The Trump administration had a rough first month.
On top of mass protests, historically low approval ratings, and staffing disorganization, the various bureaucracies of the federal civil service are riven with conflict and openly resisting the administration’s agenda. Last week, Michael Flynn resigned as national security adviser following leaked reports that he’d met with Russian intelligence prior to the presidential election. If anything, the rebellion within the intelligence community is only escalating.
The mounting discord has led many to comment on the persistence of the “deep state” — shorthand for the nexus of corporate power and political and administrative institutions, including the branches of the armed forces, the federal bureaucracy, and the FBI, CIA, NSA, and other secretive intelligence agencies — and its ability to act as a check on the Trump presidency.
According to critics — and until recently, references to the “deep state” were rarely positive — these subterranean networks exercise disproportionate influence over public policy. While parts of the Left have long been concerned about the deep state, lately the Right has taken up the term, using it to decry a purported fifth column of Obama loyalists. From Glenn Greenwald to Bill Kristol, Breitbart to Foreign Policy, it seems everyone now accepts the reality of the deep state, even if they disagree about its role in the present controversy.
The term’s surge in popularity is understandable. The “deep state” appears to be an appropriate way to describe the complex networks tying together the various state apparatuses. In particular, it can easily be invoked to explain the seemingly invisible, drawn out, and arcane processes by which public policy is actually negotiated and made.
Yet for the same reason, references to the deep state obscure more than they clarify. They shed hardly any light on the nature of the power struggle currently roiling the federal government. If we want to fight Trump, we’ll need conceptual and theoretical frameworks with more explanatory power than the “deep state” can provide.
The Concept on Everyone's Mind
The notion of the deep state has a long history in American politics.
While emanating from different ends of the political spectrum, President Eisenhower’s warnings in 1961 about the “military-industrial complex” and C. Wright Mills’s famous 1956 study of “the power elite” can both be seen as indictments of the deep state as an undemocratic distortion of policymaking.
After Vietnam and Watergate, the concept embedded itself even more deeply in the political discourse, as the notion of a pluralistic distribution of power in American society appeared increasingly farcical in the face of structural inequalities. The regulatory state and the entrenched network of intelligence agencies came to be viewed as political actors just like the visible branches of government.
With Trump’s ascendance to the White House, the “deep state” is once again on everyone’s mind.
Trump — in keeping with his managerial style, which mirrors that of many authoritarian leaders — has attempted to sow discord among rival factions of his cabinet to ensure their direct loyalty. Likewise, he has sought to appoint outsiders to bureaucratic leadership positions, in part to prevent them from identifying with their appointed agencies, and in part to weaken the agencies traditionally favored by Democrats and progressives.
A highly mobilized public has slowed down the latter. But so too has the civil service’s active disobedience (including, in the case of the intelligence bureaucracy, leaking highly damaging information).
On one level, these sectors are hostile to Trump’s agenda because it seeks, at least in part, to upset the stability of the American political order and thus, of their institutional autonomy. But even if we grant that state agencies have their own interests and domains of authority that they jealously defend against encroachment, it’s unwise to think of the mounting internal opposition to Trump as a “deep state” giant now awake and attempting to restore things to normal.
The Problem With the "Deep State"
The deep state concept is harmful in two key ways.
First, invoking the deep state implies a misleading view of the state as a monolithic, unitary actor. While the deep state is usually said to be a network of individuals and agencies, it is assumed that these component parts are held together by a common will or mission (in this case, something like defending the “national interest” against Trumpism). This leads to a reification of the state as an autonomous and internally coherent force.
Yet modern capitalist states are more fragmented than they appear. First, they are composed of class fractions and coalitions that have frequently clashing interests and are motivated by short-term considerations. Often, these internal differences arise from the pressure exerted by various economic interests (such as the competition between the financial, manufacturing, and small business sectors).
In addition, these class forces are intersected by other factors, including the different social bases of support behind the major political parties (including voter cleavages based on urban versus rural interests, racial and gender attitudes, and “populist” appeal), the mass media’s role in shaping certain ideological narratives, and competing visions of foreign policy and geopolitical strategy.
