The Deep State vs the Derp State (OAG #10)

Writing recently in Foreign Policy, Brookings Fellow Shadi Hamid, author of several books, numerous articles, and thousands of tweets on Islam and democracy, managed to apply some difficult political-philosophical thoughts – on the nature of liberal democracy as a mixed system, or on liberal-democratic politics in the philosophy of world history – to current events and specifically to the presidency of Donald J Trump. That Hamid helps to explain Trumpism as a phenomenon, a force, and a set of ideas without rancor or aggressive defensiveness – and even while at one point implicitly comparing the typical ground level Trumpist to an Islamist taxi-driver on hashish – further recommends the piece.

In a more informal effort in The Atlantic focused on the question of unelected, nominally non-partisan officials mounting a successful resistance or “soft coup” against the President, Hamid again puts himself in the Trumpist’s place:

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?

Needless to say, not everyone discussing this issue has the benefit of Hamid’s long experience dealing with reactionaries – his specialty having been Middle Eastern religious reactionaries, including the above-referenced cabbie. When, for instance, I recently sought to explain how an intelligence operative might view the illicit exposure of damaging information about a mad or criminal or mad and criminal president as the very soul of duty, a longtime internet friend called my statements “disgusting.”

We had been discussing some soul-searching on the same set of questions published by Josh Marshall in the wake of the forced resignation of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Marshall had confessed to being torn about how to respond, while Damon Linker and others stressed the danger ((“Michael Flynn May Want to Call the ACLU,” by Timothy Edgar at Lawfareblog, normally a home for determinedly anti-Trump legal discussion, may have been influential in raising concerns about “the Deep State” to a higher level.)), arguing, in sum, that even if we might imagine emergency circumstances justifying extraordinary defiance or resistance against a duly elected president, the present situation, however abnormal it may seem, does not qualify. In this “extremely dangerous” (Marshall) and “deeply worrying” (Linker) fight between the Deep State or its American facsimile versus the provisional revolutionary Flight 93 anti-regime regime, how can responsible citizens not take a side?


To answer or at least carefully examine the last question, I think we can begin by returning to Hamid’s two prior ones.

The answer to the first of the two, on constraints on presidents, has to be “necessarily yes, if also necessarily with qualifications.”

The presidency is an institution within a system informed and circumscribed by history, law, and custom, and it is, essentially to say the same thing over again, checked and balanced by other institutions. The word “radical” in this context implies conduct, intentional or not, that defies or in some way threatens to undermine or even overthrow that system, but the system is at the same time the very origin and basis of the presidency or presidential authority itself, as such authority may have existed when the “radical” president was elected. In this sense, a radical presidency would be a contradiction in terms: A radical presidency would be a presidency against itself, a usurpation, and supporting it would amount to a paradoxical form of treason.

If, hoping to avoid such logical entanglements, we agree to interpret the key term more loosely, yet without letting its meaning entirely vanish, we can observe first that, both as a matter of prudence or practical wisdom and as a matter of right and wrong under a democratic ethos, neither a president nor a president’s party should embark upon “radical” – or as Hamid also suggests, “threatening” – measures without commensurately “radical” support for them or, perhaps in some grave emergency, truly “radical” justification for them. Either way, “radical” actions inevitably invite, as they also may or arguably must justify, “radical” counter-measures. A similar rationale underlies the requirement for super-majorities or multiple mutually confirming super-majorities of different types for the passage of constitutional amendments – or the impeachment or removal of high officials. ((Thus also, arguably, the imprudence of putting questions of sovereignty up to simple one-time majority decision, as under “Brexit” in the United Kingdom.))

Understanding Hamid’s second question well enough to answer it – and deciding just how we should feel about the situation in which “radical” action seems indefinitely if not permanently foreclosed – will require looking at its predicate more closely.

“If I was a Trump voter,” says Hamid, “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.” Hamid then seeks to reinforce the point from an alternative perspective, describing a Bernie Sanders presidency seeking “to radically re-orient U.S. foreign policy.”

