During the raging Coronavirus epidemic, in March of 2020, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Anthony Fauci, broke his usually professional demeanor in a press conference. This occurred when the President referred to the State Department as the “deep State Department” and Fauci put his head in his hands after the comment in dismay. Trump was making his usual jabs using his catchphrase “deep state” to signal to political allies his long-held view that “deep state,” or bureaucracy, is working against him and his administration. Factual errors are abundant in the Trump administration, however, his unfounded demonization of the “deep state” is far more insidious than simply his normal everyday lies. This demonization is Trump’s attempt to break down the last institution of government that can provide a check to his power. Trump is trying to constantly undermine and delegitimize the experts and bureaucracy in order to cement his populist notion that “I alone can solve the problem.” In the minds of the American public, this has been quite a resonant message, with many of his supporters blindly accepting his fantastical claims. In the novel era of the Coronavirus pandemic, this rift between Trump and his bureaucratic “enemies” highlights how Trump is willing to break down these vital institutions, leading to erosion of the core tenets of modern democracy.
Unlike the feudal empires of medieval times, modern democratic welfare states require an incredibly large infrastructure of organizing and planning to make and research, optimal rules and regulations that must be implemented in order to live in a well-functioning society. This is the bureaucracy; or, as Trump refers to with a negative connotation: “deep state.” Unlike how Trump and other seasoned activists on the Right like to paint this deeply ingrained institution in American politics, the bureaucracy is vital to the everyday functioning of government and impacts everyone’s lives.
In today’s political climate, the bureaucracy has taken the chief duty of curbing some of Trump’s most wild tendencies. In the context of our current polarized era, with a broken, hopelessly polarized two-party system, it seems that Trump’s major hurdle is no longer opposition parties or the constraints of the presidency itself. Rather, his biggest hurdles are increasingly the experts who call him out and try to curb the President to not make wild policy changes that affect millions (if not billions) of people around the world.
This critique of how Trump handles the federal administrative state is also separated from the numerous and already well-documented lies and purposeful spread of misinformation that Trump has engaged in. As academics have pointed out, misinformation or alternative facts are highly persuadable, and can totally change the political narrative.However, Trump is now mobilizing those lies to shift the political narrative against the bureaucratic arm of government. For example, in 2018, Trump supporters fervently supported a ridiculous conspiracy theory that there were deep state actors, “Q,” who were actively working to sabotage the globalist, mainstream deep state to kill, and take advantage of people. Trump, while not cultivating the “Q-anon” conspiracy directly, has clearly gone out of his way to not disavow it. In fact, a former director of the Foreign Service Institute called Trump’s use of the term “deep state” as “a clear attempt to delegitimize voices of disagreement.”
These unfounded beliefs about the “deep state” are not just hyperbole, they translate into direct changes in how the government functions. In a scathing expose about the Trump transition team in late 2016, the author Michael Lewis wrote a book titled “The Fifth Risk,” which attempted to unmask some of the incompetency and recklessness of the Trump appointees in government. At first, Lewis remarked at how the Trump appointee have consistently failed to show any interest in actually learning and digesting what roles the departments that they work in. However, this incompetence was more nefarious than just being clueless about policy. In the book, a career civil servant goes on to describe how Trump installed loyalists (as opposed to experts) to fill the thousands of positions in government. “There is a mysterious kind of chain from the Trump Loyalists who have shown up inside the [Department of Energy] to the White House….Yes, you can notice a difference, there is a lack of professionalism, you can tell that they have never worked in a government setting before.” This level of incompetence is a fundamental departure from even the most conservative administrations. Trump’s escapade into changing the way bureaucracy works is a concerted effort to delegitimize his strongest opposition in government.
The consequences of this blind loyalty to the President in the setting of deep government affairs are far reaching. In keeping with many mounting trends of democratic erosion all over the world, Trump has used his position as chief executive to fill a government full of loyalists that are not accountable to science or their field of expertise but singularly to the figure of Trump at the helm. Just like other autocratic figures throughout the globe, he wants to make government work for him personally, through acceptable legal means. This transition through legally changing the way government works is a key component of democratic backsliding. Trump has shown to be strategically using legal mechanisms to dampen his greatest opposition in these robust government administrations. Moreover, his distinctly populist message is reverberating on the walls in the last remaining cavern of Trump’s formidable opposition, the “deep state.”
In the midst of a global pandemic, no one can say for certain where this mounting battle will lead. Trump has broken norms and ran historically unprecedented administration. However, his greatest takeover of power could be yet to come if he is able to win the battle he has waged with the bureaucrats.