Key figures in the White House see themselves locked in a battle with the “deep state” — a term they’re using, as my colleagues explained, to describe “a group of Obama-aligned critics, federal bureaucrats and intelligence figures” as well as the media. Stephen K. Bannon, the White House chief strategist who once ran far-right publication Breitbart, has reportedly spoken “at length” with President Trump about his view that the “deep state” is undermining Trump’s presidency.
The consequences of such paranoia can be seen in Trump’s Twitter outburst over the weekend. He accused his predecessor of tapping his phones (without offering any evidence) and framed his administration as the victim of “witch hunts” and “McCarthyism.” On Monday, reports emerged that FBI Director James B. Comey was “incredulous” over Trump’s allegations.
Nevertheless, there has been a great deal of chatter — and a good numberof articles — pondering the “deep state” and its reach in the United States. As this newsletter discussed last month, it’s not just Bannon who’s throwing the term around. Some observers on the American left see the nexus of the national security apparatus, arms companies and corporate lobbies as the basis for a kind of all-pervasive shadow government dominating political life in the country.
BANNON is fueling Trump on “deep state” https://t.co/wz6CffBVEe
— Robert Costa (@costareports) March 6, 2017
But the “deep state” in its more well-established contexts is something more concrete. The term is most closely associated with the turbulent politics of Turkey, a country whose democracy was for decades routinely interrupted by cabals in the military and civil bureaucracy. To this day, the suspected machinations of the deep state — secretive conspiracies hatched in the corridors of power and removed from the democratic process — shadow the nation’s politics.
The concept of the “deep state” also resonates strongly in countries where the military is vast and difficult to check. Think of Egypt, where an army-led putsch ousted an elected Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, in 2013; or Pakistan, where the military and its powerful intelligence arm remain the most influential actors within the state.
In these countries, the military is more than just the main branch of the security services. It controls businesses, media, schools and other important societal institutions. And when civilian rule threatens the military’s vested interests, it acts.
Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations also notes that the “deep states” in Turkey and Egypt, such as they are, are by driven by an ideological agenda. In the case of Turkey, it has been the preservation of the secular-nationalist ideals of the modern republic’s founders. This has led to the systematic repression of Kurds, leftists and Islamists, and the periodic launching of coups whenever the aspirations of any of these groups gained too much traction.
In Egypt, Cook wrote, “the deep state’s goal has been to ensure … the perpetuation of the military-dominated political system.” After the upheavals of the Arab Spring in 2011, the Egyptian deep state nervously watched the democratic elections that brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power. Then it moved against them.
There’s widespread belief that the Egyptian deep state partially engineered the crisis and chaos that led to Morsi’s ouster, allowing for a collapse of law and order that saw religious violence spike, soccer hooligans murder each other and thugs incite mayhem on city streets. Bureaucrats helped create artificial power cuts and fuel shortages.
“The day after Morsi was removed from power,” wrote Bessma Momani of Brookings, “Egypt’s fuel shortages were no more, its electricity supply went uninterrupted and traffic police suddenly went back to work.”
The distinction between these countries and the United States is incredibly important: “In the American case, the bureaucrats themselves don’t control, or want to control, the system they are trying to protect,” wrote Cook. “People in the White House, the Pentagon, the State and Justice departments, Congress, and the intelligence community are leaking to the press because they have no choice in an administration where officials have unexplained links with Russia, an array of conflicts of interest, and have promoted soft forms of white nationalism and fascism that threaten basic ideals of American democracy.”
If you keep saying “deep state” you’re:
a. buying into Steve Bannon’s narrative and
b. are going to drive Turkey scholars to mental illness. https://t.co/eQU74icFpI
— Andrew Exum (@ExumAM) March 6, 2017
But nobody in any context would ever identify as part of a “deep state.” In Turkey, the term has always been invoked by politicians in power, often justifiably fearing plots against their rule. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan built his political career by weaponizing the public’s anger at the historic deep state. First, he and his allies defanged the military through a series of trumped-up trials in the late 2000s. And now, after a faction revolted against him in a failed coup attempt last summer, he has embarked on a devastating purge of Turkey’s bureaucracy, civil society and military that has cemented what critics describe as a de facto dictatorship.
Fear of the deep state “became such common currency that it allowed Erdogan’s [ruling] government to cripple Turkey’s democratic checks and balances, including media and courts,” said Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, in an interview with the Atlantic. “I think Erdogan’s agenda was not eliminating it, it was taking it over.”
Turkish experts will tell you that discussion of the “deep state” flourishes in a climate of conspiracy and political polarization. It encourages the public to doubt the pillars of civil society — from the judiciary to the press — and take shelter in the shadow of a populist leader. That’s where the parallels to American politics in the age of Trump start to become all too real.