This hypothetical is flawed in two ways. In the first place the scenario is too narrowly drawn. We do not know what policies Hamid is envisioning here, but, wherever they land on the spectrum from “Come Home, America!” to ” Let us judiciously explore areas of possible cooperation with the Russian Federation,” Hamid glosses over the underlying question of presidential mandate, seeming to assume that all presidencies are created equal, or ought to be treated that way.

Contrarian political observers like to question whether presidential mandates have ever mattered very much, or even existed at all, but what is understood by the term, even if it qualifies as vague and somewhat mysterious, is necessary not just as a guide to what a president may hope to accomplish, but for judging what a president ought to do and how a citizen should feel about it, whether as practical or as moral questions. So, to expand on the illustration, suppose a new president sought to implement an effectively irrevocable departure from U.S. policy of the last century or so. The difference between, in one scenario, a bipartisan or trans-partisan, super-majority and trans-sectoral popular endorsement of a clearly and thoroughly debated, carefully constructed, focused proposal, and, in one of several possible alternative scenarios, a divisive and contradictory mishmash of propositions endorsed by an unstable faction that has captured high office in effect by accident, would be, to say the least, significant in multiple ways.

On this note, and in the second place, we can also observe that the Sanders hypothetical from which Hamid generalizes does not, in fact, mirror the situation actually before us. Hamid’s observation of Middle Eastern politics and specifically of the failure of democracies leads him throughout his work to emphasize the importance of electoral losers willingly accepting the consequences of their defeat, Asking whether, all the same, they should be expected, or could realistically be expected, ever to accept truly radical consequences returns us to the prior question, but, in short, even if we are willing to entertain Hamid’s notion that a plurality president, if lawfully placed in office, might have to be allowed to govern “radically,” Donald J Trump did not win a “plurality of voters.” He won an historically slim majority of electoral votes, but he did not win a plurality of the actual popular vote.

Indeed, as the chart below ((screen-captured from Wikipedia)) (click to enlarge) details, of the five elections in U.S. history, shaded in pink, in which the winner of the electoral college vote did not win at least a plurality of the popular vote, only one, John Quincy Adams in 1824, won a smaller absolute percentage than Trump of the latter.

losingest winners

The Losingest Winners – from Wikipedia

The conditions under which the Election of 1824 were conducted were too unlike those of our 21st Century mass democracy (observe the vote totals and turnout numbers just as starting points) to justify extensive comparisons. The other three popular vote-minority presidents in addition to Trump and Adams were Harrison, Hayes, and George W Bush: It is perhaps notable that Hayes’ victory had to be decided in Congress, and that Bush’s required an extraordinary ruling by the Supreme Court. As for the six presidential winners with lower absolute popular vote percentages than Trump’s – some of them with pluralities, so a different group, with only Adams in common – all of them, every one, was competing in the presence of at least two, and in two instances (Lincoln, Adams), several other significant major nominees, making majority or even near-majority victories highly unlikely.

Trump, in other words, stands alone. He is not merely an unimpressive winner with an impaired mandate. He qualifies as “the worst winner” in American presidential history even before we get to questions of his personal attitude and conduct.

We might differ over just how crucial this difference between Trump and all of the others is, or should be taken to be, but anyone arguing like Hamid, from a position definable as “democratic” (or democratist) in the modern, head-counting sense of democracy, surely cannot dismiss the matter as trivial. Put differently, if a president with super-majority popular support might reasonably feel emboldened to implement major new departures in public policy, and those otherwise inclined to opposition might reasonably decide to seek cooperation and compromise, or at least to hang fire, then a president with Trump’s extraordinarily uncertain mandate, or utter lack of one, might reasonably be expected to act more cautiously, and to seek cooperation and consultation wherever possible.

