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Opinion: Why The Term 'Deep State' Speaks To Conspiracy Theorists

Win McNamee
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The citizens of democracies have always been suspicious about concentrations of unelected power. In the late days of the Roman Republic, Cicero denounced the triumvirate who had usurped the role of the Senate as the imperium in imperio, or the government within the government. Nowadays, the alleged usurpers go by more pedestrian names: the invisible government, the hidden government, the shadow government.

Those names often reflect plausible concerns, sometimes about the lobbyists and business interests who shape regulations and policies, sometimes about the career civil servants who seem to care mostly about protecting their bureaucratic turf.

But the allegations can also tip over into the convoluted narratives of conspiracy theory, where people are covering bulletin boards with pins and string to show how everything's secretly connected to everything else.

The "deep state" story conforms to the intricate grammar of those conspiracy narratives. The term was marginal in American politics until it was picked up by Breitbart News in 2016 and quickly adopted by the president and his allies. The president has been appending it to his tweets as a kind of mantra: "Where is the DNC Server, and why didn't the FBI take possession of it? Deep State?"

It's an elastic label — depending on the occasion, it can encompass the Justice Department, the intelligence communities, the FISA courts, the Democrats and the media. In short, it's a cabal of unelected leftist officials lodged deep in the government who are conspiring to thwart the administration's policies, discredit its supporters and ultimately even overturn Trump's election.

It's gotten to the point where some of the president's defenders are describing the Russia investigation as an attempt to launch a "soft coup." That's not a phrase we're used to hearing in American political discourse. But then there's something alien about the phrase "deep state" itself. Until recently, it was chiefly used for developing countries like Turkey and Pakistan, where the government answers to "shadowy elites" in the military and intelligence services — and where coups and purges are routine occurrences.

Granted, not many people who talk about the "deep state" are aware of that origin. But there's a trace of those dark connotations in the very decision to talk about the "state" rather than the government. It's a marked choice of words.

In America, what usually comes to mind when you say "state" is the political units that make up the "United States," like Alabama or Wyoming. Apart from a few locutions like "church and state" or "state secrets," we don't often talk about "the state" the way other nations do — to refer to our central government or to the country as a whole.

And as William Safire noted in his Political Dictionary, when Americans do use "the state" that way, the word is freighted with totalitarian connotations. He pointed to phrases like "garrison state" and "police state." And you can add "state terrorism," "surveillance state" and above all "enemy of the state," a label that exists only in countries that make political opposition a criminal offense.

Liberal critics of Fox News take advantage of those connotations when they describe the network as "state television." The phrase brings to mind the media that serve as mouthpieces for autocratic regimes in China and Russia — not the government-run networks in New Zealand or France.

And conservatives rely on those same connotations to add a malign note to the epithets they use to denounce the overreach of government programs. Safire's Political Dictionary describes "welfare state" as an "attack phrase" that was synonymous with "creeping socialism." The American right borrowed "the nanny state" from British Conservatives during the Thatcher years, and "the regulatory state" was added a decade later.

When "the state" takes on that totalitarian color, it becomes a monolith that expands to fill every corner of society. That's the very definition of totalitarianism: As Mussolini put it, "Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state."

When conservatives condemn the evils of "statism" rather than of "big government," they tend to focus on the way the state infiltrates everyday life — the double yellow lines that forbid passing on empty rural blacktops or a ban on unpasteurized cheeses.

... the specter of the 'deep state' is chilling precisely because it seems to be so capable. Hidden from view, it orchestrates complex schemes across a half-dozen agencies, buries incriminating documents, compromises inconvenient opponents with spurious allegations.

It's that suggestion of ruthless efficiency that makes "the deep state" sound more ominous than a name like "the invisible government." We think of a government as a collection of people, with all their foibles and frailties. Recall the sarcastic quip that Ronald Reagan made famous: "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help.'" That's what the phrase "government bureaucrats" typically brings to mind — meddlesome bunglers who think they know our interests better than we do.

Whereas the specter of the "deep state" is chilling precisely because it seems to be so capable. Hidden from view, it orchestrates complex schemes across a half-dozen agencies, buries incriminating documents, compromises inconvenient opponents with spurious allegations.

The government and the state. Those are the twin bogeys of conservative rhetoric: the hapless functionaries who can never get their act together, the conniving ideologues who can. What's not clear is where the notion of a public servant fits in.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Geoff Nunberg is the linguist contributor on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
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