The Oxford dictionary defines "deep state" as "a body of people, typically influential members of government agencies or the military, believed to be involved in the secret manipulation or control of government policy."
The term keeps proving handy for a fabulistic president bent on making up far-fetched excuses for his failures.
By screaming falsely of voter fraud, President Donald Trump tries against reality to spin his election loss as an inside-government plot against him. State governments run the balloting. To Trump, the pernicious "cabal" of officials always involves public servants who do their jobs. Even Georgia's secretary of state, a Republican more loyal than the president is to his party, isn't immune these days from the McCarthyite smears of the Trump camp.
Being tagged "deep state" by Trump & Co. can serve government personnel as a badge of competence. Back in August, Trump even tagged his hand-picked FDA commissioner, oncologist Stephen Hahn, in this deranged tweet:
"The deep state, or whoever, over at the FDA is making it very difficult for drug companies to get people in order to test the vaccines and therapeutics" for the coronavirus.
Very credibly, Hahn brushed off Trump's deception.
Trump doesn't merely like making up conspiracy stories. He seems to need them. They help distract from his humiliations and deflect from his responsibility.
Most presidents of his generation win second terms, but Trump lost decisively. Predictably, we have his election-legal team leader Rudy Giuliani front and center with the losing lawsuits and insipid incantations about George Soros, voting machines and Democratic-run cities.
Patriotic presidents do not use their clout to prod a foreign government to harm a domestic rival. Trump did, and he was impeached. So he blurted stock excuses about "deep state" whistleblowers and the "bias" of foreign service careerists. Other elected Republicans sang along.
Most presidents would try to mobilize and unite the nation in a crisis. Trump's coronavirus response was passive and divisive. That explains the effort from his camp to tie COVID-19 to an international plot hatched in a lab and fake claims of slow-walking of a vaccine to hurt him politically.
Trump ranted at a rally in late October: "It's much deeper than I thought. The deep-staters, right? We had a bit of a steeper — you know, the swamp. And the swamp creatures are much deeper and much worse than we ever thought."
"And there is such a thing as the deep state," Trump added. "Who would think?"
The statements shed no light on anything.
President-elect Joe Biden will no doubt have occasion to excuse his own shortcomings. But it won't require Trump's unique brand of gaslighting.
"I know that we can and will beat this virus," Biden said last Wednesday. "Life is going to return to normal, I promise you. I believe this grim season of division … is going to give way to a year of light and unity." Trump could have sent the same message and won votes. Instead he encouraged defiance of public health experts.
Biden's statements are appropriate but require no special brilliance or boldness. On this key issue, the rhetorical differences between the current president and his successor remain idiosyncratic rather than ideological.
Trump's attempts to manipulate understandable public paranoia about the federal government are backfiring. If the so-called deep state under Trump became merely synonymous with experienced government professionals, their return to key positions under Biden will be seen widely as welcome relief from a chaotic White House full of amateurs and posers.
Government careerists over the decades helped embroil the U.S. in deadly fiascoes in Vietnam, Iraq and elsewhere and abbreviated civil liberties at home. The danger is that Trump will have discouraged intelligent skepticism of U.S. institutions because he cried "wolf" for selfish reasons.
Frustrating the whims of a demagogue can be considered a patriotic act. For the moment in Washington, Trump's antics seem to have given the "deep state" a good name — if you consider only those he tried to smear with the term.