As the planet tips toward chaos, who will chart our course in the world? As we careen toward Clinton versus Trump, who will save America? People in growing numbers are edging toward the unthinkable answer: nobody.
Not just nihilists or conspiracists are thinking this way. Evidence is mounting that it’s prudent to consider the worst—that Barack Obama will hand a legacy of domestic and international disorder to a successor unprepared and unable to compensate. Meanwhile, neither America’s public elites nor its populist commoners have secured broad-based confidence. Without an even more destabilizing revolution, who can assert control?
You may not like it, but there’s an answer: the deep state. What’s that? Ask ex-GOP staffer Mike Lofgren, author of “The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government.” “The key institutions are exactly what people would think they are,” he recently explained. “The military-industrial complex; the Pentagon and all their contractors (but also, now, our entire homeland security apparatus); the Department of Treasury; the Justice Department; certain courts, like the southern district of Manhattan, and the eastern district of Virginia; the FISA courts.”
Even a few elected officials are in on the game: “you got this kind of rump Congress that consists of certain people in the leadership, defense and intelligence committees who kind of know what’s going on. The rest of Congress doesn’t really know or care; they’re too busy looking about the next election.”
Like Obama, Trump and Clinton Need the Deep State
It’s hard for any liberty-loving American not to look at deep-staters as bad guys. But they are the ultimate adults in the room. They are the ones President Obama has stiff-armed on foreign policy. His most successful war has been waged against their influence—expanding his National Security Council to an absurd degree, reaching down the chain of military command with unprecedented interference from the White House, and bottlenecking strategic decisions with the innermost ring of his inner circle.
Without doubt, Obama has given plenty of leeway to those who pay the deep state’s bills and make the trains run on time—Wall Street and Silicon Valley. But Obama owns the choices that have accelerated our race to the brink: the mismanagement of Mideast geopolitics, the blindness to Europe’s gathering storms, the naivety toward Russia. The deep state is eager to reassert influence over our Old World policy before events spiral further out of hand. For right now, there’s no one better to entrust it to.
Donald Trump certainly can’t fix things. The evidence suggests he doesn’t want to, not personally, viewing his would-be White House role as a sort of chairman of the board who would hand expert stuff to the experts. Plus, whatever may be said of Trump, he certainly does not wish to go down in history as the man who led us to World War Three.
The same goes for Hillary Clinton. Her track record on world leadership is shaky, her distaste for Obama’s approach is clear, and her lack of popularity will give her little margin for error as president. As she shores up her domestic position and works to salvage what she has inherited, a President Clinton will desperately need the deep state to earn its keep.
The Deep State Is Us
To be sure, in other parts of the world, it’s an inauspicious moment for deep states. Just look at Turkey, whose deep state has held sway for decades on end. There, as the New Yorker described it back when Recep Tayyip Erdogan was considered a moderate, the Turkish deep state comprised a “clandestine network of military officers and their civilian allies who, for decades, suppressed and sometimes murdered dissidents, Communists, reporters, Islamists, Christian missionaries, and members of minority groups—anyone thought to pose a threat to the secular order, established in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal, or Atatürk.” Now, as Erdogan turns the full brunt of his Islamist power against that network, it’s easy to worry that, at this global juncture, popular rage—and those who manipulate it—can outstrip the ability of seasoned power brokers to stay on top.
As usual, however, America is uniquely better off. Our deep state is not as deeply divided from our people by tribe, politics, or creed. What differences do exist are manifest, but as one linked-in maestro (Peter Thiel) has noted, we live in an era of the convergence of desire, when our richest and most powerful tend toward seeking little more than top-shelf versions of what everyone else seeks and enjoys. Our deep staters aren’t witches; they’re us—only with the tools to keep our ship of state afloat that we, unfortunately, lack.
Like ‘em or not, they’ve done it before. They helped us survive Nixon’s meltdown, Carter’s haplessness, and, depending on how you judge more recent presidents, other instances of foolishness. When crunch time has come, our deep state has managed largely to keep the ship afloat and chugging ahead. It’s come to this: however far afield we’ve drifted from our constitutional, small-r republican moorings, however justified our populist ire toward the staggering failures of our elites, it’s wise and reasonable to rely on the deep state to see us through today’s darkly uncertain times. Indeed, we ought to insist upon it. After all, even if we can’t yet dislodge our shadow government, they still work for us.
Unfortunately enough, for all our populism, too many—regardless of ideology—would really prefer that the deep and shallow state alike go well beyond working for us and simply do our work for us. As Yuval Levin has recently reminded us and Tocqueville once warned, the sad irony of American politics is that individualism—with so many feeling weak, isolated, and insubstantial on their own—tends to discourage self-government.
As the Declaration of Independence makes clear, all the self-interest and self-mastery in the world cannot achieve what mutual pledges and sacred honor might. Some element of the deep state might understand this, but the Founding spirit will never define the whole. Tapping back into that free source of order is a job that can’t be outsourced to any elite.