Donald Trump has been telling us about the Deep State for the past three years. It’s not a new idea. The Deep State, some say, was behind the assassination of John F. Kennedy, or at least enabled or covered it up. It’s behind this scandal and that, this coup and that, and in general every sort of governmental mischief one doesn’t like and which may or may not ever see the light of day. The Right puts credence in it; so does the Left.
The Deep State is, in short, a persistent myth; but one reason why the myth persists is that it does stand for a certain kind of reality. Our government is vast, and vastly powerful; it is penetrated by interests that seek to shape its activities and prefer to work behind the scenes. Sometimes these interests—within government or without—wish to change things, but mostly they work to preserve the status quo. In this, they may seem indistinguishable from the functioning of any bureaucracy, whose first imperatives are continuity and self-preservation. Whether this is good or bad in any given case depends, of course, on what is being preserved, and to whose profit.
Donald Trump campaigned against the Deep State in 2016, which he called the Swamp. Every presidential campaigner does so to a certain extent, because almost every candidate wants to represent him- or herself as an outsider who will clean things up and give people more of what they want. One of the things that doomed Hillary Clinton, in 2008 no less than 2016, was being stuck with the obvious fact that she represented the Establishment, in the first case that of her husband’s administration and in the second of Barack Obama’s, in political seasons of extreme electoral dissatisfaction.
The irony in Trump’s case is that he has governed not as the Swamp’s opponent but its veritable embodiment. Special interests have paraded up to the White House and openly walked away with teeming Christmas baskets of tax cuts, special favors, and regulatory rollbacks. The President himself has led the way, shamelessly promoting his own business and financial interests in defiance of the Constitution.
All of this has not seemed to bother Trump’s supporters unduly, if at all. They appear happy to accept his toothless jawboning of corporate honchos every now and then as fulfilling his promise to bring back manufacturing jobs in dead industries, or at least as attempting to. They accept the most corrupt and lawless presidency in American history as long as its Reality Show host gives them fresh targets to vent on—Congress, the courts, the press; and, in some quarters, to hate—immigrants, Muslims, Jews.
As it turns out, however, Trump has reckoned without one opponent. Call it the Deep State if you will, or call it simply the federal bureaucracy. If the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary are the three estates of government, and a free press, recognized by the Constitution, a fourth to check the other three, then it appears there is a Fifth Estate too, and Trump has finally galvanized it.
It has passed with only episodic notice, but Trump has attacked no institution more than the executive branch of government he heads, and on which he depends to do anything more than put on his socks. He has whipsawed the military, threatening on a day to day basis to pull out troops here or redeploy there, and most recently humiliating it by abandoning our Kurdish allies in Syria in such haste that withdrawing forces were pelted with rocks and garbage when not forced to evacuate by air. He’s mocked his generals, and fired or driven from office the ones imprudent enough to serve in the White House. He’s turned various agencies upside down, from the Environmental Protection Agency to the National Weather Service. He’s attacked the Justice Department, the FBI, and the Federal Reserve Board, whose head he suggested was guilty of treason. He’s rejected the findings of all seventeen branches of the Intelligence Service in favor of his preferred agent, Vladimir Putin. But above all, he’s put the blocks to the State Department, slashing its budget, leaving key ambassadorships and other critical posts unfilled, and undercutting diplomacy with free-booting, trash-burning buccaneers like Jared Kushner and Rudy Giuliani. In Ukraine, it finally caught up to him.
Foggy Bottom is the last place you would ever look to for pushback. Most presidents regard foreign policy as their personal prerogative, and expect their secretaries of state to carry out their marching orders. No president has more cavalierly jettisoned long-standing agreements and alliances than Donald Trump; none has turned the oft-stated premises of American foreign policy—the promotion of human rights, democratic governance, and the rule of law—more on their head. Of course, such values have long been honored more in the breach than the observance. But morale, so far, has depended in good part on at least their ritual invocation now and then.
This brings us to the spectacle of the past week’s public testimony on impeachment in the House Intelligence Committee. The special mandate of our diplomats in Ukraine was to encourage its “young democracy” to root out endemic corruption. Trump’s objective was to jumpstart a phony investigation of his then-chief political rival, Joe Biden: corruption by definition, as well as the subornation of interference by a foreign state in American electoral politics. That Trump had Ukraine itself under Justice Department investigation for just such interference in the presidential election of 2016 made the sauce all the richer.
All of this might never have come to light but for the CIA whistleblower who outed Trump, who, incredibly enough, had not only demanded Biden’s investigation directly by phone to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky but voluntarily released a transcript of the call. Richard Nixon must have turned over in his grave at such suicidal stupidity, which gave an immensely reluctant Nancy Pelosi at last no choice but to initiate an impeachment. Trump ordered his minions to refuse Congressional subpoenas to testify, but at last ranks broke: three Foreign Service professionals came forward, former Ukrainian ambassadors William Taylor, Jr. and Marie Yovanovitch, dismissed from her post in the dead of night; and George Kent, the head of the State Department’s Ukraine desk. All gave devastating testimony; all appeared as models of service and integrity. If this was the Deep State, the country was grateful to see it at last.
And yet . . . what was disturbing about these fine diplomats is the policy they were charged to serve. Ukraine does not belong to us one way or another, and it is cardinal folly—even wickedness—to make it bear the brunt of keeping Russian influence out of Eastern Europe, as we have been attempting to do over the past five administrations. We did not promote democracy there; we planned and abetted a coup that overthrew an elected government and led to the all-too-predictable Russian intervention that has cost 13,000 Ukrainian lives. Our military aid will not give Ukraine back its lost territory and population, nor enable it to live realistically with the Russian behemoth that surrounds it on three sides. Nor will it promote a wider peace, either in Europe, the Middle East, or anywhere else our bellicosity challenges Russia to respond. The Trump presidency seems to me a dying one, and that is all to the good. The Cold War our dedicated civil servants continue to pursue is not.