be carried out regardless.  


One of the things that interested me when Donald Trump won the election was that his presidency would provide a near perfect test of the Lofgren thesis. Never before in memory had such a completely outside person gained the Oval Office. Although appalled by many of Trump’s stated intentions, I did find his foreign policy utterances (or at least some of them) far preferable to Hillary Clinton’s near-maniacal hawkishness, and I was encouraged that Trump clearly wished to reset with Russia and seemed unmoved by many of the arguments for American military engagement here there and everywhere. He stated repeatedly that the Middle East is a mess from which we should disengage and that defeating ISIS was the great priority, not regime change in Syria. In fact, to my great relief, at the end of March—two very long weeks ago—the administration signaled that getting rid of Assad was no longer a U.S. priority. Apparently (up until that moment) Trump meant what he had said. 

A day or two after the air strike on Syria, I lay in bed and counted the days between Trump’s inauguration and that action. Eleven in January, 28 in February, 31 in March, and seven in April. Seventy-seven days or 11 weeks exactly. 

That’s how long it took for the deep state to take charge, for Washington to get back on track, for the actually-existing Trump administration to start acting like the Clinton administration that so many believe should have been but isn’t. 

Just coincidentally a few hours before the U.S. missiles flew, Hillary herself told Nicholas Kristof that she has long believed we should “take out” Assad’s airfields. I’d been starting to forget the way she so obviously relishes that macho military talk! Of course she failed to top Brian Williams who called the missile strikes “beautiful, beautiful” or Fareed Zakaria who said that Trump had become presidential at last. The joy of the deep state was shamelessly on display. What did it really matter that Maria Bartiromo had to gently correct the president when he couldn’t remember which country had been the target? 

Of course at this moment, there are alternative explanations of the source of the nerve gas and, without investigation, we may never know which is true. Meanwhile, many theories have bubbled up as to possible motives for Trump’s instantaneous response: distinguishing himself from Obama, who balked when his own “red line” was crossed; demonstrating his toughness to President Xi of China with whom he happened at the time to be sharing “beautiful” chocolate cake; proving to his Democratic harassers that he is not Putin’s puppet. Or maybe he (or Ivanka) truly was upset about the “babies” and did a Trump: take action without reflecting first.  

All of this is conjectural, however. What is not is that Lofgren’s “deep state” thesis has been substantiated with remarkable dispatch. (N.B., I wrote this piece before the remarkable set of “flip-flops” of April 9-15—Janet Yellen, interest rates, etc. etc.—about which I have observed no mainstream commentators remark that they all represent a shift to the conventional inside-the-Beltway positions.)  

Recently I reread E.M. Forster’s Howards End and came across this startling passage: “Frieda was sharp, abominably sharp, and quite capable of remarking: ‘You love one of the young gentlemen opposite, yes?’ The remark would be untrue, but of the kind which, if stated often enough, may become true; just as the remark, ‘England and Germany are bound to fight,’ renders war a little more likely each time that it is made, and is therefore made the more readily by the gutter press of either nation.” It is worth noting that Howards End was published in 1910, four years before the guns of August commenced their firing. At the moment we seem to have almost nothing but gutter press and it is falling all over itself to congratulate Trump for doing the right thing. How do we stop the coming war(s), when that constellation of powers which runs things, whether we call it the deep state or not—the political class (whether in or out of power), the weapons industry, the stock market, the media—are all so determined to fight them?