My own habitual usage of the term in these pages derives from Mike Lofgren's original thesis:
There is the visible government situated around the Mall in Washington, and then there is another, more shadowy, more indefinable government that is not explained in Civics 101 or observable to tourists at the White House or the Capitol. The former is traditional Washington partisan politics: the tip of the iceberg that a public watching C-SPAN sees daily and which is theoretically controllable via elections. The subsurface part of the iceberg I shall call the Deep State, which operates according to its own compass heading regardless of who is formally in power....
Yes, there is another government concealed behind the one that is visible at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue, a hybrid entity of public and private institutions ruling the country according to consistent patterns in season and out, connected to, but only intermittently controlled by, the visible state whose leaders we choose. My analysis of this phenomenon is not an exposé of a secret, conspiratorial cabal; the state within a state is hiding mostly in plain sight, and its operators mainly act in the light of day. Nor can this other government be accurately termed an “establishment.” All complex societies have an establishment, a social network committed to its own enrichment and perpetuation. In terms of its scope, financial resources and sheer global reach, the American hybrid state, the Deep State, is in a class by itself. That said, it is neither omniscient nor invincible. The institution is not so much sinister (although it has highly sinister aspects) as it is relentlessly well entrenched. Far from being invincible, its failures, such as those in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, are routine enough that it is only the Deep State’s protectiveness towards its higher-ranking personnel that allows them to escape the consequences of their frequent ineptitude.The New York Times, which itself might be considered part of the Deep State, describes the term quite differently: an authoritarianism that hasn't happened here yet, but very well might. According to the "explainer piece" by Max Fisher and Amanda Taub, the recent torrent of leaks from spy agencies in the chaotic regime of Donald Trump has only led to "fears" of an American Deep State:
Though leaks can be a normal and healthy check on a president’s power, what’s happening now extends much further. The United States, those experts warn, risks developing an entrenched culture of conflict between the president and his own bureaucracy.Issandr El Amrani, an analyst who has written on Egypt’s deep state, said he was concerned by the parallels, though the United States has not reached authoritarian extremes....
One person's Deep State is a loose existing consensus, another person's Deep State is a potential corrupt conflict.Though the deep state is sometimes discussed as a shadowy conspiracy, it helps to think of it instead as a political conflict between a nation’s leader and its governing institutions.That can be deeply destabilizing, leading both sides to wield state powers like the security services or courts against one another, corrupting those institutions in the process.
And that is leading to the suggestion that we just stop talking about the Deep State already. Rafael Khachaturian writes in Jacobin:
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 danger of using the term Deep State, according to Khachaturian, is that it implies a monolithic entity acting in total accord with itself. This makes sense, given that the two legacy political parties actually do seem to be collapsing before our very eyes, riven as they are by internal power struggles.
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.
However, the Duopoly does still exist.The food fighters of what we call the "state" are still nourished by the same teat of big corporate money. And with only their self-interest and their greed in common, they are vulnerable. We can chip away at them one by one, because they are neither united nor are they especially deep. They are simply used to being held unaccountable as they rise to the level of their own incompetence.
Other terms for them are the Washington Consensus (or the "Consensuals"), the Neoliberal Thought Collective, the Ruling Class, and what I have dubbed the Media-Political Complex: a loose consortium of think tanks, multinational corporations, politicians, lobbyists, and media conglomerates who set the parameters of The Possible and agree to disagree only around the margins for purposes of lively sham debate. For example, there is never any discussion of disassembling the Pentagon and ending all the wars; they merely disagree over "boots on the ground" versus no-fly zones versus unmanned drones as the preferred killing methods.
But with Donald Trump roiling the waters and riling up at least half the population, this comfortable order of narrowly conflicted consensus might be about to change. His clownish splashy spectacle is exposing not so much a deep state, but a loosely connected series of shallow contaminated ponds. As an example, see the previous post about placid corporate media celebrities getting their puckered thumbs yanked right out of their mouths and throwing a group tantrum for all the world to see.
All of a sudden, everyday people are waking up to the stench emanating from the rancid pond(s), and are joining together in resistance and solidarity. They're rebelling against the same deportations, the same attacks on public education, the same assaults on the environment, the same financial corruption that had only recently enjoyed a modicum of protection under more public relations-savvy administrations run by more photogenic and literate people.
With his cabinet full of villainous oligarchs and bloodthirsty generals, you might think that Trump is simply making a mockery of his campaign promise to "drain the swamp."
But he may be more fact-based and inadvertently truthful than he's given credit for. He's not so much draining the swamp as he is behaving like a whale in a goldfish pond. In his need and greed for space and attention, he is leaving exposed a whole ecosystem of wriggling, oxygen-starved lifeforms desperate not to be exposed to the sun and become part of a massive pile of stinking dead fish.
Thanks to blowhard Trump and his spoutings, we are fighting back against Education Secretary Betsy DeVos's crusade against public schools, right after we gave a pass to Obama's Arne Duncan and his own charter school agenda of privatization. We're howling about the cruel round-ups of immigrants even as we stayed mum on sleek Obama's record deportations and imprisonments of refugee families. We're gathering in public spaces to declare that "we are all Muslims now" -- while it seems like only yesterday when we turned a blind eye to Muslims being illegally stalked by police acting in cahoots with the CIA. We're mad as hell that Trump has filled the White House with Goldman Sachs banksters, but chose to play dead when the more personable Obama did likewise.
So in the long term, we might just be better off with a clumsy breaching whale in the pond instead of the usual stealthy sharks giving their discreet free ride to corporate Remoras and shelter to all manner of bottom-feeding rentiers.
(As you can probably tell, it's one my glass half-full days. I'll take them wherever I find them.)
Donald Trump is just not all that into the symbiotic relationships that have traditionally made America so exceptional, and its oligarchy so well-protected, and its citizens so apathetic and demoralized.