In some parliamentary systems, the leader of a faction like Trump’s would be required to form a coalition government or possibly a government of national unity, the underlying practical as well as ethical assumption being that governing at all would and should require the discovery of effective majorities on at least some issues, and of ways to compromise and cooperate, or cope with non-decision, on others.

To “act radically” or even “threatening”-ly on the basis of support from an actual minority of voters, as Hamid suggests a Trump or a hypothetical Sanders should be allowed to do, does not suggest to me a genuinely democratic or democratically respectable politics at all. Indeed, if the existence of plurality support from voters can ever be taken to justify radical and threatening action, then the opponents of Mr. Trump would seem to be the ones democratically justified in setting aside a mass suicide pact of legalism in favor of resistance – and possibly including, for example, well-timed leaks of politically damning state secrets to the free press.


Here are a series of tweets on the how-deep-is-your-state question, stormed in apparent exasperation by Faheem Hussain, a thoughtful advanced student of political philosophy whom Hamid had referenced in his second article (( “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.'”)):

I find Hussain’s overall point well taken – that use of the term “Deep State” tends to be prejudicial – but, as I began to argue on Twitter, I believe the position of the United States of America and the nature of the American regime add, as it were, exceptional complexity to the discussion.

Following Hamid’s example, and trying to see things as the Trumpists or some of them see things, we can observe that, even if the American state remains, as formally constituted, a “shallow state,” implying a government that serves the sovereign People as their instrument, the proportionally shallow state of a wealthy, global, technologically advanced, militarily super-potent neo-empire may remain deeper than even the deepest of any other nation’s states.

To many of us, the Trump Administration seems to be replacing or seeking to replace our “sort-of deep state” with its own “Derp State” founded on conspiracism, dishonesty, ignorance, incompetence, corruption, and malevolence, dedicated to the “deconstruction” – or simply the destruction – of the liberal and democratic work of generations, at growing human cost. Yet reactionary conservatism in America is a complex entity. What distinguishes it, or its singularly American form, from other reactionary conservatisms is not its political-theological character per se, or even less any degree of cruelty or heedlessness we may wish to attribute to it, but the peculiar altar on which it performs its sacred rites: For these peculiarly American conservatives – including many who do not consider themselves pro-Trump, and who may have opposed candidate Trump with the strongest available political rhetoric – the so-called “progressive state” is in itself an evil, something close to evil itself. For them, the sort-of deep American state, possibly in transition to the state intrinsically deep, is not just, as per the above logic, in absolute terms deeper than anybody else’s state, but is absolutely worse as well, because its advance is the one true and final threat to the exceptional American anti-state state, that last best hope of humankind on Earth.

American liberals or progressives may seek to dismiss this reactionary conservative theme as obviously absurd, or worse than mad, but a peremptory rejection may in the American national-political context amount to unilateral disarmament. If progressives cannot embrace the American constitutional system on its own terms, indeed more fully and inclusively than their opponents, and in the meantime cannot approach other sources of American patriotism other than with trepidation, then to whom or what are we to believe their true allegiance belongs, and on what commitments can their unexpected partners of the moment, deep within our shallow state, sworn to protect and defend it, depend?

Though Hussain closes out his storm seemingly exhausted by the discussion (“*whispering* They got to me to- ..”), I think he succeeds in restoring conceptual balance. The problem will remain, however, that, if justifying radical action by radical threat does point to the breakdown of “the system,” such a breakdown would be one already well under way, with perhaps a long way still to go. The choice for the law or for the exception is one we must prefer not to make, but that we will. “I must confess,” says Hamid, “that as Trump’s victory settled, my despair was coupled with a rush of blood to the head.”

(cross-posted at Ordinary Times)

4 comments on “The Deep State vs the Derp State (OAG #10)

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  1. Well done. And as such deserves thoughtful responses. But a lot to get to, so let me start with some prelim remarks. I did read up to the moment comments at OT but decided to respond here.

    So part of the definitional issue is whose DS are we talking about. The Bannon/Trump one seems the most relevant, so what’s going on with their use of the term.

