Digging Up the “Deep State”

Wall Street Journal Deep State

If you spend any time at all interacting with right-wing fantasyland (and it’s inescapable these days, since right-wing fantasyland constantly impinges on reality), then you’ve certainly heard plenty about the “deep state”. The deep state is, the wingers claim, a well organized and malevolent shadow government composed of (liberal) bureaucrats, (Democratic) politicians and (leftist) media figures intent on using underhanded means to bring down the Forty-Fifth White House Occupant, destroy America and establish Marxist/ Muslim rule. Not necessarily in that order.

One of the more spittle-flecked among them, Dan Bongino (all you need know about him is that he had a cozy niche on the mercifully defunct NRATV) is very typical and by no means unique. Do a Google search for “Dan Bongino deep state” and just see how many hits you get of his ramblings and rantings on the subject. At one point he sums up the deep state delusions of the tin hat crowd thus:

They want a scalp, and believe me when I tell you the deep state is going to get one.

To be fair, there are a few on the right who are rather more sane and real — although some of them may be… well, dead. The late Charles Krauthammer, who was a staunch Republican until the end and was even a frequent contributor to the ever-entertaining National Reviewwas nonetheless quite skeptical about this particular right-wing bogeyman:

I don’t believe in the tooth fairy, the Knights Templar, Bilderberg, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a vast right wing conspiracy, or, for that matter, a vast left wing conspiracy. Are there in the U.S. government individual bureaucrats that are Democratic holdovers that would love nothing more than to damage [45]? Yeah, of course there are. Is there a concealed web of conspirators, malevolent permanent hidden shadow government? Rubbish. And I would add that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone without the help of Ted Cruz’s father.

But this attitude is quite uncommon among GOP loyalists. For most of them, it’s turtles all the way down. In fact, the “deep state” has become such a staple among the American right-wing loony fringe (otherwise known as the right-wing mainstream) that you may be surprised to learn the following facts: (1) the concept of a “deep state” did not originate in the U.S.; (2) it originated rather recently; (3) its introduction into American discourse occurred less than a decade ago, and (4) there really is a deep state of sorts — it’s just very different from the chimera on which the wingers peg the term.

The concept of a “deep state” actually originated in Turkey about 30 years ago; the equivalent Turkish phrase, derin devlet, was coined to designate a loose coalition of military elements, mafia, drug traffickers and others who worked outside the purview of government to further the interests of the Turkish military-industrial complex. That’s right: as originally applied in Turkey, the phrase referred to a right-wing, even fascist, cabal. And guess what? That’s pretty much how it was originally used in the United States too.

And that didn’t really begin, believe it or not, until 2014. That was the year Mike Lofgren published his essay  Anatomy of the Deep State. Two years later, he followed with a book called The Deep State: the Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government. As he details in these writings, the deep state is indeed a cause for concern (though he also clarifies that it isn’t an inherently negative thing). And it can indeed undermine the Constitution and representative democracy. But it is not, as the dominant narrative goes, a coordinated left-wing effort. In fact, it has generally been right-wing. But Lofgren did not intend his observations about the deep state to be partisan at all. As he delineates:

It’s a hybrid association of elements of government and parts of top-level finance and industry effectively able to govern the US without reference to the consent of the governed…

The private part of the deep state is the military-industrial complex Eisenhower warned about in 1961. There is also Wall Street and its symbiotic relationship with the Treasury and its regulatory agencies…

I became aware that there were forces at work in the period between 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq that were bigger than the government and were operating on their own compass heading. We have a supposedly free press, but when you saw people like Phil Donahue and Ashley Banfield fired or demoted for being critical of invasion, you have to wonder. I’m pretty sure nobody in the White House picked up the phone and asked somebody at NBC to fire those folks, but the NBC executives were sufficiently conditioned to perform a service to the government by firing those folks and creating the propaganda for the war.

Lofgren is a former Republican congressional staffer, with emphasis on the former; he exited the party in disgust at what it had devolved into. The article about the deep state was written for Dan Rather’s website — hardly a bastion of right-wing extremism. Neither it nor the book was intended to be partisan. In fact, Lofgren has stated that the Forty-Fifth White House Occupant himself “in many ways represents the culmination of the deep state”. Hear that? The culmination. Not the opponent. And yet at present, the W.H.O. and his sycophants are virtually the only ones who use the term at all; and they always use it to designate anyone who dares to stand in the way of their ambitions.

As the conception of what deep state means was altered, the popularity of the term skyrocketed. As NPR reports:

Breitbart began extensive coverage to “deep state” stories around the time [45] entered office, and others have followed. In a search of TV transcripts, the term “deep state” appeared only 64 times in 2016, the year Lofgren published his book.

In 2017, it shot up to nearly 2,300 mentions, and surged to nearly 5,000 hits last year [2018], many of them on Fox News.

And it’s rarely, if ever, used the way Mike Lofgren intended.

In short, what we have here is a term that has been co-opted by right-wingers and grossly perverted into something totally different from what it originally meant. And this is by no means the first time they have used this tactic. In fact, just about any time an expression becomes popular, you can expect them to hijack it and radically transform it. It happened with “politically correct”. It happened with “social justice warrior”. It happened with “woke”.  It happened with “right side of history”. And of course, most spectacularly, it happened with “fake news“. And the tactic has been wildly successful for them. Expect to see it again. And again and again and again.


  1. […] This is not to say that you shouldn’t publicize genuine threats or advocate due concern over them. It has become very common among right-wing polemicists to downplay the risks of real threats like climate change and COVID-19, and to proclaim that fears about them are being overly hyped. The irony is that in trying to accuse others of fearmongering about genuine dangers, they themselves are fearmongering about the supposed existence and dominance of a vast conspiracy between scientists, the media, and the chimerical “deep state”. […]

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