In the detritus-strewn battlefield of public debate, parsing truth from fiction isn’t always an easy task. ThePiedSpicer, Whiteside and Zzyzx attempt to wrap their minds around the Deep State (as best as anyone without a security clearance can), Steve Bannon’s standing in the Trump administration and our relationship with Putin following America’s increased military involvement in Syria.
ThePiedSpicer: Picking up from our last conversation, how do you define the Deep State?
Whiteside: It really depends on the state’s elevation compared to sea level.
Fuck… wait… I blew it… come back to me.
Zzyzx: I touched upon this before, so if we’re going to start by diving into the topic of the Deep State it seems the natural place to start. It’s not a monolith, but a collection of shadowy state intelligence apparatuses that have been built up over time. They have their own agendas, as happens with any government bureaucracy. The difference here is these bureaucracies have extraordinary powers to spy on both foreign and domestic individuals, and they have a license to kill. The amount of control the executive branch actually has over them under normal circumstances is up for debate. Documents declassified 20, 30, 40, 50 years show that agencies are capable of taking rogue actions without approval, and in other cases bottlenecking the flow of information that the president gets.
As far as the new status quo is concerned, there are extremes in the discussion. Some are making the Deep State out to be The Shadow Government that runs everything – at the other extreme, you have pundits telling us the Deep State doesn’t exist. In Steve Bannon’s depiction of the DS, it’s elements of the Intelligence Community the administration is warring with, not the whole hog. That’s about the closest I’ll get to agreeing with Bannon, as I think it’s a gross oversimplification to characterize anti-Trump factions as pro-Obama remnants. More likely, there are people who think they’re standing up for a democratic society, even if some of what their agencies do has been explicitly anti-democratic long before Trump was in the picture. If even a majority of the IC opposes Trump, it’s hard to say how stridently they do, because again, they’re shadowy.
That said, deep states do exist. Most modern industrial countries have some combination of deep states, secret police and/or shadow leadership. We have some element of oligarchical rule in America, for example, with a narrow band of monied interests controlling the parameters of what is politically possible. There are historical deep states, like the Young Turks in the Ottoman Empire, more recent examples like Turkey’s deep state’s failed coup against Erdogan… wait, the way I’m framing this makes it seem like Turkey is deep state central. It’s worldwide and pervasive. Why should America be exceptional?
In The Concealment of the State (2013), Jason Royce Lindsey posited that America’s Deep State doesn’t need to be a vast conspiracy to rule everything from behind the scenes, but they have amassed a great deal of power through their secrecy. No sunlight, much power. Now we’re seeing a part of that power expressed in the open.
Whiteside: I can’t beat that eloquent and factual look at the Deep State, so I’ll go a different route.
I think the actual “Deep State” label is more of an act of laziness than a structured, governed entity. You should never bet against a person’s desire to maintain the status quo. I think more than anything the threat of shutting down or defunding departments and costing bureaucrats their jobs is driving this wide-scale revolt against doing things as usual.
I hate to defend The Don again but every administration stuffs the cabinet with their guys. I don’t think that Obama’s guys and Bush’s guys and Clinton’s guys and so on did it for the experience, you know? I’m sure every administration has enough dirt to sink it, but this one showed up in D.C. talking about kicking everyone out. If I was a lifetime government employee I would definitely think “fuck that guy”. So this bogey man, the monolithic DEEP STATE could just be a bunch of pissed off cubicle rats.
Zzyzx: There’s something to that. Some objections to Trump are facile and whatever you feel about the president or the office of presidency, there are established precedents, some of which Trump isn’t painting so far out of the lines on. There’s still plenty of reasons to object to Trump and his either fascist or para-fascist transformation of the government – and by extension – parts of our society. Like, hasn’t anyone heard that cliche about a broken clock being right twice a day?
I don’t know what happens if elements of the Deep State win their crypto-war, but I don’t think it’s good. At best, it’s a Pyrrhic victory. Trump resigns, we get Pence. Pence gets dragged down the drain, we get Paul Ryan. And if either or both get taken out, the tattered remains of whatever is left of the old system are thrown in the trash.
Whiteside: I also think when we are talking about the Deep State we should keep in mind the kind of oscillation of the hive mind between “the Trump admin is fully of incompetent morons” and “there’s a shadowy conspiracy of Trump administration officials collaborating with Putin’s regime”. The left, middle and even some of the right want to have it both ways. Especially in light of the recent loss Trump took on the ACA. There’s a lot of hyperbole out there in Internet in comments and blogs, especially from the left. And it’s tough to admit, but they won. They obviously can’t be complete fuck-ups. They have to have some bit of guile to perpetrate a conspiracy of the size that is shaping up right now in the news.
Zzyzx: Trump may not be especially sensitive to the views of others (an argument could be made that he’s clinically narcissistic) but he is educated. He graduated from Wharton – he may have not been a bright academic star in the vein of Obama, but so what? He’s especially adept at utilizing mass communication to connect with his movement. He’s lazy, temperamental, and in some ways short-sighted, yet it’s a gross oversimplification to brand him as stupid. He’s also surrounded himself with people who more or less know what they’re doing, even if they also happen to be close-minded and corrupt. The narrative does no good to anyone who actually wants to understand what’s happening here.
We’re also at a juncture where the president is likely using one part of the intelligence community against another part. Barton Gellman raises an interesting question: Is the Trump White House spying on the FBI?
