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Trump’s Challenge is More “Shallow Vision” than “Deep State”


There has been a resurgence of discussion of the notion of a “deep state” embedded within the US federal bureaucracy: a set of figures who exert mostly hidden but powerful influence over public policy. The notion has been trumpeted by both President Trump himself and several of his confidantes and advisors, such as Steve Bannon and Newt Gingrich.

As many others have noted, the term deep state has foreign origins, is arguably not applicable to the United States, and even applying the notion might have dangerous effects regardless of whether it is applicable.

Some scholars tend to define the deep state in the US more narrowly, such as focusing on intelligence and security agencies like the CIA. However, the use of the term by Trump and his supporters is aimed at the bureaucracy as a whole, focusing primarily on leaks of embarrassing or unfavorable information.

Is there a deep state within the federal bureaucracy? If not, what is causing the deep and heated fights between the bureaucrats and the new administration?

What is a Deep State?

On the question of whether there is a deep state in the bureaucracy, it is important to define a deep state. For an organization to be a deep state, it must have three characteristics:

  1. It must be unofficial.
  2. It must be effective.
  3. It has interests that are independent of the popular will.

When you put these together, the typical product is a shadowy, powerful, conservative force, perfectly designed for conspiracy theorists. Viewed as a unitary force, a deep state represents a purposive, coherent actor manipulating the political and economic processes.

The Federal Bureaucracy as a Deep State

The federal bureaucracy certainly satisfies the first two criteria. While federal agencies are official organs of authority, resistant acts like leaks and foot-dragging are unofficial and effective actions. However, it is not clear that “the bureaucracy” has a significantly independent interest. Of course, many civil servants want to keep their jobs, but when one scans across the whole of the government, it is impossible to pin down a common policy or ideological goal that would describe the interests of the bureaucracy.

So, from this viewpoint the federal bureaucracy is not a deep state in the pure sense. More simply, the bureaucracy is a (large) array of people in various institutions that have varying incentives, but are unified by the fact that Mr. Trump is now, at least in some sense, their “boss.” As all employees and citizens, these people do not necessarily like change and — even when they do support or accept it — tend to have their own opinions about how it should occur.

Resistance or Confusion?

The federal bureaucracy is huge, with approximately two million civilian employees. As with any large organization, the day-to-day functioning of the government requires significant coordination. Accordingly, Trump’s early actions met resistance within the bureaucracy because these actions were not well coordinated, at least partly because they did not conform to normal procedures.

For example, Trump reportedly did not consult with the relevant agencies (such as the Department of Homeland Security) about his first executive order on immigration. Trump’s “communications strategy” has marginalized traditional channels of communication and consultation within the executive branch: even his closest aides reportedly have little to no foreknowledge of Trump’s public statements.

Personnel is Policy

To the degree that he is facing resistance based on policy or ideological grounds (as is arguably the case in the EPA leaks), Trump’s experience right now is not new. Especially after a change in party control of the White House, all new presidents face a challenge of putting like-minded individuals into policy positions while also keeping the government running. For example, President Eisenhower faced a bureaucracy staffed with twenty years of Democratic appointees, many of whom had been given civil service protections by President Truman. In an attempt to purge — or at least sideline — these appointees, Eisenhower issued Executive Order 10440. This order provided flexibility in replacing Truman appointees who were seen as not being loyal to the president’s agenda. Key to the success of this approach, however, is finding and appointing like-minded individuals.

This is where Trump is failing so far. Trump has already issued a handful of Executive Orders aimed at the bureaucracy, directing it to both reduce regulations and report on how to reorganize itself. However, as with Eisenhower’s experience, Trump’s real problem with the bureaucracy is not that it is a deep state. Rather, Trump has nominated or appointed only a handful of people to date, and he has suggested that he wants to leave many positions unfilled.

Shallow Vision, Rather than a Deep State?

The Trump Administration’s difficulties to date with the bureaucracy are more likely caused by a disinterest — at the very top — in policy. While some of Mr. Trump’s lieutenants appear to have goals (e.g., Steve Bannon), it is hard to discern the answer to a critical question.

What, exactly, is Trump’s agenda?

Mr. Trump has ordered bureaucratic agencies to report on lots of things, such as (1) how to circumscribe the Affordable Care Act, (2) which regulations should be scrapped, and (3) how to reorganize the bureaucracy. Similarly — like many presidents — Trump ordered a hiring freeze, fired US Attorneys, and froze regulatory actions started in his predecessor’s administration. But, aside from immigration policy, his official actions have thus far essentially been policy-free.

The Proposed Budget

Mr. Trump’s proposed budget and the reactions to it — including from some Republican members of Congress — illustrate a clear lack of policy goals beyond, at most, immigration and “spending more on defense.”

The American Health Care Act (AHCA)

Mr. Trump’s role to date in the stalled efforts of health care reform is best described as exhortative: the plan, to date, has been essentially crafted entirely by the House GOP leadership. Mr. Trump even stated publicly that

“It’s an unbelievably complex subject. Nobody knew that healthcare could be so complicated.

And — perhaps unsurprisingly — it does not appear that Mr. Trump currently has a team of experts actively involved in the crafting of health care, during the public debates surrounding the AHCA, Tom Price — the newly confirmed Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), which administers the Affordable Care Act — was barely noticed. Mr. Price’s most high-profile statement was a statement that he “strenuously disagreed” with the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) report that estimated that AHCA, would, by 2026, reduce the number of insured individuals by 24 million while reducing the federal deficit by $337 billion over that period.

Jared Kushner’s Reform Efforts

Trump has assigned his son-in-law Jared Kushner — who is facing scrutiny in the investigations into ties between Trump’s campaign and Russia — the responsibility of leading the “White House Office of American Innovation.” Dubbed a “SWAT team,” this new office’s mission is to reform the federal bureaucracy so that it operates more like a (presumably efficient) business.

This might seem like a nuanced task, one that takes seriously the wide variety of missions, resources, and goals of the various agencies of the federal government. Nonetheless, on Sunday, Mr. Trump described this massive endeavor in simple terms to The Washington Post:

“All Americans, regardless of their political views, can recognize that government stagnation has hindered our ability to properly function, often creating widespread congestion and leading to cost overruns and delays … I promised the American people I would produce results, and apply my ‘ahead of schedule, under budget’ mentality to the government.”

It’s very common for politicians to blame the bureaucracy for inefficiency. The difference in this case — in line with the proposed budget and the halting attempts at leadership on health care reform — is that there are no explicit, tangible policy goals or targets. The bureaucracy is filled with bureaucrats, most of whom have spent — and plan to spend — many years tackling policy problems. They are not, as a lot, interested in inefficiency or red tape. These properties of bureaucratic decision-making are the product of many forces, including both the complexity of coordinating thousands or even millions of individuals’ decisions (something that all large organizations confront) and the unique demands placed on a public bureaucracy, such as attempting to ensure that principles such as due process, transparency, accountability, and equal access are protected in the decision-making process.

As long as Trump’s bureaucratic agenda consists primarily of attacking the bureaucracy, there’s little reason to think that resistance from within the bureaucracy indicates some shadowy deep state apparatus. Rather, it is better described as the inevitable effects of disorganization and a lack of direction from the top.