Much attention has been directed at the so-called “deep state” by Trump and Bannon supporters (Not Steve Bannon). It is an article of faith among this crowd that there is a conspiracy of government bureaucrats and “others” which include some type of global elite. This cabal controls our country secretly thus undermining American democracy.
As Michelle Goldberg pointed out in The New York Times, there is actually a conspiracy theory called QAnon that claims — despite all evidence to the contrary — that Trump is actually a genius successfully fighting the deep state. In some ways, this ideology is insidious because underlying its theory is the belief that the fact the media is not reporting Trump’s allegedly positive accomplishments is proof of the power of the deep state. In other words, if you point out to a QAnon true believer that there is no evidence to support their claims, they argue that the lack of such evidence is in itself evidence of the truth of their argument. You just can’t rationally discuss issues with people like that.
This cult-like group includes several prominent adherents, including Roseanne Barr, who may be a funny comedienne but has a distinctly warped view of politics. Given the level of Trump’s incompetence, it would require someone to engage in fanciful thinking to believe he is doing a good job.
QAnon, however, is merely an extreme element of Trump’s base of support. The average Trump supporter is a straight, white male who is fearful of “the other” taking away his position of privilege. The deep state, although it remains poorly defined other than being any institution opposed to Trump, seems to be the mechanism these voters believe is being used to elevate “the other” at the expense of these privileged white males.
Such a philosophy is obviously essential for this group who have inherited the greatest level of unearned entitlement in the history of the world to view themselves as victims. They are victims of minorities, feminists, Jews, immigrants, gays, and other historically oppressed groups who seek to take a place in society with the support of an elite of intellectuals and faceless government bureaucrats.
The articulation of this philosophy should make the blood run cold for anyone even remotely familiar with the history of Nazism and other right-wing authoritarian genocidal movements. It is not surprising that neo-Nazi groups have been enthusiastic Trump supporters, and they are one of the few groups (other than the Russians) he refuses to criticize.
In the past, these ideological supporters of Trump have aligned themselves with a number of issues that support their anti-other, anti-government view of society. Currently they are targeting their ire at immigrants, while it has previously been aimed at Muslims, gay people, or any other group who is the acceptable scapegoat du jour.
Similarly, pro-police arguments are often thinly-veiled attacks on African-Americans. Certainly, we all support the police and understand that they have a difficult, important job. Stating that obvious point in response to legitimate criticisms of a few violent renegade police officers is simply a way to shut down discussion over how to remedy the situation.
Another movement this group associated themselves with is the pro-term limits movement of the 1990s. Frankly, this movement was very successful, managing to impose term limits upon a variety of governmental institutions, including the state legislature of my home state, Michigan.
The basis for its success is the image of the citizen-politician: the hard-working person who leaves his farm or business to serve in office for a time, only to return to that business after his or her service was over. This myth goes back to the story of Cincinnatus in ancient Rome. I write “myth” because while there may be some historical basis for Cincinnatus’s action, it is an utterly ridiculous concept nowadays.
If ever there were a politician who fit the model of citizen-politician it would have been Jimmy Carter. He went to a military academy, served with distinction, ran a large family farm then left that farm to serve one term as Governor of Georgia and one term as President. Interestingly, few Trump supporters would celebrate Jimmy Carter.
Carter was certainly a person of integrity, a fact that made it difficult for him to serve successfully as President. As a result, he separated himself from his family business while in office to avoid any potential conflicts of interest — as unlikely as they might be under the circumstances. When he tried to return after serving his time in office, his family business was bust and he had to turn to writing books to pay his bills.
Trump might actually have a business to return to after his time in office. If so, that will be because he is not a person of integrity like Carter. Instead, he has used his position to engage in as many conflicts as possible and to thus enrich himself and his family. Somehow, that behavior seems inconsistent with the image of the unselfish citizen-politician.
Such inconsistency is not uncommon when it comes to Trump supporters. It is worth noting that the way to bring rogue bureaucrats and powerful lobbyists — in other words, the deep state — under control of the voters is to have experienced, powerful elected officials.
Limiting the amount of time politicians can spend in office has several implications. First, it means that many of the best-qualified individuals will shy away from government because it is impossible to build a career in public service. Second, it means that those who are elected will not be there long enough to develop the level of expertise and knowledge required to run such a large and complex organization. The result is that the people with institutional knowledge and expertise will be the bureaucrats and lobbyists, not the elected officials. We may not like the idea of our elected officials becoming career politicians, but at least they have to face the voters periodically and can lose their jobs if the voters don’t like what they’re doing. That is not the case for bureaucrats and lobbyists.
There is some basis for the belief in a deep state. It does take a long time to get things done in government. It is certainly unwieldy and especially opaque for outsiders. Certain government employees will develop deep expertise in specific policy areas, expertise that will be relied upon by elected officials trying to address a wide variety of issues at once. Especially in the era of term limits, lobbyists and bureaucrats can be very powerful. Frankly, the ultimate reason I refuse to believe in any conspiracy theories is that most people are far too incompetent to keep such a complex undertaking secret.
Nevertheless, if Trump supporters really want to weaken the power of those government insiders who are alleged to belong to the deep state, they need to support a robust democratic process that elects powerful officials who can bring the bureaucracy to heel. In other words, they need to oppose term limits.
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