Surveying the dramatic impact of Mr. Trump’s presidency on the nation, I find myself particularly offended by his insistence that the professional federal government exists to serve his personal political needs, and even more by his manipulation of the entire bureaucracy to make it do so. He did the same with the Republican Party, of course, but politicians are independent actors who can choose to participate or not. Not so with government employees. Uniformed or civilian, civil servants have hierarchical chains of command they are professionally obligated to obey until a higher obligation to the country or the Constitution demands otherwise. As I hope to explain in three coming essays, a long career in multiple levels and branches of government tells me much of what Mr. Trump complains of as “deep state” resistance is arising from conflicts between his destructive agenda and government employees’ perceived obligations to their country. And appropriately so.
To help evaluate this perspective, a bit of personal historical context might be helpful.
The earliest exposure to politics and government I can remember was hearing JFK call on Americans to “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Patriotism meant service to country. Public service was honorable. Government’s role as economic problem solver and protector of democracy had been set by post-Depression New Deal programs and winning World War II.
Public derision of “government,” began in my lifetime with Ronald Reagan’s cheeky comment about government being the problem, not the solution. It deepened as government’s cultural counterpoint, the “private sector,” regained dominance. As the pace of economic competition quickened and international commerce grew, government’s bureaucratic processes looked stodgy by comparison. Ayn Rand and libertarians were complaining bitterly that government was standing in the way of capitalism’s readiness to raise all boats and solve all problems. Business attacked labor unions, conflating them with a “bloated” civil service bureaucracy, all of which they said obstructed opportunity and growth.
As businesses and the American economy grew heroically in the latter half of the 20th century, business leaders began equating capitalism with democracy itself, arguing that any interference with free enterprise was akin to evil socialism or worse, godless communism. The distinction in the public mind between Capitalism as an economic system and Democracy as a system of governance was largely lost. The idea that a government for the people should make rules affecting business practices and distribution of resources was swamped by a nearly religious belief that the invisible hand of capitalism could and would manage society’s needs better without government interference. “What’s good for business is good for America” was a mantra that became a doctrine. As wealth grew increasingly concentrated, the ability of moneyed interests to dictate American policy also grew until today they view the role of government as little more than a tool to advance their private ambitions. This narrow, exploitative view of government is now crudely and clearly expressed in the presidency of self-declared billionaire Donald Trump.
From 1972, when I graduated from law school, to 2011 when I retired from the Federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, I worked as an executive in two city-county councils of governments, and spent 28 years as a senior executive in the federal judiciary. Those experiences with government workers and systems helped to shape a view of government offered in three essays to follow this one in weekly installments. I believe the idea of a “deep state” is both accurate and apt–not as a secret cabal of self-appointed resisters to a particular political agenda, but as a proudly held belief in service to the country and its people. I hope by the end to convince you to respect and protect public employees as the backbone of democracy