The Deep State Strikes Back.

In a classic essay, George Orwell warned of the distortions of language that come with politicization.[1]  To the rage of their opponents, President Donald Trump or some of his followers have appropriated the terms “fake news” and “deep state” as charges hurled at those opponents.  The term “fake news” began to circulate late in the presidential campaign to describe the largely anti-Hillary Clinton rumors produced by many web-sites in Eastern Europe.  Now Trump slings the term around to answer media criticism.  In his view, the heavy reliance upon anonymous sources by the New York Times[2] means that editors assign reporters to write stories that conform to the paper’s ideological position and to claim that anonymous sources provided the “facts” cited in the stories.   The term “deep state” is a Western academic term[3] itself appropriated from popular usage in Middle Eastern countries.[4]

The current ugly controversy high-lights the reality that civil servants and scholars are not apolitical technical experts serving merely as instruments of a democratic government.  They have policy agendas of their own.  These can reflect belief, settled tradition, or bureaucratic interest.[5]   President Trump is the preferred candidate neither of the Democrats, nor of mainstream Republicans.  These are the groups from which most public servants are recruited.  President Trump’s clownish personal behavior[6] and lack of preparation make him widely disliked in the bureaucracy.  That animus extends to his more outlandish cabinet appointments.

President Trump’s criticism of federal agencies and his lack of a tame clientele with which to fill administrative positions “has put institutions under enormous stress.”  This, in turn, “has forced civil servants into an impossible dilemma.”  They can either defend their institutions against his assault or they can surrender to his demands to do things in a new way.   Either course will weaken the credibility of the institutions they represent.   So far, Trump has lashed out at the courts, the intelligence community, and the mainstream media (MSM).  The current “tribal” polarization of American politics shrinks the role for reason on both sides, regardless of which side has the “facts” on its side.[7]

Critics argue that Trump could be much more effective by working through the bureaucracy and with the press, rather than attacking these institutions.  He should, in short, accept the existence of the “fourth branch” of government.  In this view, the bureaucracy and the press operate as important checks on presidential power, hence as guarantees of American democracy.  The development of a powerful bureaucracy with policy positions of its own is one of the issues not much discussed in the Federalist papers.  Its power has only grown as partisan gridlock in the legislature has led presidents to act through executive branch writing of rules and regulations.  This seems to be what Steve Bannon has in mind when he calls for the dismantling of the “administrative state.”  In this sense, the criticism of Trump’s actions misses a point.

[1] George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language.”

[2] See: https://www.google.com/search?q=New+York+Times+public+editor+on+anonymous+sources&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8  Much of the concern has come from a series of a Public Editors.  On the origins of the Public Editors, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Howell_Raines

[3] Academia leans left in the same way that professional military officer corps lean right.

[4] See: https://waroftheworldblog.com/2017/03/10/the-deep-state/  The term is now being re-appropriated by Trump foes.

[5] Most scientists believe in androgenic climate change and believe government should act to counter it.  Most military officers believe that the military needs bigger budgets and more generals and admirals.

[6] It should be remembered that most young children don’t like clowns.  They find them frightening and offensive.

[7] That is, Democrats would believe the charges even if they weren’t true.

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