What’s to stop him from doing that to any other agency? What’s to prevent a deeper divide among the IC? It’s impossible for me to say, but it’s clear not-stupid Trump and associates won’t take this sitting down. And the more that emerges about the web of connections to a certain world superpower, the further he might push a campaign to neutralize “The Deep State”, the parts of the IC that want his blood.
ThePiedSpicer: Steve Bannon has been at the center of focus for a large portion of Donald Trump’s presidency. Some have referred to him as a tactical genius in his implementation of mass media and willingness to attack when attacked. He’s even been credited with setting policy, drafting executive orders and in effect running the country. My question is, given his recent removal from the National Security Council, just where does Mr. Bannon sit these days in terms of influence and power? Does this latest move prove or refute the claims that he was essentially the power behind the throne?
Zzyzx: I don’t think it disproves that he’s a power behind the throne. Since most politically aware Americans reacted with justified alarm at Bannon’s influence in January, the narrative has complicated somewhat as pretty boy Jared Kushner has carved out some prime real estate for himself in the administration. This has been cutting into Bannon’s ability to focus the president towards his areas of concern, and boy, has he been feeling it. It came to a head recently when reports emerged a frustrated Bannon had talked shit about Kushner behind his back (in Bannonland, calling someone a “cuck” and a “globalist” are sophisticated insults). Trump had enough at that point and insisted the two try to hash it out, which they at least are pretending to do. Based on recent events some are ready to write off the whiskey-bloated racist’s influence; I’m not. People rise and fall and rise again around Trump so fast it induces motion sickness. And unlike others in the administration, if he spurns Bannon, he risks further alienating a prime mouthpiece of his movement.
Whiteside: There’s definitely a large number of people with less than ideal goals influencing what may be our most easily swayed president ever elected. There’s strong evidence that DeVos’s confirmation is tied to both political donations and the influence her brother Erik Prince has on the West Wing. It’s not a stretch to think that at any given moment Trump is being pulled from different directions by Bannon, Kushner and Prince. The question is where do their interests overlap?
ThePiedSpicer: This sounds much more like Bannon’s actually losing clout rather than smoke and mirrors. You could argue for both but the former seems to have far more available evidence.
Zzyzx: We’ll have to wait to see if it pans out, but Trump saying “I am my own advisor” is certainly meant to distance the president from a controversial figure. It wouldn’t be the first time an authoritarian has dropped a vitriolic figure once they’ve outlived their usefulness.
Speaking of powers that may or may not be behind the throne, are we seeing the last of Russia’s influence wear off with Tillerson’s visit to Moscow and strong language on Assad? Or have we entered the teenage rebellion phase of the relationship, with Trump angrily pushing back against Putin with something akin to “Screw you, man. You can’t tell me the best way to be an autocrat.”
Whiteside: We are seeing a lot of different ideas on why Trump bombed Syria from it being a diversion tactic to “Ivanka told him to”. The one thing that’s certain though is that Putin knew well in advance of our operation. I don’t think the honeymoon is over.
ThePiedSpicer: Then what do you make of this?
Zzyzx: If there’s one reliable thing in this administration, it’s Trump’s unreliability. And if one relies of the thesis that Trump is a nationalist (I do), nationalists don’t always get along with other countries very well.
I’m not sure this permanently severs their ties with Russia but it does make the situation rather more complicated, unless this is an elaborate behind-the-scenes gambit.
Whiteside: I think notifying Putin of the attack before hand really erodes the White House’s credibility on this story. I certainly don’t buy the idea that Trump was defending Syrians. I don’t think Trump has the moral fiber to be outraged by human rights.
It’s not hard to believe that Russia knew Assad had sarin or planned to use it, but I find it difficult to believe the White House is feeling any kind of outrage. Trump has no problem allowing the poisoning of Americans, and has not shown any emotion towards the plight of people of color before. It’s disingenuous now at best.
Zzyzx: Trump didn’t seem too bothered when his botched Yemen raid killed ten children. Is extinguishing the lives of innocents only evil when other people do it?
I think it’s possible that Trump is using this as a way to create perceived distance from Putin… but I’m not sure.
ThePiedSpicer: I think it’s more likely the Sarin came from Russia. I tend to believe inspectors got it right when they said the gas was removed in 2013. Which then leads to a question, who’s they get it from? Maybe the nation whose military they share a base with?
Although some U.S. officials have strongly hinted they suspect Russia, which has a presence at Shayrat, may have known something about the planned attack, none have conclusively linked Moscow to the incident itself.
“Mattis suggested the United States did not have firm evidence that Russia had foreknowledge or was complicit in the chemical attack.”It was very clear that the Assad regime planned it, orchestrated it and executed it and beyond that we can’t say right now.
We know what I just told you, we don’t know anything beyond that,” Mattis said, when asked whether Russia had a role.”
Tom Wright, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, just remarked on Tillerson’s press conference in Russia. Wright says it confirms the heated rhetoric was “all for show. Moscow was never going to give up opportunity of close relationship with Trump.”
Zzyzx: Trump’s confusion brings us back to where we started:
Still, the uncertainty and its effect on Trump provides a window into how the inexperienced commander in chief copes with major decisions. Aides and friends say the lack of clarity seemed to worry Trump, who is impatient and has sometimes expressed distrust of the intelligence community, while he faced his first military test.
This is a real-world effect of picking a fight with the Deep State: Trump isn’t sure who he can trust when it comes to the information he’s getting. He’s shown increasing signs of paranoia; I shudder to think how this continues to manifest itself militarily.
We leave you on that cheery note. All hail the lizards.
ThePiedSpicer and Whiteside: All hail!
(Year Zero/Day Eighty-Three)