by Geoff Olson
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
– Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass
On November 3, 1996, a black Mercedes crashed into a truck at the gates of Susurluk, a village in Turkey. Three of the four on board died in the crash. One was a Mafia boss involved in heroin trafficking and member of a right-wing ultranationalist group, and one was the head of Istanbul’s police academy. The survivor was a Turkish member of parliament.
The finding of such individuals in surprisingly close, if fatal, association gave the Turkish people a peek into a largely hidden world. They coined the term derin devlet – “deep state” – to describe a nexus of politics, power, and international criminality.
Since 1996, the term “deep state” has gone from an obscure Turkish term to an academic footnote to locker room wiffle ball. And with the election of Donald J. Trump, the term has been deformed by alternate interpretations and weaponized for partisan purposes. “Dumptyized,” in effect. In a time of social media silos and 30-second attention spans, where every bias is only a click away from confirmation, it would help to go back to those who first popularized the term.
In 2000, former Canadian diplomat and Berkeley history professor Peter Dale Scott drew upon the English translation of derin devlet to describe the ability of unelected officials to deceive, deform, and disable democratic mechanisms in the US. These figures hail from the military-industrial complex, the national security apparatus, Wall Street, big banks, big oil and corporate-funded think tanks. They operate largely outside of electoral systems and use their influence, legally and illegally, to exert influence on the political and communications world.
In his book, The Deep State, author Mike Lofgren offers the image of a mostly submerged iceberg, “which operates according to its own compass heading regardless of who is formally in power,” carrying along the visible tip of the iceberg, where the electoral entertainments of democracy play out.
Scott offered an alternative formulation: “It is not a structure, but a system, as difficult to define, but also as real and powerful, as a weather system,” he wrote in his 2016 book, The American Deep State: Wall Street, Big Oil, and the Attack on U.S. Democracy.
(A cosmic analogy may be even better: the deep state behaves like “dark matter,” which pulls galactic masses in directions that are incomprehensible without accounting for its invisible influence.)
The deep state rises to the surface in historically transitional moments, when the surface level of politics and media must be tugged in a new direction. These involve three levels of interference, in Scott’s formulation:
1. Low level deep events, such as the falsification of documents in political campaigns, which are not revealed or understood until years later. 2. Mid-level deep events, sometimes involving the compliance of commercially controlled media to misrepresent political assassinations and other crimes. 3. Structural deep events, conceived with long-term goals in mind and historical alteration of society as a whole.
The 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dealey Plaza was emblematic of the 2nd level of deep event, according to the Berkeley prof. So what of the current US president? Is he another JFK confronting the deep state, as some insist? The anonymous author of the infamous New York Times op-ed describes efforts by White House staffers to subvert presidential directives. This does sound awfully deep-state-ish. In fact, the unidentified author describes himself or herself as representative of the “steady state” – unelected, unnamed figures defending democracy from an elected leader.
The truth, as is usually the case, is likely more complex – perhaps fractally so. Trump gave the Pentagon its greatest budget increase in history. He also signed off on a record-breaking tax cut for the nation’s wealthiest, while gutting corporate regulations. He seems less the sworn enemy of the deep state than its greatest friend.
We’re through the looking-glass now: to the followers of Fox News, Breitbart, and other alt-right outlets, the deep state denotes Obama’s “government in exile,” which is committed to save the swamp from Trump’s brave efforts at drainage. Meanwhile, to followers of Rachel Maddow, Bill Maher, and the proper portals of progressive thought, “deep state” is a crankish conspiracy term peddled by paranoid fools from the right.
One side has hammered “deep state” into a pair of cartoonish calipers for measuring occulted power. The other side is convinced the users of this twisted tool might as well be out to measure the Cheshire Cat’s grin. Both are off by a wide margin.
Complicating matters is the financing of Trump’s real estate projects by elements from Russian organized crime. In a 2017 article for WhoWhatWhy, Scott concluded that Trump represents a historically new entity: an avatar of the “supranational milieu,” composed by a global elite of the very wealthiest, including corporate/criminal interests in both the United States and Russia.
This notion of a supranational deep state does not seem to be far-fetched to me, though I remain agnostic about rumours involving the Offal Office. I certainly don’t buy the alt-right notion that Trump is playing “four-dimensional chess” against the deep state. The six-time bankruptee would probably lose at checkers to a nine-year old and tweet that he whipped Garry Kasparov.
As a journalist, I’ve heard long tales of networks of influence that suborn democracy at everything from the civic to federal level. Some years back, a former BC cabinet minister suggested I check out past episodes of Yes Minister, a BBC comedy series. The show featured a well-meaning, but hapless, politician whose trial balloons were regularly popped by his sly, serpentine advisor. The ex-politician said it was the best portrayal of how politics actually works at the legislative level.
“They give you about six months,” he said of his Yes Minister-like experiences in office. “Six months for what?” I asked. “Until they decide whether you’re going to succeed or not,” he replied. Unelected bureaucrats in Victoria would choose to either cooperate with government initiatives or not, he added.
In Washington, unelected government officials have been described as “weebees,” meaning “we be here when you get in, and we be here when you leave.” In rotation between public and private service, these figures outlive political campaigns and outsmart electoral oversight. They are, in effect, the Mandarin class protecting the wants of a very few from the needs of the very many.
Perhaps it’s not such long way from a 1996 car crash in Susurluk to the current train wreck by the Potomac. In any case, it’s enough to leave anyone in a deep state of confusion.