Trump versus the “deep state”

Fifty days into his presidency, Donald Trump is taking on the nation's civil servants, says Emily Hohler.

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50 days into his presidency, Donald Trump declares war on the Deep State
(Image credit: © 2017 Bloomberg Finance LP)

We are more than 50 days into Donald Trump's presidency, and there is every sign that he will "continue to debase and devalue" the office, says Charles Blow in The New York Times. When he's not making "explosive charges" in response to some news he dislikes, he is taking "destructive" action.

By 6 March, Trump had signed no fewer than 34 executive actions while federal agencies and the Republican-controlled Congress have "delayed, suspended or reversed" more than 90 regulations. The latest target is Obamacare (the healthcare reforms introduced by the previous president, Barack Obama), which is to be replaced by a plan that "promises to be a boon to insurers and the rich and a bane to the poor and the elderly".

In his short time as president, Trump has "put institutions under enormous stress", agrees Max Fisher in the same paper. He has attacked them in public, "implied he would reject intelligence findings that cast his election in a poor light, hobbled agencies by failing to fill critical positions, and cut off bodies like the National Security Council from shaping policy". The strangely low profile of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reflects an apparently deliberate White House attempt to "eviscerate" the "venerable" department he is supposed to run, in keeping with Stephen Bannon's stated goal of the "deconstruction of the administrative state", says Ivo Daalder in the Financial Times.

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These actions have put civil servants in an impossible situation, adds Fisher. They can either "acquiesce and allow their institution to be sidelined, or mount a defence". If they opt for the latter, they only deepen perceptions in the Trump administration of a so-called "deep state" that must be rooted out. This "tit-for-tat cycle" could substantially weaken both Trump and the government institutions he criticises. Eventually, warn some experts, it will "undermine the government's ability to function".

Although Trump has not used the phrase publicly, allies and sympathetic media have "repurposed" the formal meaning of "deep state" a civilian-military powerbase in authoritarian countries that works to undermine democracy to a pejorative designed to accuse the nation's civil servants of "illegitimacy and political animus". The military risks being politicised too, says Andrew Exum in The Atlantic.

To date, some of America's most prominent retired officers have been the ones speaking out against Trump's "uglier" impulses. But "military officers are fooling themselves if they imagine that there is not a cost to becoming political actors". They could end up in the crosshairs of the Trump administration too. Americans need men and women to stand up for them, but we need to "accept the cost for them doing so".

Previous presidents have "felt resistance, or worse" from the federal bureaucracies, says David Remnick in The New Yorker. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, after all, warned long ago of the "military-industrial complex". But to use the term "deep state" as it has been in recent weeks is to "assume that all these institutions constitute part of a subterranean web of common and nefarious purpose". The reason Trump has taken his "conspiratorial view" is that an "astonishing array" of people have spoken out against him.

Above all, Trump is "infuriated that the intelligence services are looking into possible Russian connections to him, his advisers, his campaign and his financial interests". But "the problem in Washington is not a Deep State; the problem is a shallow man an untruthful, vain, vindictive, alarmingly erratic president". The "public deserves a full airing". Journalists will do their bit, but courts, law enforcement and Congress are responsible for any investigation. "Only if government officials take to heart their designation as public servants', will justice prevail."

Emily Hohler

Emily has worked as a journalist for more than thirty years and was formerly Assistant Editor of MoneyWeek, which she helped launch in 2000. Prior to this, she was Deputy Features Editor of The Times and a Commissioning Editor for The Independent on Sunday and The Daily Telegraph. She has written for most of the national newspapers including The Times, the Daily and Sunday Telegraph, The Evening Standard and The Daily Mail, She interviewed celebrities weekly for The Sunday Telegraph and wrote a regular column for The Evening Standard. As Political Editor of MoneyWeek, Emily has covered subjects from Brexit to the Gaza war.

Aside from her writing, Emily trained as Nutritional Therapist following her son's diagnosis with Type 1 diabetes in 2011 and now works as a practitioner for Nature Doc, offering one-to-one consultations and running workshops in Oxfordshire.