For decades, scholars of Turkey and Egypt have discussed and debated how the so-called “deep state” has steered politics in these countries. Now, in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidency, journalists and pundits have started to speak of a “deep state” in America.
Few of these critics truly understand who and what makes up a deep state. The term carries serious, historic weight and baggage associated with the countries that have dealt, most profoundly, with this phenomenon. And, its application to the current American moment is far from clear.
What Is the American “Deep State?”
In an explainer piece, The New York Times described the deep state as “a political conflict between a nation’s leader and its institutions,” which causes each to marshal power against the another. To prove the deep state’s existence in the United States, the piece referred to the various leaks coming from the current administration, since Trump took office.
Writing in The Nation, Patrick Lawrence suggests the American deep state was created in the 1960s by then-CIA director Allen Dulles to be “a state within a state, perfectly capable of taking on the one whose leaders Americans elect.” By contrast, Greg Grandin, also writing for The Nation, described the deep state as the equivalent of “civil society” (the quotation marks are Grandin’s). Unlike the mainstream notion of civil society, Grandin characterized deep state “civil society” as “any venue in which powerful individuals, either alone or collectively, might try to use the state to fulfill their private ambitions, to get richer and obtain more power.”
As these pieces suggest, there is no consistent definition of the American deep state. There are, however, some common threads, namely, resistance within the governmental bureaucracy, rebellion in the intelligence services, or both, as the deep state’s primary modus operandi. Career civil servants, intelligence agents, and sometimes high ranking members of the military are presumed to make up the rank and file of this deep state. These “agents” may be working independently or in tandem, but their primary goal, as described by those on both the left and right, is to undermine the power and policies of the current administration.
The “Deep State” in Egypt and Turkey
This conception of the deep state starkly contrasts with how the deep state is understood in other countries. As quoted in The New York Times, Egyptian journalist Issandr El Amani described the Egyptian view of the deep state, as follows: “‘the deep state is not official institutions rebelling…’ but rather ‘shadowy networks within those institutions, and within business, who are conspiring together and forming parallel state institutions.’” The prominent Egyptian blogger, who goes by the handle The Big Pharaoh explained to Muftah that, in Egypt, “a ruler will try to offset or pacify” these parallel powers by catering to their primary interest, namely, financial gain. When it came to Egypt’s former dictator, Hosni Mubarak, the deep state was happy with his rule until his son disrupted the economic balance of power by entering the business world.
Turks have a similar view of the the deep state. Ryan Gingeras, an associate professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, told Muftah that the Turkish deep state can be hard to clearly define, but, generally, consists of “those elements, hidden or overt, real or imagined, that are seen as rivals for government power and capable of contesting or overruling it, often through violence. They typically include those invested in preserving a Kemalist interpretations of national security and identity.” Traditionally, these actors have been tied to Turkey’s secular elite, and, for much of the country’s history, the military. Omar Taspinar, an expert on Turkey at the National War College, pointed to another important element of the Turkish deep state in the Atlantic: rogue and organized criminal elements. Violence, aimed at eliminating those who threaten a particular definition of the Turkish Republic, has been the primary calling card of the Turkish deep state, realized through coups and extrajudicial killings.
The Institutional State
All this suggests the “deep state” is a misnomer when it comes to describing the phenomenon being witnessed in the United States. As Nate Schenkkan, an expert on Central Asia and Project Director at Freedom House succinctly stated, “it is not a deep state if everyone involved is a government official.” It is also incorrect to use the term “deep state” if the only weapon being wielded against the government is information. Information can topple a regime, but only if democratic institutions, the press, and civil society are functioning properly.
It is not impossible that America will develop a deep state at some point in the future, or even the near future. But it will not be as the result of discontent within the bureaucracy. The militarization of the police and the blurring of the lines between industry and the government are far greater risk signs for the coming of the American deep state.