White House

The Deep State Past and Present

Former IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman (left) and IRS official Lois Lerner testify at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on alleged targeting of political groups seeking tax-exempt status, May 22, 2013. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
The so-called deep state is often weaponized to reflect current orthodoxies.

All great empires of the past created deep states.

The permanent bureaucracies and elite hangers-on adapted as imperial conditions dictated. Imperial Spain’s El  Escorial outside Madrid, the courts of Renaissance Venice, and Byzantium’s Constantinople, or the thousands who lived at 18th-century Versailles, were all thronged with court functionaries. They were the embryos of nonstop dramas of intrigue and coups, and often immune to periodic changes even in autocratic heads of state.

The Byzantine emperor Justinian savagely curbed the influence of his bureaucratic opponents only through the infamous slaughter of the Nika riots of AD 532. The key for the deep-state careerist was always survival, even more than public service. The ubiquitous fifth-century B.C. Athenian Alcibiades was variously an Athenian democratic imperialist, a suspected oligarchic sympathizer, a wanted outlaw of the Athenian state, a turncoat working for Sparta, a returning Athenian democrat, and an aristocratic exile under the protection of Persia — the common denominator being a manipulative skilled survivor of the politics of the Greek city-state.

Similar was the much later example of the “versatile” French minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord. Talleyrand for more than 40 years was a fixture of the permanent Paris court and thus in succession an advocate and betrayer of the Ancien Régime, the French Revolution, Napoleon, and the restored monarchy. His loyalty was to the career of Monsieur Talleyrand rather than to France, much less to monarchy, the revolution, republican government, or dictatorship.

Since the U.S. post-war era, the yearly growth of American state and federal government has been exponential. By 2017, there were nearly 3 million civilian federal workers and another 1.3 million Americans in the uniformed military. Over 22 million local, state, and federal workers had made government the largest employment sector. The three largest American unions were respectively the National Education Association (mostly teachers and public-education staff ), Service Employees International Union, and the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees. All routinely endorsed progressive candidates. Unions as a rule in the 21st century have grown only among government workers. Over the past four decades, the vast majority of public employees without master’s or doctoral degrees have usually achieved compensation packages higher than their private-sector counterparts. Union membership until 2018 was mandatory for many public employees. Until stopped by a Supreme Court decision, dues had pro forma been automatically deducted by their unions, regardless of actual membership status.

Bureaucracies had become politicized on the premise that big government both required high taxes that Democrats more than Republicans ensured, and could be weaponized to further political agendas and avoid cutbacks in state employment and its compensation. Most federal unions gave far greater donations to Democratic than Republican candidates. According to a report in the Hill, in 2016 about 95 percent of all donations from federal workers to the two presidential campaigns went to Hillary Clinton — apparently on the premise that her agenda of greater regulation, higher taxes, and more entitlements would, in particular, translate into more federal jobs and higher salaries, and in general support a shared philosophy that the administrative state plays the central role in American life and culture.

The insidious power of the unelected administrative state is easy to understand. After all, it governs the most powerful aspects of modern American life: taxes, surveillance, criminal-justice proceedings, national security, and regulation. The nightmares of any independent trucker or small-business person are being audited by the IRS, having communications surveilled, or being investigated by a government regulator or prosecutor.

The reach of the deep state ultimately is based on two premises. One, improper government-worker behavior is difficult to audit or at least to be held to account, given that it is protected both by union contracts and civil-service law. And, two, a government appointee or bureaucrat has the unlimited resources of the state behind him, while the targeted private citizen in a federal indictment, tax audit, or regulation violation not only does not, but is assumed also not to have the means even to provide an adequate legal defense.

Lois Lerner, director of the Exempt Organizations division of the IRS, more or less got away with targeting mostly conservative groups before the 2012 election. She had ensured that dozens of nonprofits would not receive prompt tax-exempt status and ostensibly oppose Obama’s agendas. Eric Holder’s Justice Department surveilled various Associated Press reporters and especially Fox News’s James Rosen on the suspicion that they were receiving leaked information from Obama administration sources.

The so-called deep state is often weaponized to reflect current orthodoxies. In the past 30 years its operating premises have embraced multiculturalism, feminism, and identity-politics diversity — more or less the sacred tenets that Trump has targeted. Between 2009 and 2016 the Obama administration, to take one example, had recalibrated the war on terror and had hoped to change its reality through the use of state-sanctioned euphemisms. Obama sought to use the apparat to institutionalize the notion that radical Islam had no intrinsic connection with terrorism, and that adherents of Islam had no greater propensity to incite violence against Westerners than did followers of other religions — political correctness that Donald Trump campaigned against throughout 2016.

For which he’d never be forgiven.

Editor’s Note: This essay is adapted from Victor Davis Hanson’s new book, The Case for Trump.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Case for Trump.

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