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A Deep State of His Own

2024-06-06T211549Z_966864919_RC2X58AOTGX

In March 2023, Donald Trump kicked off his third presidential run in Waco, Texas. His arrival coincided with the 30th anniversary of the deadly confrontation that took place nearby between heavily armed Branch Davidian cultists and federal law enforcement. When Trump took to the stage, he framed the 2024 race as “the final battle.” In this battle, he said, “either the deep state destroys America or we destroy the deep state.” Lest anyone doubt his role, he announced: “I am your warrior, I am your justice. … For those who have been wronged and betrayed … I am your retribution.”

In this rambling speech in a city many still associate with one of the most violent anti-government standoffs in modern American history, Trump underlined his intent to harness the full power of the government upon his return to the White House. He would rely on loyalists within federal agencies to pursue an aggressive agenda, which would include, among other things, authorizing the largest deportation program in U.S. history, purging supposed “thugs and criminals” from the justice system (an apparent reference to prosecutors and other law enforcement personnel who will not bend to Trump’s will), policing women’s sports to prevent transgender women from participating, and censoring classroom instruction to ban certain kinds of lessons about race from U.S. schools. This iteration of Trump is a far cry from the one who won the presidency in 2016. Back then, Trump and his surrogates swore to “deconstruct the administrative state” and thereby disable and deplete government agencies. Now, the goal is profoundly different.

Trump no longer casts himself as a brash entrepreneur vexed by meddlesome government regulators but as a messianic strongman keen on maximizing state power to reshape American society, culture, and law. And that means his relationship to the apparatus of the state will be radically different. His plan, backed by a powerful network of right-wing lawyers and activists in line for senior appointments should Trump prevail in November, is not to obliterate federal regulatory and law enforcement agencies but to colonize them, radicalize them, and weaponize them to do their commander in chief’s bidding. Instead of eradicating a purported deep state, Trump is angling to create a real one—with the aim of producing a government more powerful and partisan than the country has ever known.

The Shallow State

The malevolent, subterranean American deep state that Trump and his supporters have been railing against since 2016 does not, in fact, exist. But that will not stop Trump from inventing one from scratch. Scholars and analysts have long used the term to describe powerful ministries and state-run utilities whose entrenched officers do one of two things: either they clash routinely with elected leaders, denying them the ability to govern democratically; or they coddle them, insulating those leaders from legal or political reckonings. The term has aptly described power dynamics in countries such as Egypt, Pakistan, and Turkey, where militaries maintained close control of bureaucratic and political systems even when civilians were nominally in charge. Scholars have rarely used it to describe the United States. And rightly so.

The United States does not have a deep state in large part because the U.S. bureaucracy is notoriously weak. Federal agencies are very much under the thumb of elected presidents and their politically appointed administrators. There are no state-owned utilities of consequence and, with the notable but practically neolithic exception of the Civil War, the country has no culture or history of bureaucrats, military officers, or other government functionaries engaging in subversive, usurping, or otherwise anti-democratic projects. Careful observers of American administrative governance point to a different reality: the United States’ bureaucracies are chronically underfunded, understaffed, often micromanaged by the White House, and regularly trussed up by Congress and the courts. Far from being dangerously deep, the American state may be understood as perilously shallow, a near-chronic condition enabled by successive generations of Americans viewing government with great suspicion. The state is already stretched thin when called upon to meet day-to-day demands, never mind when it is expected to respond to acute crises ranging from the COVID-19 pandemic to the serial coups across the Sahel.

And yet, that state featured as a rhetorical punching bag in both Trump’s first presidential campaign and his first term in office. Although he pledged to “drain the swamp” in his 2016 campaign, and his strategist Steve Bannon vowed to “deconstruct the administrative state” a month after his inauguration, it took Trump some time in office to warm up to the baseless claim that the country he now ruled was in thrall to a perfidious “deep state.” But even then, it was all innuendo and talk, and, perhaps just as important, talk that sounded vaguely familiar—a more belligerent, coarser remix of classic Republican themes. Old-school business elites have long lamented overzealous government regulation, derided pointy-headed functionaries, and sought to shrink, starve, or defang U.S. bureaucracy. And traditional isolationists have long complained about the influence of diplomats, military officers, and defense contractors who, they allege, entangle the country in international affairs at the expense of protecting the homeland. Trump’s “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) movement tapped into a nostalgia for those foundational precepts of mid-twentieth-century conservatism.

The deep state does not exist, but that will not stop Trump from inventing it.

These attacks produced few meaningful changes. In his first term, Trump achieved very little by way of shrinking the overall size of government, slowing the pace of regulation, or disciplining federal employees who didn’t toe the MAGA line. (Quite a few of the right-wing judges he appointed have, however, picked up Trump’s mantle and continue to battle the bureaucracy.) Worse—for Trump, that is—those government officials whom Trump and his surrogates slurred and slandered as disloyal, including Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, regularly outmaneuvered him while taking care not to show him up for the good of the nation.

