The New York Times, in a shocking break from protocol, ran an opinion piece last week from a person identified only as a senior official within the Trump administration. The anonymity seemed warranted, given that the op-ed described an active effort to thwart some of Donald Trump’s worst impulses. “This isn’t the work of the so-called deep state,” the official contended. “It’s the work of the steady state.”
It’s a good line, meant to assuage any Trump supporters anxious about anti-Trumpers embedded in the bureaucracy. Unfortunately, the op-ed only serves to underscore the “deep-state” conspiracy theory.
And a conspiracy theory it is. The phrase “deep state”, like “fake news”, has been repeated so consistently over the past few years that it’s easy to forget the work those slogans are doing. Like the birther conspiracy theory that launched Trump’s political career, the notion that there is an unseen bureaucracy that really holds the reins of power — and is united in dumping Trump — has little basis in reality, even with the anonymous op-ed.
It’s not hard to see why so many Americans believe in an all-powerful deep state. In the aftermath of the election, Twitter accounts that purported to represent Trump opponents embedded in the executive branch proliferated. Alt-govt accounts popped up for nearly every government agency, ranging from the Federal Election Commission to the Labor Department to the National Parks Service.
But while many of these accounts are in fact run by people connected with those agencies, they hardly represent a rogue government out of sight. That they have taken to social media is in fact a sign of how little power they have: were they able to really manipulate the levers of power, they wouldn’t have to rely on Twitter to convince people some in the government are resisting Trump’s agenda.
These accounts do, however, help fuel the deep-state conspiracy. For people invested in believing there is a conspiracy under way to unmake the Trump presidency, such accounts serve as proof that they’re right.
As does the unsigned op-ed. The content of the op-ed is unremarkable. Reporting has revealed the bizarre ways administration officials have sought to block Trump’s most destructive moves, from ignoring orders to taping back together documents he illegally destroyed. But in flaunting those efforts in the op-ed, the writer simply reaffirmed what Trump supporters have long believed: the deep state is out to get Donald Trump.
Trump is, of course, not the first president to face dissension in the ranks. Battles between Andrew Johnson and his secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, grew so rancorous that Johnson was ultimately impeached (though not convicted). Nor are Trump supporters the first to wring their hands about a deep-state conspiracy. Senator Joe McCarthy made his career peddling such theories.
What is different with the Trump administration is that the president himself is promoting the deep-state conspiracy, presenting himself as an embattled man of the people, punished for his attempts to drain the swamp. And his base, trained to demonstrate their support by parroting his claims, has gone all in.
Of course, the situation described in the op-ed hardly suggests that a deep-state coup is under way. The official describes episodic interventions, usually in the form of hiding a piece of paper or distracting the easy-distractible Commander in Chief. And while it is indeed worrisome that the president is so easily manipulated, those events hardly amount to a rogue government operating out of sight. The official is right: this is not the work of the so-called deep state.
But it’s not the work of the so-called steady state either. Officials unhappy with Trump’s lack of discipline undoubtedly dream of a steadier state. They have a lot of items on their conservative wish list, and it would be so much easier to check those items off if they didn’t have to spend a fair amount of time managing the President. That has not, however, resulted in any real steadiness. Throughout the campaign, advisors tried again and again to rein in Trump. And every time he followed their script, he immediately doubled down on his original idea, whether on trade or foreign policy or the inherent righteousness of the white nationalists who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia last year.
The op-ed taught us none of this, of course. Trump’s capriciousness has been thoroughly reported. The piece itself was instead about preening, making the case for the “unsung heroes” of the Trump administration: the people working every day to carry out his agenda, and who, occasionally, ignore his more immoderate statements.
The op-ed instead added fuel to the fire of the deep-state conspiracy, while offering nothing of value to the rest of us.
Which is why it’s a bit of mystery why The New York Times ran it. To be sure, there is something titillating about the insider voice. But to offer the cloak of anonymity without demanding details about genuine resistance to Trump is to get the short end of the stick. More than that: it helps advance a conspiracy theory that not only misleads Americans about how their government functions, but helps wean them away from a reliance on fact-based reporting — very thing the Times was created to defend.