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The Deep State

The ‘Deep State’ exists—Trump and his ilk have run into it

Bernard-Henri Lévy
September 17, 2018
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images
The National Cathedral hosts the memorial service for Sen. John McCainPhoto by Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images
The National Cathedral hosts the memorial service for Sen. John McCainPhoto by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Yes, I know.

The deep state is a feeble concept.

It is a paranoid fantasy that presupposes a dark power operating far below the surface of the visible state.

It is a hazy notion best suited for stoking conspiracy theories, as in Turkey, where it connotes a military and security apparatus supposedly conspiring against the elected government.

And it is not hard to imagine Recep Tayyip Erdogan, were he to be brought down by a coup that actually succeeded, or Donald Trump, if subjected to impeachment proceedings following the midterm elections, exclaiming disingenuously on Twitter that the deep state had done him in.

And yet…

I pored over, last week, the prepublication excerpts from Bob Woodward’s book—whose title seems a conjunction of “fury” and “Lear”—that depict an odd strain of resistance pitting the apparatus of American government against the whims, fantasies, and rages of a Shakespearean president writ small.

I took in the astounding anonymous piece penned in the New York Times by a “senior official in the Trump administration” who identified himself as a member of the “quiet resistance within the administration of people choosing to put country first” in order to “preserve our democratic institutions” in the face of the erratic decisions of the commander in chief.

And in my mind I replayed the overwhelming images from the funeral of John McCain, that American great, who pulled off the feat of gathering about his remains in Washington’s National Cathedral every honest (or at least normal) steward of the American state. True images do not require interpreters, and singularly so when the image is historic, but, from honorable Democrats to decent Republicans, from Barack Obama to George W. Bush (rehabilitated by contrast with the present occupant of the White House), from public servants of all persuasions (possibly including the author of the anonymous op-ed, who, like a sort of Fantômas or masked avenger, may well have been there, anonymous amid the throng of mourners), from neo-cons to neo-progs, from academic aristocrats to all those who, regardless of their political affiliation, refuse to make a game of love of country and the deep interests of the United States—all were present, all, as if to express their muted opposition to the testosterone-addled child president, who was off playing golf.

So call it what you will.

Instead of deep state, one might opt for “deep nation.”

One might refer to the great American political culture—with its better angels reawakened, as they often are, by death and grief.

Or one might speak of the enlightened segment of a technocracy that we thought to be amnesiac, planed down by norms, fanatic about accounting lines, and obsessed with economistic smoothing, but which, in the expanding desert, is one of the last places where some concern for the public good survives.

The result is there to see.

If President Strangelove has not yet launched a nuclear attack on Iran…

If he has been content thus far to preen with similarly hypercoiffed Kim Jong-un…

If the letter in which he was to inform the South Koreans of his decision to disrupt relations with them did not arrive because it inexplicably went missing at the last minute…

If Trump’s troupe has not won more decisively beyond the borders of the United States, if the unprecedentedly populous parade of dim-witted Grand Guignol politicians popping up in Italy, Turkey, Hungary, Poland, Sweden, and Brexit-bound Britain, if the epidemic of madness (truly, madness) blowing down the corridors of power and across the world stage has not yet extended its ravages quite as far as it might have…

If Matteo Salvini hesitates to pull Italy out of the European Union and the euro zone, if Erdogan has not yet added to his Ottoman Versailles a replica of the Conciergerie in which to jail the last of Turkey’s democrats, if Viktor Orban delays reconstituting the Iron Guard and Jarosław Kaczynski’s clique has not yet mandated the wearing of hair shirts in Poland’s schools, if Britain’s Boris Johnson has had to throw in the towel and disappear, at least temporarily…

If, in a word, rational argument has not yet yielded entirely to invective, diplomacy to expletives, planning to drunken caprice, if the great symphony of nations has not yet become a din of pots and pans, if the contemplative chess matches that made up the Great Game of planetary strategy have not yet turned into duels with lines of coke or crack—in short, if the nutcases who govern two-thirds of the planet have not all kicked over the table and if the global political clowns have for the moment settled for saying “Stop me before I do something I’ll regret,” it is thanks to this deep state.

That may not be very democratic.

And it will not reassure those who confuse love of the agora with idolatry of the people and hatred for elites.

But in this precarious time when the world seems not only unhinged but in free fall, confronted with the circus that politics has become in nearly every corner of the world, where even at the highest levels we see the triumph of slurs, taunts, insults, hatred, nastiness, and vulgarity, in the face of warlords and would-be kings whose steroid-swollen speeches and rabble-rousing slogans are tearing the social fabric to bloody shreds, there remain these: the steadying power of institutional memory; phantom politics in the same sense as a phantom limb; fragments of high culture and of yesterday’s democratic genius. And those are saving graces.

Translated from the French by Steven B. Kennedy.

Bernard-Henri Lévy is a philosopher, activist, filmmaker, and author of more than 30 books including The Genius of Judaism, American Vertigo, Barbarism with a Human Face, Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, and The Empire and the Five Kings. His most recent film, Slava Ukraini, premiered nationwide on May 5, 2023.