But Trump nonetheless succeeded in conjuring the deep state as an adversary. Huge numbers of his supporters found his rhetorical campaigns against government workers and government institutions eminently persuasive. As a result, many Americans now accept the idea that, per Trump, government officials are un-American, incompetent, and corrupt. The power of this conspiratorial mindset has compromised the country’s long-standing commitments to science, national security, democracy, and the rule of law. For without those fantastical impressions, Trump would have had a much harder time parrying the damning findings of the special counsel investigation into possible collusion between his camp and the Kremlin during the 2016 presidential election; muddying the prosecution of key surrogates; discrediting a formidable group of diplomats and military officers whose damning evidence led to Trump’s first impeachment (for trying to extort political cooperation from the Ukrainian government) in 2019; and, in 2020, fomenting anger against public health officials whose COVID-19 policies were politically inconvenient, against educators and bureaucrats he alleged were engaged in campaigns of “woke indoctrination,” and, ultimately, against election officials certifying results for Joe Biden.

Trump and those he empowered and emboldened have already managed to push out many capable public-sector workers at all levels of government. Record numbers of federal senior civil servants quit as early as 2017, and by the time of Biden’s inauguration in 2021, several key agencies had been quite literally decimated. Amid this drain of talent and experience, which has only made the American state shallower, many of those still answering the call to daily service are now not only devising exit strategies in case Trump prevails this November but also steeling themselves for his possible retribution.

LOCKED AND LOADED

The candidate already has a governing blueprint in place: Project 2025: Mandate for Leadership, a 900-odd page manifesto published by the Heritage Foundation. Unlike the Trump of 2017, who was truly winging it (and who began his presidency surrounded by a mixture of cronies and mainstream Republicans), a Trump in the White House in 2025 will be far more equipped to advance an especially strident agenda from day one. Having remade the party in his own image (while banishing those he now labels RINOs—Republicans In Name Only) and having partnered with dexterous and determined right-wing ideologues from such think tanks and advocacy organizations as Heritage, the Manhattan Institute, the Claremont Institute, and the Alliance Defending Freedom, Trump is gearing up to settle scores, reverse the modern civil rights revolution, and reestablish the political, cultural, and economic supremacy of white, Christian men. Ironically, to achieve his and his allies’ aims, Trump must will into being that chimera that he has relentlessly assailed: a powerful bureaucracy loyal to party over country.

First and foremost, Trump aims to push out civil servants who have demonstrated abiding commitments to professional public administration and to the rule of law. The Biden administration recently promulgated a rule that protects career government workers from being reclassified as at-will employees, precisely to thwart Trump’s plans to summarily dismiss tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of federal workers. But there is still plenty a MAGA administration could do to disrupt and, with time, purge the bureaucracy. Project 2025 prescribes, with varying degrees of specificity, ways to exercise greater political control over senior managers. Those senior managers would then use extant performance-review procedures to more quickly and aggressively weed out unsatisfactory employees. After all, in a government bureaucracy not driven by profits and losses, managers have considerable discretion to decide what constitutes unsatisfactory work when conducting performance reviews—and could use that latitude, as they did under the nineteenth-century “spoils system,” to strongly suggest to bureaucrats the benefits that would come with internalizing and championing the political preferences of the White House.

Any campaign that requires targeting individual employees, however successful, would not immediately transform a government unit’s political culture. Right-wing activists and Trump allies therefore want an incoming Trump administration to seek legislative authority that would allow the president to strip agencies or bureaus believed to be particularly hostile to MAGA policies of their regulatory or enforcement responsibilities and to transfer those powers to more receptive departments.

To achieve his aims, Trump will need a powerful bureaucracy loyal to party over country.

To further concentrate state power in the presidency, Trump, via the Justice Department, could side with plaintiffs challenging the constitutionality of so-called independent agencies—particularly the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Federal Communications Commission. Given the Supreme Court’s current composition and its recent jurisprudence, a majority could agree that such agencies are unconstitutional—precisely because of their insulation from the president—and hold that the heretofore independent commissioners must serve only at the pleasure of the president. Rulings of those sorts might well engender the greatest consolidation of presidential power since the New Deal. In a further push in the direction of a truly imperial presidency, Trump’s advisers want to prioritize legislation that would allow the president to more easily terminate FBI directors.

Among the reasons why MAGA Republicans are so insistent on maximizing presidential power is because they aim to use the state to effect a cultural transformation that can only be described as Christian nationalist in orientation. To propel this agenda, Trump’s team is eager to install a phalanx of political appointees right away. Every presidential transition team struggles to fully staff up, squandering valuable time and political capital in the honeymoon period of the presidency. This was certainly Trump’s experience the first time around, when it took years for him to install like-minded officers in key positions across federal agencies and inside the White House—and even then, some holdover officials remaining on the job were well positioned to curb his most execrable impulses, including commandeering the Justice Department to overturn the 2020 election.

