The spectre of a “deep state” has served as a useful scapegoat in Donald Trump’s presidency, the alleged locus of resistance to his reign. Early on in his book In Deep, David Rohde, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, asks “whether a ‘deep state’ exists in America.” At the start of his final chapter, he concludes, “There is no ‘deep state.’” But in the intervening pages, he raises more questions than he answers. He begins with a brisk history of the phrase, which is rooted in Egypt and Turkey, where the military ran everything and nipped the slightest buds of democratic reform. The former Berkeley professor Peter Dale Scott first applied it to American military and intelligence elites, in a book entitled The Road to 9/11. The alt-right adopted it in December 2016, after an anonymous author, using the pen name Virgil, wrote “The Deep State vs Donald Trump,” a 4,000-word article in Breitbart News, then edited by Steve Bannon, who was also Trump’s chief strategist. Virgil broadened the term to encompass “the complex of bureaucrats, technocrats and plutocrats that likes things just the way they are” — including the “highly politicised” intelligence agencies and the “liberal apparatchiks” installed by President Barack Obama — who were now all engaged in “a great power struggle” with the newly elected president. Donald Trump himself first invoked the term, Mr Rohde reports, on June 16, 2017. He was retweeting a post by Sean Hannity, his favourite Fox News host, who had hawked a segment on his show that night on the ties between the “deep state” and the news media.
Did Messrs Trump and Bannon — does anyone in power — believe this conspiracy theory? Mr Rohde goes back and forth on the question. He notes in passing (more detail would have been welcome) that Mr Bannon fed the idea to Mr Trump as a way of getting him to “distrust the advice of career government officials who opposed Bannon’s policy goals.” Meanwhile, Mr Trump soon realised its power as a narrative device, invoking it last year at least 23 times. At times, Mr Rohde suggests there is a deep state, though he calls it “institutional government,” a term he chose “for its relative neutrality.” Its denizens don’t form “an organised plot,” but they do exhibit “bias, caution and turf consciousness.” And, he writes, “the Justice Department and the FBI and senior intelligence officials proved to be the most formidable resistance” the administration would encounter from within the federal government, initiating a “struggle for power that would define Trump’s presidency.” So, is there a deep state, though one with a more neutral name and less cabalistic motives than the conspiracy theorists portray? Much of the book charts the history of congressional oversight over the CIA and the FBI, beginning, in 1975, with the committee chaired by Senator Frank Church. Its hearings and subsequent report unveiled a long and gruesome string of assassinations, wiretaps and assorted skulduggery — after which Congress passed laws restricting these practices.
Mr Rohde appraises subsequent presidents, after Richard Nixon, by how faithfully they held to these Church-era reforms.