Deep State—Part 1


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

Three Presidents

Three presidents spoke at a funeral
Of love, and courage, and character,
Of better angels,
Lifting a nation’s spirits.

Three presidents,
Different in so many ways,
Admiring another man’s character
For raising a nation’s spirit and
Calling to its better angels.

Three presidents spoke like beacons
To the light within our souls,
Seeking one light
To guide one nation
Out of the dark.

Feeling Useless

I’ve been feeling useless lately, and looking for an explanation. First, I wondered if retirement from a challenging career had caught up with me, but I left my work with the Court ten years ago and this feeling is new, so that was probably not it. Covid isolation was another likely suspect, with its disruption of comfortable patterns and interruption of intimate social intercourse, but wouldn’t that more likely cause feelings of loneliness than of uselessness? It’s not like I’m not still productive in that retiree sort of way—reading and writing, helping friends and neighbors, building and fixing things, etc.–but for some reason that no longer feels like enough. The problem, I’ve decided, is the enormous gap between the problems I see and my ability to help. After a lifetime of problem solving and public service, I no longer feel like part of the solution. I suspect I’m not alone. Continue reading “Feeling Useless”

What I’d Hope Joe Biden Would Say

In Erik Larson’s new book, The Splendid and The Vile, Winston Churchill leads England through twelve months of incessant German bombing that killed 45,000 Britons and wounded countless more. His responsibilities for mobilizing the material and human resources needed to meet that challenge were extraordinary. By his own example, with oratory that lifted spirits even as it reported hard facts, and with heart wrenching empathy for his nation’s suffering, Churchill inspired his fellow citizens to hold together in resistance to Hitler’s attacks. And all while he was diplomatically nurturing an alliance with the United States he believed would be needed to win the war. The contrast to America’s leadership today is breathtaking. Continue reading “What I’d Hope Joe Biden Would Say”

Looking Forward from Corona

As Naomi Klein explained in her 2007 book, Shock Doctrine, extreme circumstances and fear can make choices a society once considered unacceptable suddenly seem necessary and appropriate. For better or worse, these choices can re-set people’s expectations and become a new normal. From such disruption dictators can arise. But valuable lessons and changes for the better can also take hold and possibly endure. We would be wise to notice and cultivate re-sets that lift us, personally and socially. Here are three on my list. Continue reading “Looking Forward from Corona”

Change In a Crisis

As Naomi Klein explained in “Shock Doctrine,” sudden social and economic disruptions provide opportunities to advance deep cultural change. Ideas on the periphery of mainstream thinking can be re-introduced in the midst of distracting turmoil, when standard notions are in flux and maybe not seen as working. The Corona virus is presenting the world, and Americans, with opportunities and choices that will reveal our core values, individually and collectively. It’s a good time to ask what we want. Continue reading “Change In a Crisis”

Tipping Point

Maybe it’s only through hindsight that we can see when a society’s slide into authoritarianism becomes inevitable. Historians say democracies die from within. One can imagine ordinary citizens mistaking the increasing drama for politics as usual. And it’s easy to see how those benefitting from the concentration of power would tell themselves they can always stop the authoritarian leader from “going too far.” Until they can’t. At some point their own investment becomes too great, their culpability too obvious, and their own vulnerability to the authoritarian too certain to risk opposing him. Continue reading “Tipping Point”