Since 2016, Americans have become increasingly familiar with the idea of the Deep State and its opposition to former President Donald Trump, whose victories in the Republican primaries and the presidential election that year served as a singular, if circumscribed, rebuke to the bipartisan Washington political Establishment.
Today, as voters prepare for elections in this fourth year of President Joe Biden’s tenure with Trump again as the likely GOP candidate, they see even more clearly the difference between the way the U.S. administrative state actually runs in contrast to the formal American constitutional system. This subterfuge against the “rules-based order,” the very mantra and creedal testament the Establishment professes to justify its preeminence, is a defining characteristic of Deep States the world over.
This brings us to what is shaping up to be the overriding issue for 2024: aware of the Deep State, will voters finally condemn it as fundamentally un-American? Or will they disregard, or worse, embrace it—and thereby affirmatively consent to their own subjugation? The country is at a crossroads.
Sustaining the Operational Tempo…
Public concern in America about what is now understood to be the Deep State predates the Trump era and, in fact, was present on both the political left and right during the unipolar moment of US global hegemony. These concerns became more acute with the concomitant expansion of the US security state under Republican and Democratic presidents following 9/11 and into the first decades of the 21st century. Even before then, almost exactly 63 years ago, in his farewell address to the nation, President Dwight D. Eisenhower—a Republican who was Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during World War II—warned Americans to “guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence” by what he called the immense “military-industrial complex,” pointing to the potential of the Defense bureaucracy working with what today can justifiably be called oligarchic corporate interests to undermine liberty and corrupt the democratic process.
It is undeniable that among the political Establishment, the particular shock of Trump’s election victory in 2016 and the rise of his populist movement were seen as existential threats. Ostensibly defending American political “norms,” the Establishment itself became a norm-breaker without peer in modern American history as it counter-attacked in defense of its equities. As the call to the barricades issued forth, governmental traditions and constitutional rights were blithely cast aside as impediments to the task at hand.
Today, the various extralegal impulses and orchestrated political-bureaucratic information operations that helped shape and drive the sustained attempt to oust Trump from office are now arrayed to incarcerate him and ban him from public life. Pundits, professors, and professional analysts would refer to this process as a coup d’etat if applied to similar situations in other countries.
Remember specifically the Russiagate hoax, the impeachments, and the government-led suppression of reporting and social media critical of Biden in 2020. Afterwards, a prominent media platform hailed the “shadow campaign” to beat Trump, spinning it not as rigging the election but merely “fortifying it” in the interests of democracy and stability.
Consider also the high-profile elite speculation that continues to this day about prospects for an actual military coup—that is to say, calling upon the generals to upend the constitutional order through threatened or actual violence against elected officials—legitimized as potentially necessary to derail Trump’s alleged bid for authoritarian rule. A journalistic subgenre emerged, with the corporate media whitewashing and even approving military and bureaucratic “resistance” and insubordination against Trump.
In this light, the corporate media’s ongoing presentation of the January 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol as nothing less than an actual armed and deadly “insurrection,” and the series of criminal indictments against Trump and other lawfare operations to keep him off the 2024 ballot, appear in part as attempts to justify the bureaucratic-media misfeasance that went before and is yet to come. Meanwhile, the widespread “mostly peaceful” leftist riots that shook the country in the run-up to the 2020 elections were memory-holed.
Moreover, fearing Trump’s return to the White House despite these efforts—once thought to be doomed, he now is even with or leads Biden in the RealClearPolitics poll average—Establishment organs have continued to work overtime to protect as much as possible the increasingly feeble President.
Having spent years relentlessly driving home the message that “the walls are closing in” on Trump, corporate media downplay or even ignore indications of Biden’s personal corruption and policy failings. They gaslight American voters about the Biden administration’s mismanagement of the economy and the border crisis. They also moved as quickly as possible past Biden’s profoundly inept pullout of US forces from Afghanistan and, sharing his overall world view, have tried to soft-pedal his administration’s extraordinary strategic blunders in Ukraine and the Middle East. It is quite likely that without the constant framing of issues in support of Establishment equities, Biden’s dismal approval ratings in public opinion surveys would be at catastrophic levels.