As the Greek sociologist Nicos Poulantzas wrote in State, Power, Socialism, we need to “discard once and for all the view of the State as a completely united mechanism, founded on a homogeneous and hierarchical distribution of the centers of power moving from top to bottom of a uniform ladder or pyramid.”
The state is better understood as a temporary and historically contingent crystallization of social forces, a formation whose institutions are as liable to come into conflict with each other in times of political duress as they are to align seamlessly in times of stability.
It is not at all clear, then, that the leaks are a power play by a unified deep state. The rivalry within the White House between the Bannon and Priebus camps, and Trump’s intent to govern by executive order (with little consultation from Congress, the Justice Department, or the federal agencies responsible for implementing these orders) have disturbed the normal functioning of the bureaucracy. As state personnel develop ways of coping with the unpredictable and ad hoc nature of this administration, the dissent within their ranks is a sign of the uncertainty that they have been thrown into since the election, rather than a well-coordinated, conspiratorial effort.
Second, to talk of the deep state is to suggest that political power is sealed off from broader social struggles.
The state–civil society binary is one of the fundamental bases of liberal political theory. But this distinction is largely a byproduct of the way that political power has represented itself, rather than a social fact.
Where the state ends and civil society begins has always been permeable and contested — in other words, subject to politics and political struggle. The state is not an entity standing over and above society, but instead one premised upon the social forces that bring it into being.
Loose talk of the “deep state” misses this crucial point, advancing instead a facile vision of institutionalized power that constitutes its own foundation, and is therefore opaque, mysterious, and beyond the reach of citizens.
The State and the Struggle
Rejecting the deep state framework is not an academic exercise. The way we think about the state shapes how we, as democratic agents, conceive of and relate to organized political power. It affects how we organize and participate in the growing movement against the Trump administration and the GOP’s agenda.
Treating the state as a nebulous substratum of bureaucratic networks and institutions — ones that really call the shots behind visible electoral politics — overlooks its potential as a terrain for political struggle. To again quote Poulantzas, “the State is not a monolithic bloc but a strategic field.” Through concerted struggles inside and outside of political institutions, the opposition can displace and alter the state’s internal dynamics. They can attack the hegemonic coalition (currently headed by Trump) at the core.
What would this look in practice? What would it entail for the movement against Trumpism to analyze, leverage, and exploit for its own ends the various coalitions, fractions, and hegemonic blocs within the state that are now publicly clashing?
First, it would mean embracing the plurality of political resistance, from legislative pressure to marches and public demonstrations, economic boycotts, and civil disobedience. Since the election we have seen a new politicization of civil society, and the proliferation of local initiatives seeking to stem the new administration’s onslaught. Among these are the rapid growth of the Democratic Socialists of America, and the movements for sanctuary cities and campuses. These struggles in civil society always reverberate within the state, turning the latter into a contested ground where these new movements can push back, both directly within and outside of state institutions, against the Trump agenda.
Second, it would mean deepening the existing ties between the various popular struggles fighting Trump and the GOP, including the movements for women’s and reproductive rights, immigrant rights, workers’ rights, and environmental justice. In the short term, cultivating a broad coalition around overlapping interests (and seeking to fragment the support behind the Trump coalition, where possible) could encourage a further de-legitimization of the Trump administration’s far-right agenda, and thereby spur more refusals and defections from within the ranks of the civil service. Eventually, this movement building would go a long way in creating a positive common agenda for an already-revitalizing ;eft.
In sum, it would mean challenging the state’s ability to establish the new normal envisioned in Trump’s campaign agenda, and to inject popular struggles into the heart of the ruling coalition, which cannot act without the ongoing support of both major parties and the bureaucracy.
But for any of this to happen, we first have to abandon the idea of a coherent, unitary deep state that is dictating politics behind the scenes. Relying on an illusory deep state to save us indulges in a fantasy at a time when we can ill afford to do so.