Trump v the Deep State

Scott Burchill

What is the Deep State?

According to Mike Lofgren, a former congressional staffer from inside Washington’s beltway, the term ‘Deep State’ was first coined in Turkey to describe a political system comprising “high-level elements within Ankara’s intelligence services, military, security, judiciary and organised crime” (Lofgren 2014).

The term itself has gained much wider application recently, and is increasingly used to describe the political apparatus which has developed in both Western and non-Western states.

In his novel, A Delicate Truth, John Le Carré defines the Deep State in the United Kingdom as “… the ever-expanding circle of non-governmental insiders from banking, industry and commerce who were cleared for highly classified information denied to large swathes of Whitehall and Westminster … an informal consortium of wise men and women with their county’s interests at heart (Le Carré 2013, pp.252 & 276).

Given it was the genre of the espionage thriller that Le Carré pioneered, it is curious that he omits the intelligence community from his list of insiders. Nor is it clear how he distinguishes the “Deep State” from “the Establishment”, an older and more common description of class power in England, apparently coined in the 1950s by English historian A.J.P. Taylor (Stewart 1984, p.159).

In the US context, Lofgren broadens Le Carré’s definition to mean “a hybrid association of elements of government and parts of top-level finance and industry that is effectively able to govern the United States without reference to the consent of the governed as expressed through formal political process” (my emphasis, Lofgren 2014). This would include what C. Wright Mills previously called the “military-industrial complex” and “power elite”, and what is sometimes today referred to as the “national-security state” or “surveillance state”.

Lofgren distinguishes between “visible government” and the “shadow government”, not a “secret, conspiratorial cabal” but a state within a state “hiding mostly in plain sight”, [which is] permanent, impervious to changes of government, [and which] “socialises governments” into sound policy choices (Lofgren 2014).

Although it is often hidden beneath layers of bureaucracy, it remains in control of key human and financial resources. Whilst the Deep State is not in complete control of political decisions at all times, it remains largely independent of any political changes that take place. In fact it debunks the notion that policy is a function of personnel rather than institutional structures, the prevailing notion that policy change simply requires different people in office. In many cases the system selects the individuals for high office, not the other way around.

The Deep State operates according to its own policy priorities, regardless of whom is formally in power — a task made considerably easier by the ideological convergence of the major political parties in a two-party system where meaningful electoral choices are almost illusory. According to International Law specialist Michael Glennon, the managerial class of the Deep State is largely exempt from electoral and constitutional constraints, but nonetheless effectively sets the ideological parameters within which ‘visible government’ operates (Glennon 2015).

In this way, broad policy continuity is maintained over time regardless of changes in leadership roles.

In the US members of the Deep State range from government agencies which comprise the national security apparatus such the NSA, CIA, Pentagon and Homeland Security, to private contractors (eg Booz Allen Hamilton), Wall Street firms (such as KKR) and IT companies across Silicon Valley (eg Google).

The ideological agenda of the Deep State is equally unsurprising. The so called Washington Consensus prevails (neoliberalism — financialisation, privitisation, outsourcing, de-regulation, opening foreign markets) in combination with full spectrum strategic dominance by the US across the world. Aggressive opposition to any rival state power is a high priority of the invisible government.

The means to achieve these outcomes include domestic and international surveillance, subversion, espionage, secret budgets, attacks on whistleblowers, hackers and pro-transparency groups (eg Snowden, WikiLeaks), as well as military intervention in other states to support friendly satraps and overthrow hostile foreign governments.

The 2016 Election

According to investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald, the CIA and other allied intelligence agencies threw their considerable political weight behind Hillary Clinton in last year’s presidential election. She was rightly seen as more hawkish and interventionist than Trump, particularly on Syria as she had been on Libya, whilst her opponent seemed disturbingly close to Russia’s Vladimir Putin — an approach directly at odds with Deep State assumptions of permanent hostility between Washington and Moscow (Greenwald 2017).

This is also the context for the current “fake news” and intelligence report scandals designed to undermine Trump’s legitimacy before he steps foot inside the White House. The Deep State is not used to being defied and is normally confident that newly elected presidents can be easily socialised into its world view, largely via access to highly confidential and exclusive intelligence reports which the president is in no position to verify or challenge. Before they realise it, even notionally reformist, progressive and critical outsiders quickly become complicit in Deep State ideology and interventionary policies. For most Republicans and Democrats, it is a seamless transition.

