Mike Lofgren wrote the book on the deep state — literally.
The longtime Republican aide, who worked for three decades on Capitol Hill, published The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government in January 2016. Its jacket copy touts Lofgren’s “gripping portrait of the dismal swamp on the Potomac and the revolution it will take to set us back on course.”
So you might think the 64-year-old Lofgren is gratified that barely two years later, the phrase he helped introduce into the American political lexicon is everywhere — used to describe a secret, anti-Trump power elite which has been blamed in recent days for everything from ordering Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson’s $31,000 dining room set, to running a human-trafficking ring made famous by Roseanne Barr, to briefly shutting down Sean Hannity’s Twitter account, to framing ex-GOP congressman Steve Stockman for abuse of campaign finance laws.
Well, not exactly.
“It’s like a virus,” Lofgren told BuzzFeed News. “Once it gets out into the environment and it mutates, you’ve totally lost control of it.”
From “fake news” to “bad faith,” the Trump administration and its boosters have proven fantastically adept at expropriating the slogans of the political zeitgeist and redefining them with brutal partisan efficiency. And for the past 15 months, Lofgren has had a front-row seat to one such refurbishment, as the bipartisan phenomenon he carefully documented became, as he put it in an email to BuzzFeed News, the “ultimate ‘dog ate my homework’ excuse” for “the Trump regime and its pinhead allies.” The transformation has been so thorough, it’s left Lofgren wondering if it’s possible to make a broad critique of power within America in 2018 without it being turned into a propagandistic caricature by the far right.
“It’s like a virus. Once it gets out into the environment and it mutates, you’ve totally lost control of it.”
Though Lofgren’s “Deep State,” which he first described in a widely read 2014 essay for the website of longtime PBS host Bill Moyers, is influential, it bears little resemblance to the all-powerful cabal that the contemporary far-right has conjured. A former Fulbright scholar who studied contemporary European history, Lofgren spent 16 years as a senior analyst on the House and Senate budget committees, developing an expertise in the way the government pays for national security.
In that 2014 essay, after several appearances on Moyers’ show, Lofgren gave his “Anatomy of the Deep State” thusly:
“…a hybrid entity of public and private institutions ruling the country according to consistent patterns in season and out, connected to, but only intermittently controlled by, the visible state whose leaders we choose. My analysis of this phenomenon is not an exposé of a secret, conspiratorial cabal; the state within a state is hiding mostly in plain sight, and its operators mainly act in the light of day.”
That, according to Lofgren, is why Congress could seem hopelessly divided and deadlocked on President Obama’s budget or political appointments, but offer no real sustained objection across either party to efforts to “liquidate American citizens without due processes, detain prisoners indefinitely without charge, conduct dragnet surveillance on the American people without judicial warrant” and intervene in Libya.
The critique found a supporter in Moyers. “He added to the long and legitimate and losing argument that we’re being governed by the military-industrial complex,” Moyers told BuzzFeed News.
The forces Lofgren described — a self-perpetuating symbiosis of national security and law enforcement agencies, government contractors, Wall Street, and Silicon Valley — look something like Eisenhower’s famous formulation, with the backing of finance and big tech, lubricated by the revolving door between government and lucrative private industry. And their influence, far from being a shadowy secret, would come as no surprise to civil libertarians on the left and the right alike who have railed against that kind of “deep state” for decades.
“This is not an illuminati conspiracy,” Lofgren told BuzzFeed News. “We know the names of the people involved: Lloyd Blankfein and Eric Schmidt. And it’s not omnipotent. It forces an aggravated status quo that keeps rolling along as long as people are apathetic.”
The concept of the deep state originates in Turkey, where it refers to a powerful layer of military officials and bureaucrats devoted to maintaining secular democracy. But Lofgren chose the name after reading it in John le Carre’s A Delicate Truth, where the novelist and ex-spy used it to describe “non-governmental insiders from banking, industry, and commerce” who received classified information before much of the elected government.
For Lofgren, “Deep State” was an apt phrase to describe what he wrote was “the big story of our time”: a largely open confluence of entrenched interests that helped explain everything from the war on terror to income inequality.
