Rethinking America

Trump Vs. the “Deep State”?

The ardent defenders of President Trump’s reckless foreign policy claim that the “deep state” is out to get the President of the United States. Do they have a case?

Credit: Gage Skidmore


  • The ardent defenders of Trump's reckless foreign policy claim that the “deep state” is out to get him.
  • The concept of the “deep state” hails back to the 1990s and is, tellingly, a translation from Turkish.
  • The term “deep state” described the Turkish military’s effort to elude political control by engaging in shadowy alliances with criminal interests.
  • The sad reality is that collusion with shady characters is the modus operandi of the current US President.
  • In a democracy, the give-and-take between the various branches of government, and within them, is live testimony to the fact that they are not dictatorships.

In November 2016, Donald J. Trump was elected President of the United States in large part because he promised to be an agent of change. It would be hard for anyone to deny that he has fulfilled that promise in ways that will shape global politics and society for decades to come.

Whether he is voted out of office this coming November, is impeached and removed from office in 2020 or retires from the office after serving for a second term, Trump will have left an indelible imprint on America’s self-perception. And he will have significantly changed the world’s perception of the United States of America in the process.

On the foreign policy front, whenever Trump and his supporters have encountered some resistance to their radical moves, they have deployed and succeeded in implanting in the consciousness of many Americans the concept of “the deep state.”

Turkish roots of the Republicans’ “deep state” claim

While that term is deployed as a tool to describe a malign influence on U.S. foreign policy in the era of Trump, it is important to reflect on the term’s origins in the world of international politics. It hails back to the 1990s and is, tellingly, a translation from Turkish.

It was used to describe deliberately obscured operations of the Turkish military to protect its turf against civilian oversight by democratically elected politicians. In the effort to elude proper political control, the Turkish military engaged in shadowy alliances with criminal interests.

The “deep state” exists, or does it?

The only real parallel that makes the “deep state” term vaguely applicable is that it is indeed the U.S. military that has at times resisted the execution of Donald Trump’s spur-of-the-moment decisions.

But U.S. military brass has not done that by colluding with shady characters, much less criminals. The sad reality is that collusion with shady characters is indeed the modus operandi of the current U.S. President.

The President is able to pull this off because Congressional Republicans, long a bulwark against Presidential overreach, have completely fallen in with the radicalism and extreme risk-taking that has become the hallmark of the Trump Administration.

Blame your enemy for what you plan to do yourself

In many ways, the “deep state” claim follows a long-established pattern of the Republican Party’s communications strategy. It holds that, in order to avoid being (correctly) blamed for inappropriate or even illegal actions, just charge that it is the Democrats who are actually engaging in such practices.

In the hyper-charged political atmosphere that has prevailed in the United States for some time, that approach almost always works.

It works for two reasons. First, Democrats more often than not find themselves completely blind-sided by the often-preposterous charges of such equivalency. Second, making the charge, whatever it may be, is enough to unleash the fighting spirits of the Republicans’ own supporters, especially in the right-wing media.

Is a professional bureaucracy a “deep state”?

Despite what has been laid out above, many of the President’s supporters see the deep state hard at work imposing a foreign policy agenda that is not in line with the President’s will.

The fact is that there exists in America a large cadre of foreign policy professionals. These are indeed “unelected officials.” And it is they who fill the ranks within the intelligence services, the diplomatic corps and the military.

Like it or not, these officials make and implement U.S. foreign policy. And true, they do their business behind closed doors, shielded from outside scrutiny by the secrecy that comes with Top-Secret matters of international relations.

Much of Trump’s base perceives the “deep state” to be evil by its very nature simply because the policymaking process is shrouded in secrecy. But that same “deep state” might just as easily be considered benign and working in the best interests of the United States.

And there’s the rub. What the supposed “deep state” operatives perceive as the country’s “best interests” are not always the “right interests.” The fact is that the professional bureaucracy, like all humans, often makes mistakes.

This has led the country into one quagmire after another, from Vietnam in the 1960s to Syria today. Notoriously, it is “groupthink” that has led a hapless America into outright blunders like the Bay of Pigs invasion and the assault on Iraq in 2003.

Corporate politics at play

This professional bureaucracy has much in common with very large business corporations. In both worlds, line managers generally seek to please their bosses, seek promotion and gain recognition among their peers.

In both worlds, this process unfolds largely in secret and without broad outside accountability. Very much unlike the corporate world, when the outside world periodically gets an inside look at some sliver of internal CIA, State Department or Department of Defense politics, it is generally front-page news, even though the reports leave most of the story untold.

This is not meant to impugn the integrity and patriotism of the professional bureaucracy. Indeed, its members in many ways are the best and the brightest America has to offer. But they are also human and can make mistakes, especially when put squarely in the middle of a corporatist environment.

The “deep state” rebels

President Trump’s decision in the fall of 2019 to pull troops out of Syria brought the presumed “deep state” out of the shadows. Many professionals in key branches of government were appalled by the President’s actions on a number of levels.

First and foremost, the withdrawal represented a clear abrogation of the U.S.’s established Syria policy, which had been shaped and implemented by the experts at State, Defense and the various intelligence agencies.

To make matters worse, the rejection of this policy was made as a “lone wolf” decision, without consultation by the President with any of the American foreign policy establishment. Even worse, the only international party that can be seen as a clear beneficiary of Trump’s move is Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

The Republicans’ own “deep state”

But the Syria question is only one aspect of this debate. The greater part of the debate revolves around how U.S. foreign policy should be made.

As the presence of Rudy Giuliani, but also so many others, makes plain every day, Washington is infested with lobbyists who aggressively promote the interests of foreign governments.

This world plays off shadowy personal inter-relationships but is for the most part solely driven by the financial advancement of key individuals. Potential geopolitical consequences of lobbying actions never enter into the moral equation of those in the lobbying business.

While this shadowy world is not limited to Republican operatives and money-seekers, this is where the “deep state” spreads its wings. More often than not, shadowy, if not downright illegal interests and alliances are being pursued, often by former top U.S. office holders.


Americans are known for not liking definitions. But in these uncertain times, they are prone toward embracing conspiracy theories. Such as the one being bandied about that there is a “deep state” at work that stands in the way of Donald J. Trump becoming untethered from the policy establishment.

In a democracy, the give-and-take between the various branches of government, and within them, is live testimony to the fact that they are not dictatorships.

That is why it is so important to understand the crucial difference between the (legitimate) operations of a professional bureaucracy and the largely illegal ones of a “deep state.”

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About Stephan Richter

Director of the Global Ideas Center, a global network of authors and analysts, and Editor-in-Chief of The Globalist.

About Richard Phillips

Richard Phillips is a New York-based international analyst with extensive financial sector experience. [United States]

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