Trump is different. He was openly critical of the intelligence community throughout the election campaign, correctly pointing out the catastrophic CIA failure which directly lead to war against Iraq in 2003. He expressed doubts about the veracity of the intelligence reports and briefings he began receiving as the President-elect, and has been highly critical of intelligence leaks to the media by agencies of the state which still seem unable to accept the result of last November’s vote.

There have been disagreements between the White House and the intelligence community in the past, though they have normally remained in-house. This is a much more significant cleavage. What we are witnessing is open conflict between the permanent and transient arms of Government being played out in the media, encouraged by the party which lost the election but refuses to accept responsibility for its own failures. It is an unprecedented and ruthless contest for political supremacy, to see which arm of government will set the political architecture of the Trump presidency.

If it isn’t soon resolved by Trump being successfully socialised into the world view of the Deep State, we are looking at a systemic crisis which will dwarf into insignificance the “fake news” crisis and any discussion of Trump’s personal vulgarity. Unfortunately, though unsurprisingly, the media remains focussed on itself instead of examining this overwhelmingly important power struggle within the US state.

Trump v Wall Street

According to Mike Lofgren, “Wall Street may be the ultimate owner of the Deep State and its strategies”, and it is certainly the easiest component to study and map” (Lofgren 2014).

Donald Trump has had many problems on Wall Street, not the least of which is that, according to Steven Ratner at the New York Times, “no Republican presidential hopeful in memory has been so unpopular in the business community.” According to The Wall Street Journal, not a single chief executive of a Fortune 100 company donated to Trump’s campaign or publicly endorsed him. This opposition to Trump has also been reflected in stock and investment markets around the world.

In the US, business fears that Trump would incite a trade war with China (45% import tariff) and Mexico (35% tariff), and that his plan to deport over 11 million illegal immigrants would cost up to $US 600 billion and reduce GDP by $US 1.6 trillion over 20 years.

Many of his key policy positions remain uncertain, contradictory and unpredictable. He has politicised the Federal Reserve (he wants to sack Janet Yellen), is seen by some business insiders as a class traitor for opposing globalisation and “telling true tales out of ruling class school” (Paul Street), and is happy to scapegoat banks for his own business failings.

Trump wants to raise taxes for the rich (without apparently paying anything himself) and close loopholes which have reduced the tax liability on hedge funds. He is fond of outrageous name calling (he says hedge fund managers are “getting away with murder”), and is remarkably litigious with banks that he has previously done business with.

Wall Street craves certainty and predictability; it detests unknowns and variables. In 2016, Wall Street voted en masse for Hillary Clinton, not because her opponent is a racist vulgarian and sexual predator, but because she was considered best for business at home and US power abroad. It backed the wrong horse in a two horse race.

Since his election victory, while ramping up opposition to the national security apparatus of the state, Trump has simultaneous begun to mend bridges with Wall Street. He has nominated a number of Goldman Sachs executives for high office in his administration and, in return, Wall Street believes that if it can patch up the relationship “relief” — in the form of a return to de-regulation — is back on the policy agenda, notwithstanding its unambiguous role in causing the 2007 global financial crisis (McLannahan & Jopson 2017). Wall Street is nothing, if not politically flexible.

Perhaps Trump is smarter than many give him credit for? If, as Lofgren argues, Wall Street is “the ultimate owner of the Deep State and its strategies”, Trump may have found the elusive achilles heal of the permanent government in Washington. He will be hoping that he has because none of his predecessors have even got close to successfully defying the tenets of the Deep State. He faces an enormous struggle and will need every bit of ammunition he can muster for the battle ahead.

— — — — — — — — — — —

John Le Carré, A Delicate Truth (Viking/Penguin, London 2013)

Michael J. Glennon, National Security and Double Government (Oxford University Press, Oxford 2014)

Glenn Greenwald, No Place To Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the Surveillance State (Hamish Hamilton, London 2014)

Glenn Greenwald, ‘The Deep State Goes to War With President-Elect, Using Unverified Claims, as Democrats Cheer’, The Intercept, 12 January 2017 —

Mike Lofgren, ‘Essay: Anatomy of the Deep State’, Moyers and Company (online), 21 February, 2014 –

Ben McLannahan & Barney Jopson, ‘What Wall Street Wants From Trump’, Financial Times, 12 January, 2017 –

Robert Stewart (ed), The Penguin Dictionary of Political Quotations, (Penguin, Harmondsworth 1984)

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Scott Burchill

Dr Scott Burchill taught International Relations at Deakin University for 30 years