The American 'Deep State,' as a Trump Voter Might See It

When unelected leaders confront illiberal ones

Carlos Barria / Reuters

Rarely a day goes by without some lament of democracy’s decline in the United States. Sometimes, it’s even quantified, with one index declaring America a “flawed democracy” for the first time. Much of the hand-wringing is justified—and not just from the perspective of liberals or Democrats. Even Trump supporters would have to acknowledge that the deep ideological polarization engulfing the country, however much it helps their standard-bearer, is not particularly healthy.

Even as we fear for American democracy, or for American liberalism, there is another way of looking at it, and it requires empathy—that now contested word— with the victors rather than the losers of the presidential election. The very fact of Donald Trump’s victory is proof that American democracy was more nimble that many assumed. It is easy to forget it now—because perhaps they didn’t realize how lucky they were—but there was a time when leftists and liberals would complain that American democracy was too limiting, allowing only two viable candidates approved by party elites and, in the process, depriving Americans of real choices. Is a democracy without choice really a democracy?

Theoretically, in a democracy, radical parties should have a chance of winning if they’re able to attract enough popular support. If radical or anti-establishment candidates have no realistic shot due to the power of a system designed to weed them out, then this, too, is a flawed democracy. Theoretically, in a democracy, radicals, if elected to power in free elections, should be allowed to implement their agenda within the framework of the law and constitution.

The Trump administration has realized that even so much as discussing the things it said it would do during the campaign is enough to arouse considerable opposition, including from the state bureaucracy. When the prospect of a Trump presidency was still a thought experiment, I wrote here in The Atlantic about an American “deep state” working from within against a hypothetical President Trump:

It is possible, however, to imagine a president so reckless as to activate state institutions against him or her, in a way that makes the notion of an American deep state more meaningful and relevant. … One can also easily imagine left-of-center (and right-of-center) civil servants in the Departments of State and Defense working against the president from within to mitigate his effectiveness and even his authority.

I was torn then. I’m even more torn today, considering that it’s no longer merely an academic argument. It is a challenging thing to find your beliefs in conflict with your political preferences: I like that America’s “deep state” is opposing people I think are dangerous. But I also know that this, in principle, isn't very democratic. With the rise of “illiberal democracy” throughout the Western world, it raises a question without an answer: How far can a freely elected, and therefore democratically legitimate, president pursue illiberal policy positions, especially when it comes to issues that aren’t clear-cut?

The American “deep state” is, of course, not like Egypt or Turkey’s deep states—which are characterized by a shadowy constellation of autonomous and self-perpetuating institutional networks, namely in the military and security services. Egypt’s deep state, which undermined and then overthrew a democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood president in 2013, was thoroughly undemocratic, where state institutions in the U.S. are inculcated in democratic norms (as one would expect in any long-established democracy). This fundamental distinction is what Trump and chief adviser Stephen Bannon’s “deep state” analogies fail to acknowledge. Still, the concept of a deep state is useful in thinking about how unelected, and at least partly unaccountable, leaders and institutions confront democratically elected ones, particularly when the latter are seen as a threat to the identity and ideology of the state. As the political theorist Faheem Hussain notes: “Latent in every democracy [is] the permanent bureaucracy[’s] capacity to subvert the elected administration, by virtue of permanence and knowledge.”

If I was a Trump voter, I can imagine being frustrated at this sort-of-deep state working to block or undermine Trump’s agenda. I’d say: Well, I voted for that agenda, and not necessarily some vapid, unthreatening version of it. Presumably, if Bernie Sanders, or someone like him, had won the presidency and decided to radically re-orient U.S. foreign policy, there would be elements within the military and intelligence services that would attempt to “block” him. For these state institutions, it wouldn’t only be a matter of democratic legitimacy but also of something as fundamental as national security. Does that mean that presidents, regardless of what a plurality of voters might want, simply cannot act radically when it comes to foreign affairs or national identity? To what extent are Americans comfortable with that—and are we willing to apply whatever standard we come up with consistently?