President Donald Trump’s son Eric was probably trying to make a joke when, on the day after New Year’s, he complained that his Twitter account was suggesting he start following Hillary Clinton, former President Barack Obama and talk show host Ellen DeGeneres, none of them exactly known for their affection for the Trump family. "Shocking," declared young Trump, deadpan, following it with the sinister hashtag #DeepState.
But Twitter is no place for nuance, and his message unleashed a firestorm of angry tweets from anti-Trumpers, calling him a paranoid idiot and worse. Among them was a reply from the famously droll DeGeneres. "What is the Deep State?" she asked. "Is it near Dollywood? Cause I’m in, if it is."
DeGeneres’ confusion is understandable. A couple of years ago, the only Americans who were familiar with the term Deep State were a handful of against-the-current political scientists and the readers of an obscure comic book about a wing of the FBI dedicated to covering up the fact that Russia beat America to the moon.
But since then, Deep State has entered the public lexicon with a vengeance. Congressmen promise to bust it to pieces. Trump says it’s taken control of the FBI. Right-wing podcasts warn it’s going to kill us all. Left-wing commentators grumble that their concept has been stolen and turned into a cartoon.
"You’ve got this strange meeting of the crazy left and the crazy right and they’re all onto this Deep State thing, and it’s entered into public parlance," says journalist-historian Max Holland, author of books on Watergate and the Kennedy assassination. "It used to be that crazy conspiracy thinking was mostly kept in one little box labeled JFK ASSASSINATION, but now it’s everywhere."
If that’s an exaggeration, it’s not by much. An ABC News/Washington Post poll last year showed that nearly half the people in America believe a Deep State — defined as "military, intelligence and government officials who try to secretly manipulate government policy" — is working behind the facade of the constitutional U.S. government.
The definition used by the poll does not necessarily match those used in public debate. What, exactly, the Deep State is depends on whom you talk to, from judicious political scientists who talk wonkily of the competing interests of government bureaucracies to wing-nuts like the guest on the uber-conservative Alex Jones radio show who wailed, "Trump will be killed. … They’re going to kill us, they’re going to kill him, they’re going to kill everybody!"
Though Trump and his allies have popularized the term, referring to what they believe is a covert coalition of government officials and institutions and their allies in big media organizations who are trying to thwart his policies, the concept of the Deep State precedes them by many years.
It originated in the 1920s to describe the iron-fisted clique of security officials and gangsters who pulled the strings — bloodily, if necessary — of Turkey’s puppet civilian government. The first to apply it to the United States was Peter Dale Scott, a leftist University of California scholar, in his 2007 book "The Road to 9/11," which wove a dark tapestry of covert conspiracy from events as diverse as the Kennedy assassination, Watergate and the Iran-contra scandal.
"There’s nothing crazy about the idea of the Deep State, of the idea that elites inside and outside the government wield power not assigned to them by the Constitution, irrespective of the will of voters," Scott told the Miami Herald. "The way the Trump people are using it may be cartoonish, but the idea isn’t."
He has plenty of respectable company in thinking so, including at least one former U.S. president. In 1961, more than four decades before Scott’s book, President Eisenhower warned the nation that "we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military–industrial complex."
"Eisenhower didn’t use the phrase, but he’s definitely talking about a Deep State there," says Joseph Uscinski, a University of Miami political scientist. "This is an idea that has been around for a long time."
That doesn’t necessarily make it correct, though, Uscinski adds, particularly in the somewhat casual way Trump and his supporters use the term.
"If you say the president faces bureaucratic resistance to his programs, that’s reasonably true," says Uscinski. "If you say government bureaucracies have their own agendas, that’s reasonably true. If you say a secret cabal in the FBI is trying to take down the president — well, that could be true. But you can’t just say it, you’ve got to provide evidence."
Not so long ago, the idea of the Deep State would have been dismissed out of hand by most Americans. In fact, it was. In 1956, sociologist C. Wright Mills published a study called "The Power Elite," which began: "The powers of ordinary men are circumscribed by the everyday worlds in which they live, yet even in these rounds of job, family and neighborhood they often seem driven by forces they can neither understand nor govern."
Mills’ Deep State-ish argument — that the country was actually ruled by an interlocking web of individuals from elite families who went to the same prep schools and universities, joined the same secret societies or eating clubs, sat on the same corporate boards and often intermarried — was initially dismissed as pure crackpot by respectable academia and journalism. The New York Times Book Review called it "an angry cartoon," Time magazine labeled it "sociological mumbo jumbo."
But within a decade, most college political science departments were assigning their students reading from Mills’ book. Its influence extended well beyond U.S. borders: Fidel Castro was an enthusiastic reader, and his speeches cadged from it, though without giving credit.
Revelations over the past 50 years about the dark underbelly of the U.S. government have undoubtedly opened American minds to more conspiratorial interpretations of the way Washington works. Does it sound crazy to compare the United States government to that of a lawless, coup-happy country like Turkey? Maybe.
But is that any less crazy than the fact — emphasis on fact — that the Pentagon planted a spy in the Nixon White House to steal secrets from the wastebaskets? Or that the CIA was dosing unsuspecting civilians with LSDto see if it would make them receptive to mind control? Or that the government was spying on people through their Xbox video games? (Edward Snowden, the rogue National Security Agency subcontractor who spilled the secrets about the Xbox, told The Nation magazine: "There’s definitely a Deep State. Trust me, I’ve been there.")
Even observers who are dubious about Trump’s claims that he’s the victim of a massive Washington cabal believe he may be facing a much milder version of the Deep State: stiff resistance from the government’s gargantuan bureaucracy, which, with its civil-service protections, stays in place as presidential administrations come and go.
Long-lived bureaucracies start to resemble living organisms that fight to protect their own turf, from each other and even more from elected officials, which the bureaucrats tend to regard as temporary pests who will be moving on soon.
"The problem gets worse when there are big ideological contrasts from one administration to the next," says Adam J. White, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and director of the Center for the Study of the Administrative State at George Mason University.
"For eight years, we had President Obama, possibly the most liberal president in history, and most of the people he hired probably shared his political vision. And now he’s been replaced by a guy who came promising to ‘drain the swamp’ of Washington. Even before President Trump took office, you had people announcing they would form ‘the resistance.’ I’m sure there are problems.
"Practically every president has, to some extent, quarreled with the bureaucracy. I was reading a biography of Henry Kissinger and it had this story about him — before he joined the government himself — going to visit his friend Arthur Schlesinger, who was a member of President John F. Kennedy’s staff. Kissinger says, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ and Schlesinger answers, ‘It’s just awful, we can’t get any of our programs through the bureaucracy, we’re practically dead in the water.’ So much for the New Frontier!"