The urgency to ensure tight ideological alignment between the president and his appointees is much greater this time around. Unlike in 2017, Trump is equipped with radically transgressive and politically unpopular goals—practically all of his signature policy proposals poll extremely poorly. Since at least December 2023, the Heritage Foundation, along with some 80 other right-wing groups, has been recruiting and screening candidates to staff a Trump presidency. Through a centralized recruitment clearinghouse, prospective officeholders can signal their interest and worthiness by answering a series of questions that test their ideological commitments, policy preferences, and political influences. As Heritage’s president, Kevin Roberts, told The New York Times, his organization “is committed to recruiting and training a deep bench of patriotic Americans who are ready to serve their country on day one.”

The MAGA movement needs a robust, fiercely loyal bureaucracy to conduct its broad, unpopular, aggressive, and, in many instances, legally suspect regulatory agenda. Indeed, nothing short of a deep state immunized from law and external politics would be willing and able to undertake it. Such a state will be primed, as Trump has called for, to conduct mass deportations, prosecute the president’s political rivals, complete and then police a wall along the southern border, mobilize the military to fight crime in U.S. cities, and curtail access not only to currently legal and safe abortion medications but also certain similarly legal and safe contraceptive pills. In addition, Trump’s administrative personnel must be willing and able to intensely scrutinize state medical record-keeping on abortions, which some of Trump’s advisers believe should be shared with Republican-run states to crack down on “abortion tourism.”

THE DEEP STATE OF THEIR DREAMS

Entrenching tribalist political loyalties takes time, of course, particularly because such highly partisan entrenchment isn’t coded into the DNA of American bureaucracy. To the contrary, time and time again, civil servants in the United States have proven themselves to be faithful, resourceful stewards of the American people and the laws passed in their name. That’s largely why Trump and his allies were so hell-bent on reclassifying all civil servants as at-will employees—and why the Biden administration’s preemptive move to impede any such reclassification was widely hailed by those alarmed by the prospects of a second Trump presidency.

Short of moving new legislation through Congress to supersede the Biden administration’s administrative rule, Trump and his allies may not be able to build the deep state of their dreams—at least not in four years. MAGA Republicans need more time. That’s why Trump and his allies are working to make future Democratic victories less likely. Rather than strive to hold the presidency through good-faith attempts at political persuasion, Project 2025 calls for the termination of the U.S. Cyber Command’s “participation in federal efforts to ‘fortify’ U.S. elections.” Heritage’s governing manifesto also proposes relieving the Department of Homeland Security of its work identifying misinformation and disinformation on social media. Unchecked misinformation and disinformation campaigns have tended to favor MAGA candidates and policies.

The deepest of deep states, as traditionally understood, encompass more than just federal workforces. Loyal backers in local government bodies and private institutions further solidify a faction’s control over national politics. Soon after the January 6 insurrection, right-wing organizations, well aware of the decentralized nature of election administration in the United States, began recruiting and training partisan loyalists to apply for staff and volunteer positions on county election boards. Right-wing donors have invested millions of dollars in supporting these efforts, which are occurring at a time when vacancies have reached alarming heights. Given the many, almost exclusively right-wing campaigns of political violence and harassment directed at election workers in 2020 and again in 2022, resignations by Democrats and mainstream Republicans alike have become commonplace—and it’s been hard sledding to get similarly minded citizens to take their place.

Similar dynamics are at play when it comes to stacking school boards with Christian nationalist candidates who take a dim view of inclusive academics and extracurricular activities. Having more partisans at the local level not only increases compliance with right-wing federal directives of the kind prescribed by Project 2025 but also helps nurture a farm team of future state and national leaders.

AGAINST THE ODDS

The allure of Trump buoys an otherwise sinking Republican Party weighed down by unpopular policies, scandals, criminal charges, and incompetence. Under these circumstances, it wouldn’t be a boast for Trump to claim, “After me, the flood.” And that’s precisely why his institutionalizing of a deep state is such a crucial and alarming political project. Only an antidemocratic institutional apparatus can preserve the influence and power of this increasingly unattractive political movement, which appeals to a rapidly diminishing slice of the American public.

There’s still time to stop Trump before he leads the country further down the road to authoritarianism—but not much. The American people have the opportunity to vanquish him and his agenda this November. But assuming that the twice-impeached convicted felon prevails, it will be exceedingly difficult to thwart his realization of a deep state, not to mention the policies that emanate from it. With a MAGA-friendly majority on the Supreme Court, scores of allies on the lower federal courts as well in Congress, state legislatures, and governors’ mansions, and a sizable, cultishly loyal, and heavily armed base of political supporters, Trump will have considerable leeway and plenty of backers. Limiting the damage they can do will require preternatural vigilance, reflexes, and peripheral vision. It will demand coordination among centrists, liberals, and leftists. And it will need tremendous determination, in particular from blue states, which must summon their political and economic power to both resist and insulate their citizens from the transformation of the federal government. The truest test of American exceptionalism will be whether the country’s democracy can survive against these odds.

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