    It does not seem to refer to the entrenched bureaucracy, but rather a sinster version of it, in league with non-govt elements. The “in league with” is I thnik important because it suggests intentionality and agency to the DS, rather than the accumulation of millions of individual actions done only with the intention of doing one’s work, and generally without any or much coordination.

    So this DS alludes to, if not actually asserts, the DS of say Turkey. This is, I think part of the frequently allusive rhetoric of T/B that seems to lie, but also seems to strike a chord with a part of the population. Even if they don’t understand the specific reference, they get the affective one.

    I only have so much juice today, so I’m going to skip ahead in my response, hopefully to fill in later.

    The one place the Pres is able to perform a radical action is launching nuclear weapons. Excellent posts on this by Alex Wallerstein here and here.

    As he notes:

    And from a practical standpoint, we know the system is set up so that the people at the very bottom, the people “turning the keys” and actually launching the missiles, are trained to not question (or even deeply contemplate) the orders that reach them. They are trained, rather explicitly, that if the order comes in, their job is to execute it — not quite like robots, but close-enough to that. The speed and reliability of the system requires these people to do so, and they are not in a position to inquire about the “big picture” behind the order (and would not presume to be qualified to evaluate that).

    Perhaps this is what T/B is after in running the entire govt. Perhaps this partially accounts for his fetishization of nuclear weapons.

    The DS here would be anything at all preventing the speed and efficiency of carrying out nuclear weapons orders.

    • I did read up to the moment comments at OT but decided to respond here.

      When the lefties vs the righties start arguing about Trump’s 2005 1040, I tend to think it’s time to move the discussion elsewhere – so, welcome home.

      The jump-cut to nukes was initially jarring, but thanks much for the links to the Wallerstein pieces, which I agree are interesting, and even apart from this context.

      I’m not ready to accept the definition of the DS that you offer, or of “the good DS,” but the example does encapsulate the problem – or the wish (or our hope, their fear). Hoping the DS will check Trump is also a bit like hoping there really is a conspiracy of Illuminati running things, because even if they’re evil, at least they still need a world to run, and a major war and even less Depression probably aren’t really in their interests. The other hope is that the good citizen finds zerself in the right place at the right time by the will of God or American dumb luck or something. But it’s hard for me to see Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov as an appendage of the Soviet Deep State, which was a very Deep State indeed. He was more an appendage of the State, period. Likewise a soldier refusing an evil order post-Nuremberg is choosing the “exception” or a unique form of it, from the Deep State of the Whole World to Come.

      • You clearly got the gist, but for clarity’s sake I want to amend my last sentence. It reads “The DS here would be anything at all preventing the speed and efficiency of carrying out nuclear weapons orders.”

        It should read, “The DS here would be anything at all preventing the speed and efficiency of carrying out nuclear weapons orders in carrying out all Presidential orders, Exec Actions etc.”

        Or rather it should read as a smoother version of the meaning of that.

        Yeah, at any rate the DS definition I offer would render the use of such a portentous phrase “DS” trivial. My reading is that B/T use it portentousness to disguise the vacuousness of what they are saying. Kinda like watching something by David Lynch, but less entertaining.

        To me the crucial element is how one construes agency. T/B and perhaps the Right in general have, to my mind, too robust a sense of individual agency. When that seems thwarted, it must only be because of some other, stronger individual agency at work, rather than the force of the political/physical ecology we, or “we”, are embedded in.

        • Seems especially any Fuehrer-principle-ish movement has to assume malign counter-agents, since otherwise it would have to acknowledge that the world may not really be susceptible to His Indomitable Will, or its Triumph. But everyone who proposes anything “radical” faces at least some version of that problem. The Left or progressivism gets into its own peculiar trouble along those lines, too. The assumption is that the same history bending inexorably toward justice requires expert interventions uniquely by Leftists or progressives, but the prospects for collective human agency, whether of the masses or its vanguard, are also exaggerable.

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