The recent crises in leadership in the federal government highlight why it’s essential to have government continuity. Strong democracies can survive a bizarre and unpredictable leader now and then. In the United States, people have severely suffered under the Trump Administration’s changes to policies like immigration, climate change, and health care. Some of you may have selected other social and public health issues, like education, reproductive rights, and human rights. Neglected and mutilated policies are begging for attention and improvement. I predict our recent vote showing a deep belief in democracy (66.3% of Americans voted in the 2020 presidential election, the highest since 1900, according to the Washington Post) and our professional bureaucracy will save us.
Government exists to protect and serve the people. Everyone depends on government services such as roads, schools, the police and fire departments, clean air and water, and the post office. If there were a profit to be made, the private sector would gladly oblige. But alas, there is no profit in ensuring that United States residents have enough to eat, a decent place to live, and health insurance to support their lives. These are government responsibilities, along with the protection of children, unemployment benefits, and civil rights enforcement. Not everyone needs these services, but they are the “safety net” for millions of people in the United States (more than 21%, according to a 2015 census report). More residents learned about the “safety net” during this pandemic due to job loss, illness, and other catastrophic occurrences.
Professional bureaucrats are government service employees who manage and sustain all these programs by doing their jobs in compliance with the law and best practices that have been developed over time. Many have worked in government for years and are experts in science, epidemiology, foreign policy, the law, health services, finance, immigration, military policy, education, and more. These experts execute the details of government machinery regardless of whether the Democrats or Republicans are in power. Each new president brings in appointees that oversee agencies, such as Health and Human Services, the CDC, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Professional bureaucrats, who are experts in their respective fields, generally advise their new agency leader.
President Trump brought many appointees to Washington who did not support the missions of the agencies they were running, including the U.S. Department of Education, Environmental Protection Agency, Health and Human Services, and the Post Office (now headed by a major Trump donor). For the most part, professional bureaucrats were not asked for their advice but instead were asked to implement changes that were at odds with the facts, their expertise, and sometimes the law.
When Trump was frustrated that his administration didn’t get its way, he started blaming the “deep state.” Was he referring to the experts who work for him? His own Justice Department? The FBI? Judges in the state and federal judicial branches? Yes. He had other descriptions for elected officials in Congress who disagreed with him.
This president, more than any other, misused language to his advantage skillfully. Where did the expression and meaning of “deep state” originate?
“Deep state” is translated from the Turkish derin devlet. The expression was used in Turkey in the 1990s, according to historian Ryan Gingeras and refers to “a ‘criminal’ or ‘rogue’ element that has somehow muscled their way into power.” In Turkey, this term referred to the military collaborating with drug traffickers and hitmen to perform their duties.
Mexico is an example of a country where the “deep state” merged the drug cartels and the Mexican government. Drug cartel members obtained official positions in the police hierarchy and made it almost impossible for presidents to eliminate them.
A “deep state” is not what we’re concerned about in America. We are concerned about a president who doesn’t understand what the phrase means. For Donald Trump, “deep state” are those parts of government that execute the work of government machinery regardless of whether the Democrats or Republicans are in power. The Food and Drug Administration became a “deep state” target in November. Trump accused the agency of delaying the announcement of the first Coronavirus vaccine (Pfizer) until the Sunday after the presidential election. “FDA and the Democrats didn’t want me to have a vaccine WIN prior to the election…” The Head of the FDA was a Trump appointee. In September, Trump chose Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman, serving in the White House and an epidemiologist from Atlanta, to single out for criticism. Referring to these experts as the “deep state” diminishes our country’s ability to provide the best services to our residents and share trust with the rest of the world.
David Rohde, an editor at The New Yorker and the author of In Deep: The FBI, The CIA, and the Truth about America’s “deep state,” argues that “the term ‘deep state’ has become a way for Trump and his supporters to deflect criticism. It’s their equivalent of terms like ‘fake news’ and ‘witch hunt.’” This inflammatory and disparaging language creates doubt in residents and reflects so negatively on the career civil servants who keep this nation afloat. We need the most qualified people to work in government, especially during a pandemic, and we need them to aspire to civil service as a career choice. The government needs to be trusted.
In my experience, public employees are committed to faithfully executing the laws, no matter which party is running Washington. I was one of these professional bureaucrats in Massachusetts for 20 years. As Deputy Comptroller, my job entailed oversight of payroll for 92,000 state employees, contracts for all purchases, and payment of all bills for goods and services purchased by the Commonwealth. It was challenging, rewarding, and an honor to serve.
On December 11, 2020, the Supreme Court (Trump appointed three of the nine justices) ruled that Texas lacked standing to pursue a lawsuit to overturn election results in four battleground states. The court said Texas “has not demonstrated a judicially cognizable interest in the manner in which another state conducts its elections.” This ruling is Trump’s “deep state,” the judicial branch of government doing its job, an outcome with which he vehemently disagrees. There were 60 similar election lawsuits filed by Trump allies, and 59 ruled against him. He still believes the election was stolen from him.
The same “deep state” professional bureaucrats in the FBI, the Justice Department, and police departments around the country are finding, investigating, and as appropriate, indicting those who attacked the U.S. Capital building last week. At the encouragement of the president, his supporters carried out an attack on one of our great American institutions while inside, Congress was certifying the votes of the people.
There is a new day coming on January 20th on which Trump will transfer to his next delusional state.