Every few years, a word or bit of terminology comes along and captures the political imagination. During the George W. Bush years, the magic word was “neocon.” For years, it was used as a term of abuse by the Left; later, it was adopted as a term of abuse by some elements of the Right. What they had in common is that neither camp had the faintest idea of what the word meant.
“Neoconservative” was first brought to popular usage in the American context by left-wing intellectuals (the socialist Michael Harrington most prominent among them) to describe the thinking of a few critics of American progressivism and the American Left — especially Irving Kristol and Daniel Patrick Moynihan — who didn’t smell like conservatives. The classical conservative — the cartoon conservative — was Babbitt, a Midwestern businessman who was Republican, conformist, and, above all, anti-intellectual. Kristol was a Jewish intellectual from New York and a former Trotskyist; Moynihan was a Kennedy confidante, a diplomat, and, eventually, a Democratic senator. The neoconservatives, in essence, were those who began criticizing progressivism from within. Eventually Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, among others, would embrace the label.
Before the neocons were the neocons, they were in more fanciful minds “the Illuminati.” For Henry Ford, the neocon was “the international Jew.” (The Stalinists called them “rootless cosmopolitans,” a term recently revived by Donald Trump enthusiasts.) The idea is always the same: that somebody, somewhere, is operating secretly behind the scenes, that there is a covert, monolithic enemy pulling the strings of history in ways that are obscure to the uninitiated. The reality of George W. Bush’s “democracy project” program for the Middle East — to bomb the Arabs until they became Canadians — just wasn’t crazy enough for his critics. There needed to be something more.
But it is a complicated family tree. The neocons used to be the Illuminati, but then, so did the new favorite conservative bugbear: the Deep State.
“Deep State” is a term that has been around for a while, often being used to describe extralegal political action in authoritarian regimes, especially in Turkey. The “Deep State” became a favorite conspiracy villain of the American Left, who described it as a nexus between the military, militarized law-enforcement agencies, the intelligence community, Wall Street (of course), and a few powerful political and business figures. An invisible enemy is very handy for the Left: It could not possibly be socialism that has reduced Venezuela to its current condition — it must be Goldman Sachs colluding with the CIA. The “Deep State” is sometimes conflated with what the political theorist (and, later in life, outright kook) Sam Francis called the “permanent government,” the bureaucrats and apparatchiks and such who remain in power irrespective of the outcome of any given election. They were a lot less scary back when they were “the civil service.”
“Deep State” and “permanent government” of course refer to real things. The federal government really does have employees, and those employees do not change every time the composition of Congress changes, every time there is a presidential election, or every time there is a change in policy. And as we have seen everywhere from the LAPD to the IRS, government agents have interests of their own — political and economic — and will, from time to time, go to extraordinary and even criminal lengths to frustrate the intent of the people’s elected representatives, to flout policy, to undermine real or perceived opponents, etc. That’s what Mrs. Clinton’s e-mail shenanigans were really about: The chief bureaucrat in the State Department had (and, I suppose, has) political ambitions, and she was willing to go to great lengths to avoid ordinary oversight in order to pursue those ambitions.
It isn’t the ‘Deep State’ that is making President Donald Trump look like an amateur. It is amateurism.
Where the current critics on the right go wrong — where they veer from criticism into conspiracy theory — is in assuming that the aims and ambitions of the various power centers within the federal bureaucracy are identical or aligned, that they represent a monolithic interest group that is both capable of coordinating efforts across the vast federal apparatus and inclined to do so. That creates exactly what the kooks and quacks and demagogues of the world most need: a nice, vague enemy that can be blamed for practically anything.
It isn’t the “Deep State” that is making President Donald Trump look like an amateur. It is amateurism.
It is not the “Deep State” that prevents, say, serious reform of the financial-services industry. If you want to understand why Wall Street reform seems so difficult, you should begin by considering the fact that Wall Street’s most energetic critics do not understand what Wall Street does and have no interest in taking the time to learn. The most concrete banking-reform measure Bernie Sanders ever proposed before the financial crisis was a cap on ATM fees. You don’t need a “Deep State” to outmaneuver enemies like that. Bernie Sanders couldn’t outmaneuver Mr. Magoo.
Watching Barack Obama careering around Syria policy was enough to make one wish there were some highly capable men in black behind the scenes pushing him in the right direction — they could hardly have done worse.
Neocons, globalists, the Deep State, the shadow government, the International Jew, the Illuminati — it is nice to have someone to blame, especially if that someone does not exactly exist.
(Any errors in this column are the fault of my intern, Skippy.)
This is sloppy and stupid, and it is counterproductive, too. Team Trump’s first-down fumble on immigration and congressional Republicans’ apparent surrender on the Affordable Care Act are not the result of arcane and shadowy forces acting against the American interest — they are the result of choices made by identifiable people, and those people have got to go. But that is not going to get done if you spend your days hunting the political equivalent of the Loch Ness Monster. President Trump likes to read the tabloids, but presumably it was not Bat Boy advising him on that first executive order on refugees. The irony is that all this chasing after shadows instead of undertaking the hard and thankless business of governing is one of the things that empower those unaccountable bureaucrats and the time-servers in the alphabet-soup agencies. You think they’re sitting around having debates about how many neocons can dance on the head of a pin?
There is an ancient superstition that to name something is to assert power over it. (The members of some ancient tribes kept their real names secret and had secondary names for public use.) But giving the figments of your imagination a name and an involved back-story doesn’t make them real. It just makes you nuts.
— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.