The Mythical Land of Deep State

Donald Trump pledged to “drain the swamp” when he took office in 2017. Steve Bannon went further, calling for “deconstruction of the administrative state” itself with aims to “destroy all of today’s establishment.”

Trump, Bannon and their followers believe that American society is controlled by the “Deep State,” an evil conspiratorial cabal. A vast army of conspirators embedded throughout the federal bureaucracy and judiciary is draining the “vitality and wealth of the people,” subverting all that is decent and moral. This calls to mind Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove as he obsessed about the “conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.”

Scene from Dr. Strangelove.

There’s no denying the federal government is plagued by intransigent problems that persist across administrations of both parties. Trump’s populist rise to power was only possible because everyday people suffer the consequences of government’s failures and shortcomings. Trump tapped into this discontent, but unfortunately misused it to advance his own self-interest.

There is no Deep State. There is no evil cabal. There are no vast conspiracies.

This doesn’t mean that distrust in government is unwarranted. The government that claims to be working for us — the average citizen and worker — isn’t truly acting with our best interests in mind. Question is why and how. If there’s no Deep State, what’s happening?

Class-Divided Society

We live in a capitalist society. As such, our society is divided into classes. At some level we all recognize this when we refer to the working class versus the middle class versus (euphemistically) the “upper class.” I say euphemistically because the term “upper class” obscures its real nature. It is, in fact, a ruling class.

I find many people balk at this idea. It’s hard to deny that some people have great wealth and influence, but how can they be rulers? This is a democracy, a constitutional republic. Everyone has an equal vote at the polls. On the surface this is true. But looking deeper we see the deck is stacked in many ways.

Source: Aspen Institute, derived using data from the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances and Distributional Financial Accounts

As shown in the chart above, the bottom 50% of families in the United States possess less than 3% of all wealth in all its forms (cash, investments, property, etc.). The top 10% possesses 69% of all wealth — and most of that is actually held by the top 1%.

With this vast and almost inconceivable wealth, these super-rich families set the parameters in which society operates. While we enjoy many freedoms day to day and ostensibly free elections, this ruling class sets the rules and defines the limits. We’re “free,” but only within the parameters they set.

Such power has no need for conspiracies. This ruling class has no need to plot schemes. They quite simply act within their enlightened self-interest, and they have the wherewithal to get their way. They have access and sway with Congress, the president, the cabinet, regulators, the media, corporate boards, etc., that none of us have down here in the bottom 50%.

This doesn’t mean the rulers have total carte blanche. In order to maintain the consent of the majority and not trigger revolt, they’re forced at times to yield to political pressure and demands from the masses. Social Security, the 40-hour week, women’s suffrage, the Voting Rights Act and similar advances were forced upon the ruling class by pressure from below.

Even as we win such advances, the rulers chip away at the edges where they can. Under capitalism, consequently, there is a perpetual class struggle — another term I find many balk at. Class struggle in America?

Think of it this way: As individuals we all know the low level tension that exists between us and our boss. Over time we press for better pay, hours, conditions and benefits that are more to our liking. The boss perhaps makes a few concessions, but mostly resists or contains our demands as much as possible. This is the micro level one-on-one. At the macro level across all society, this is the class struggle.

Career Civil Servants

Living in the United States, most of us have never known a system other than capitalism. Same with our parents and grandparents. We see capitalism like the seasons or the weather. It’s part of the natural order of things. We may dislike this or that, just like rainy weekends. But it’s life. It’s how the world is.

For those who believe in the Deep State, career civil servants are the foot soldiers of the evil cabal. They carry out the conspiracies.

In reality, career civil servants are nothing of the sort. I know because I was a career civil servant myself for 31 years at the municipal level. For over three decades I worked closely with people and officials at the city, county, state and federal levels. To a person, they have all been average people like you and me. The only difference is they worked in government. They could just as easily have been a teacher, salesperson, mechanic, shopkeeper… anything.

None were driven by ulterior motives. Instead, they did their best to achieve the goals of their departments or agencies, which they believed were in the best interests of the community and the country. It’s true their perceptions were molded by the general worldview that capitalism is a natural and superior system — but that’s true of the population at large, including those who think there’s a Deep State.

Believers in the Deep State are against a lot of things, but I haven’t heard a single one oppose capitalism. They oppose the conspirators, but not the overall capitalist structure in which they believe conspirators operate. In fact, many want completely unfettered capitalism… that is, probably, until they come out on the losing end of deregulation.


Government regulations are the bane of existence to conservatives, populists, MAGAs and Deep Staters. It’s said that regulations are how the Deep State conspirators carry out their evil doings. It’s said that regulation stifle free enterprise, saddle business with excessive costs, hurt consumers with high prices, and restrict individual freedoms. Politicians love to promise they’ll slash regulations or boast that they’ve done so.

While people claim to hate regulations, all it takes is a plane crash, a train derailment, food contamination or other incident to trigger a clamoring for accountability. Why was this allowed to happen?! Who didn’t do what they were supposed to do?! (Which is to say, “Who didn’t follow the regulations?!” Or, “Why wasn’t there a rule to prevent this?!)

From the national level on down to the neighborhood level, regulations are essential. A homeowner on a quiet residential street will quickly see the necessity for zoning, for instance, if their next door neighbor erects a 10-foot fence, starts a commercial auto repair out of their garage or runs a tattoo parlor in their house.

The latter portion of my career in government was spent enforcing a regulation under the Federal Highway Administration (FHA) and Housing and Urban Development (HUD) called the Uniform Relocation Act (URA). These regulations protect tenants and property owners displaced by any project paid with federal funds: a new highway, airport expansion, housing development, commercial or industrial development, park development, etc.

Under the URA people cannot be thrown out their apartments or have their properties taken without just compensation. For example, tenants displaced from their apartments are entitled to 48 months worth of rental assistance, or 60 months in some cases, as well as moving costs and packing. The URA requires that replacement apartments and homes be certified as Decent, Safe and Sanitary. We would come up with several alternatives for people to choose from and would help them with transportation if needed to see them.

Being displaced from one’s home is an upsetting experience, but sometimes it’s impossible to avoid. It felt wonderful, frankly, helping people through these difficult transitions, usually leaving them in a better situation than where they had been initially.

So What’s the Answer?

As I said at the beginning here, the federal government is plagued by intransigent problems that persist across administrations of both parties. These are rooted in the inherent inequalities of capitalism, not the imagined dastardly doings of individual government workers. Even when the economy looks good on paper — unemployment is officially 3.8% currently — the reality on the street doesn’t match the glowing picture painted by President Biden. This official unemployment rate ignores so-called “discouraged workers” who’ve given up looking for work or those that hold 2 or 3 jobs to cobble together an adequate income.

The ultimate solution is beyond the scope of this essay, although I personally believe the answer is to replace capitalism with socialism. I explained the reasoning and benefits in an essay on Cuba that I posted in December 2016 (click here).

My purpose today is simply to try and put to rest this notion of a “Deep State.” I’m not that optimistic I’ll succeed. There’s great appeal and satisfaction in conspiracy theories with their often sweeping and airtight explanations. But dig below the surface a bit for corroborating evidence and they fall apart — that is, unless fantasies and biases are accepted as substitutes for material or historical fact.

I’ve seen attendees at MAGA rallies claim that Biden is dead and what we see now are body doubles or holograms. That pretty much ends the discussion.

Title image: Shutterstock/Benjamin Clapp

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