…and Deforming Political Culture
Consequently, the upcoming elections might well determine whether Deep State operations will be rejected as illegitimate and illegal, or established once and for all as a fact of political life in a Republic that, until now, has prided itself on the inalienable rights and freedoms under law of its sovereign citizenry.
Driven by ambition and political desperation, Biden himself has encouraged action against Trump and his supporters in public and private. Apparently, he is oblivious to or uninterested in the truth that one cannot “save democracy” and the Republic by destroying them.
Faced with sufficiently dire straits, politicians can be tempted to ride the Deep State tiger. However, there are two dangers here. The first is that the techniques and mechanisms they have conjured up against their enemies are legitimized for use in partisan fashion by others in turn. Indeed, some of the corporate media’s railing about Trumpian “authoritarianism” reflects not only Democratic Party talking points but an implicit awareness about the potential blowback against perpetrators for what has transpired since 2016 should Biden lose.
The second danger is perhaps even more profound. In their desire to destroy Trump and delegitimize his voters for personal and partisan ends, Biden and his team are fueling a Deep State ethos that transcends mere party partisanship and is unmoored from any sense of accountability and responsibility to the electorate. Having used the organs of the state in a bid to neuter the political opposition, Biden and his supporters themselves could be next.
Reflecting concern that Biden is not up to defending Establishment equities, at least one prominent long-time confidant of former President Barack Obama has already floated the idea that Biden should step aside. Obama himself has criticized Biden for a presumed lack of ardor in pushing against Trump—a charge that, in its very ludicrousness, reveals Big Washington’s fears of Trump’s resurgence and perhaps is motivated in part by opportunism. One indication to watch for could be whether elements of Biden’s Department of Justice, which has so far worked hard to shield the President, begin to re-examine some of the corruption and other allegations of wrongdoing aimed at him, his family, and others in his circle.
The Turkish Experience and its Relevance for the US
Americans might not know quite what comes next, but others have navigated Deep State waters before. To see how this might play out in an American cultural setting, consider the experiences of 1990s-era Turkiye, the country in which the “Deep State” concept originated.
Most of the issues raised in the context of the Deep State debate in the US today are not, in fact, unprecedented, but run parallel to the discourse fully articulated in Turkiye a generation ago as that country tried to make sense of and eventually confront its own Deep State in the midst of a coup. The parallels are remarkable and are worth a closer look. They include, on the one hand, the demonizing of perceived deplorables and allegedly reactionary religious elements, fears of insurrection, the threat to the bureaucratic-ideological edifice posed by dictators-in-waiting, and the encouragement of and participation in military coup plotting to protect Establishment equities. On the other, one finds concern about the damage to democratic practice and culture, out-of-touch elites, oligarchic influence, and unrestrained bureaucratic supremacy.
During the 1990s and, in fact, since the birth of the modern Turkish state in 1923 under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Ankara was largely dominated by an authoritarian and aggressively secularist, military-led “Kemalist” elite, backed by oligarchic interests that profited from cozy relations with the state. Educated in the latest Western fads, the Kemalists promoted secularism as a de facto religion and often exhibited a barely concealed disdain for the actual aspirations of Turkiye’s people. Seeing themselves as guardians of “science” and technocratic administration, they paid little respect to elected politicians or the political enterprise itself. Nevertheless, even as they asserted their allegedly nonpartisan status above grubby party politics, they regularly engaged in back-stage and overt machinations to determine political outcomes. The result was a virtual dictatorship-by-corporate-board.
