One of the strangest aspects of the current era is that the president of the United States seems to have little interest in running the country’s government. A political novice with no fixed ideology or policy agenda, Donald Trump took office as if orchestrating a hostile corporate takeover. In his first six-plus months as president, he has followed his own counsel, displaying open contempt for much of the federal work force he now leads, slashing budgets, rescinding regulatory rules, and refusing to follow standard operating procedures. This has cost him allies in the executive branch, helped spur creative (and increasingly effective) bureaucratic opposition, and, thanks to that opposition, triggered multiple investigations that threaten to sap party and congressional support.
Furious at what they consider treachery by internal saboteurs, the president and his surrogates have responded by borrowing a bit of political science jargon, claiming to be victims of the “deep state,” a conspiracy of powerful, unelected bureaucrats secretly pursuing their own agenda. The concept of a deep state is valuable in its original context, the study of developing countries such as Egypt, Pakistan, and Turkey, where shadowy elites in the military and government ministries have been known to countermand or simply defy democratic directives. Yet it has little relevance to the United States, where governmental power structures are almost entirely transparent, egalitarian, and rule-bound.
The White House is correct to perceive widespread resistance inside the government to many of its endeavors. But the same way the administration’s media problems come not from “fake news” but simply from news, so its bureaucratic problems come not from an insidious, undemocratic “deep state” but simply from the state—the large, complex hive of people and procedures that constitute the U.S. federal government.
L’ÉTAT, C'EST TOI
Broadly speaking, the American state comprises the vast expanse of federal administrative agencies—the organizations and people responsible for making and enforcing regulations, designing and running social programs, combating crime and corruption, providing for the
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