Yes, Virginia, there is a deep state. No, it is not a problem.
The recent book by Bob Woodward and The New York Times publication of an op-ed by an anonymous member of the Trump administration all detailing a White House in chaos in which senior staffers work to stymie the President’s wishes has prompted Trump supporters to once again decry the so-called “deep state.”
Just what is the “deep state?” If you asked ten people, you would get ten answers. But Trump supporters appear to believe it is a conspiracy of government bureaucrats who run the government how they want to despite the wishes of their elected officials. Trump supporters claim these efforts to tame the President amount to a coup by those unelected bureaucrats.
Ironically, in this case, the Trump supporters may have a point. Legions of Trump opponents — up to and including former President Barack Obama — have condemned this behavior. They argue that the Trump critics operating within the White House are trying to have their cake and eat it too: they get to hold important government positions while claiming that they were protecting America from the craziness of Trump. Calling it a coup is not without basis, as David Frum and David A. Graham have.
To compound the irony is the fact that these stories are not examples of what Trump and his supporters would characterize as the “deep state.” These cited and uncited sources are senior officials, White House staff and other high-ranking appointees, who are not bureaucrats but are instead Trump appointees. These individuals were not part of the deep state that runs the federal government against the wishes of the elected officials; these are the people Trump brought with him and put in place. This is not an example of a deep state; it is an example of bad management.
That said, there is a certain inertia that any large organization develops, and the federal government is one of the largest. As a result, whenever someone new comes into office, it will take time and effort to change the organization’s direction. Trump and his supporters are probably right that the federal government has not fully embraced his leadership as of yet. The solution is not to throw up your hands and cry “deep state.” Instead, it is to work with the bureaucracy to move it in your direction over time.
I have some personal experience on this point. In 1995, I helped run a campaign for Mayor of Michigan’s third largest city. My candidate was elected — much to the surprise and shock of the local political establishment — despite being an outsider. As we settled into our offices, I discovered how unwelcome we were. We had an agenda we were trying to accomplish, but we were getting little cooperation, if not outright push-back from the bureaucrats who were there before we arrived and would likely still be there after we left. I said it was like the lunatics were running the asylum.
Over time, things changed. We were able to establish our authority over the bureaucracy while also realizing that many of these employees had valuable institutional knowledge we could tap. While many of our ideas were new and exciting, some had been tried before, sometimes with disastrous results. The long-time city employees could help us avoid the landmines that had already been found.
The city of Warren, however, has about 800 employees. That is nothing compared to the Federal government. The sheer scale of that organization makes it nearly impossible to guide. However, like any battleship, over time, you can change its direction. You just need to keep working at it.
I used to walk around City Hall saying that I never wanted to hear anyone else say we did something a certain way because it was always done that way. Change can be good, or it can be bad. The reason large organizations have institutional memory built into them is to create a challenge in implementing new ideas; essentially to make sure that the good ideas succeed while the bad ones’ weaknesses become evident. Good leaders take advantage of the expertise and knowledge these employees have while working to direct the organization in a certain way. This is just one more way Trump has shown himself to be a bad leader.
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