Of perhaps particular interest to Americans seeking to understand how a Deep State operates is the wide assortment of mechanisms, techniques, and strategies the Kemalists developed to intimidate civilians. These included the staging of numerous coups and regular use of the media, the state security apparatus, and the judiciary to help monitor and covertly shape or direct the political process. The Kemalists orchestrated provocative demonstrations and other events, threatened and banned politicians, established or outlawed parties as needed, manipulated the political arithmetic in the legislature, and used targeted violence. Even secularist fellow-travelers deemed too enfeebled by age or otherwise incapable of carrying the regime’s water were shoved aside as needed.
In the process, the Kemalist Deep State reduced the political class in Turkiye to a level of habituated obsequiousness to power that was in some ways understandable under the circumstances of the day but nevertheless extraordinary for a country with democratic aspirations and formal institutions. For example, popularly elected civilian leaders were regularly subjected to the de facto discipline of the National Security Council, then a nominally advisory body shrouded in mystery but long used by the military-led security bureaucracy to delineate acceptable policy and public discourse. Mainstream journalists couched their reporting on the regular NSC meetings and the cryptic official statements that emanated from them in reverent and hushed tones that enhanced the NSC’s mystique and clearly underscored the real message: the politicians were subservient to the bureaucrats. Acquiescing to the pressure and in the interest of political survival, leading politicians of the intellectually impoverished mainstream left and right eventually competed to claim the status of de facto regime favorite. All of this occurred under the eyes of voters, who were taught the hard way to shut up and take it.
In Turkiye, it took a generation to erode decades of entrenched Kemalist dominance and the confluence of power, ideology, and pecuniary interests that sustained it. Moreover, it required the long-term resolve of a faith-rooted, anti-establishment political movement, a major economic crisis brought about in part by the Kemalist establishment’s gross mismanagement, an effective anti-corruption campaign, and ultimately, the ruthless and controversial mass purging of the bureaucracy following a failed, violent military coup in 2016. Even so, debate over Kemalism and the Deep State legacy continues to animate Turkish politics today.
Despite Eisenhower’s warnings, with rare exceptions, we are witnessing not vigilance but, for the most part, precisely the same acute obsequiousness of the Establishment political class to the bureaucracy that characterized Kemalist-era Turkiye and, in turn, stokes the same bureaucratic supremacy and insubordination to elected civilian oversight.
Moreover, this is reflected along a continuum extending across the routine interactions between legislators and the bureaucracy that shape the formal legislative process. In fact, Establishment-minded Republicans join forces with their Democratic counterparts in rubberstamping support for ever-increasing defense and security budgets, benefiting from campaign contributions from defense contractors, and taking advantage of the “revolving door” to find lucrative post-retirement employment as lobbyists on behalf of the very interests they were once charged with regulating. In the process, they have also continued to evince a willingness to defer almost completely to the permanent bureaucracy’s framing on security issues at home, despite the record of serial abuses of surveillance powers since 9/11, and on matters of war and peace, even though the power to declare war is wholly invested in the legislature. We will soon see whether decades of ruinous foreign policies, including the calamities that have resulted from or been made worse by Biden’s inept, ideologically cartoonish, and strategically obtuse decision-making, will induce change.
As the habit grows, it fosters a reliance that crowds out and saps the ability to see and understand. It undermines the prospects for wise, deliberative policymaking, consistent with constitutional principles, in favor of a circumscribed process suiting bureaucratic interests and ascendancy and rooted in unexamined assumptions and perceptions. Under such conditions, the public interest in governmental transparency is ignored. Dissenting or controversial opinions are more easily subjected to censorship, with institutional or individual critics designated as purveyors of “misinformation” requiring suppression. The unwillingness or inability to object soon follows; ultimately, even formal constitutional protections of once-cherished rights are no longer relevant as the culture of submission takes hold in society.
The rise of the Deep State phenomenon in the United States has done great damage to the Republic. Americans should take note and learn from our own recent past and from the Turkish experience to avoid the tragedies that once befell others but are now coming to a head in Washington. There are opportunities to keep the situation from getting worse. But time is running short.
Nicholas S. Kass is Senior Fellow for European Affairs at The Center for the National Interest.