The essay resonated, so much so that Lofgren turned it into the 2016 book.
“This is not an illuminati conspiracy. … And it’s not omnipotent. It forces an aggravated status quo that keeps rolling along as long as people are apathetic.”
Naturally, a book proposing a unified theory of overreach by the military, intelligence, government contractors, big banks, and big tech received a warm reception in left-wing outlets like Salon and CounterPunch. So too, though, did The Deep State get positive notice in the far-right finance blog Zero Hedge, and in the far-right Taki’s Magazine from Steve Sailer, an influential and highly controversial writer who New York magazine called “The Man Who Invented Identity Politics for the New Right.”
Indeed, in the months after Lofgren wrote his original deep state essay, Cambridge Analytica and its then–vice president Steve Bannon were busy discovering — at least according to the whistleblower Christopher Wylie — that the phrase was catnip to conservative voters.
Lofgren began to realize that the idea had become something else in the popular imagination when right-wing commentators blamed the deep state for leaks that led to former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s resignation. And as a flood of similar leaks threatened to sink the Trump administration in its early months, reports emerged that the president himself blamed them on the deep state, and allies from Steve King to Newt Gingrich said so publicly.
Of course, Trump’s supporters blamed only one group within the network of interests described by Lofgren’s deep state — career bureaucrats or Obama-era holdovers who were appalled by the anti–administrative state president and wanted to damage him to preserve the status quo. These were an entrenched interest to be sure, but, Lofgren said, not as important as the revolving door between industry, Wall Street, and government that made sure special interests dictated a consistent policy from administration to administration.
Today, posts about the deep state appear multiple times a day in pro-Trump communities like Reddit’s /r/The_Donald, where its hidden hand is seen manipulating events as disparate as the death of child star Corey Feldman and a DDoS attack against conservative conspiracy site the Gateway Pundit. Wednesday morning, a Daily Caller explainer video about the deep state was the top post on /r/The_Donald.
In response to what he saw as abuse of the term, Lofgren last year wrote a column for LobeLog, “Yes, There Is a Deep State — But Not the Right Wing’s Caricature.”
“The Deep State is an outgrowth of illiberal tendencies in liberal democracy, tendencies that have given disproportionate influence to a militarized foreign policy, secrecy and surveillance at home, and entrenched disparities of wealth,” Lofgren wrote. “But it is not the worst imaginable permutation of that system. The naked, authoritarian power grab that is now evolving in the West Wing under the troika of Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, and Jared Kushner, is something much more sinister.”
Lofgren’s theory of the Deep State had been about the undue influence of the military and the 1% on American politics; now a president who had surrounded himself with billionaires and generals, who wanted to cut taxes on the rich and increase military spending, was demonizing the deep state.
“The opposition to it by the Trumpistas is largely phony,” Lofgren told BuzzFeed News. “His cabinet makes [George W.] Bush’s cabinet look like a Bolshevik workers council.”
And yet Lofgren, who felt alienated by the Republican Party over its rush to war in Iraq in 2003 and the bank bailout in 2008, and publicly split with the party in his 2012 bestseller The Party is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted, was not surprised that the Trump administration, with the help of the far-right media, was able to so quickly redefine his idea — of a nonpartisan power elite — in nakedly partisan terms.
“People do not grasp how organic and well-integrated the right-wing enterprise is in this country,” Lofgren said.
“[Trump’s] cabinet makes Bush’s cabinet look like a Bolshevik workers council.”
Now, Lofgren has had to watch as the phrase he used to describe a network of entrenched interests has been co-opted by those very entrenched interests to demonize their opposition. The latest irony: the hiring by the anti–deep state president of John Bolton, a hawk with decades of government experience and a multimillion-dollar super PAC in his name, to be national security adviser.
“We’ve had a political reaction where certain very clever people in the Republican Party have said, ‘See this shiny object over here, that’s the source of all your problems’” Lofgren said. “It’s the immigrants or the elites — meaning some $45,000-a-year adjunct professor rather than [billionaire Trump donors] the Mercers. All this populism is essentially the Deep State. It’s plutocracy.”
Lofgren, who lives with his wife in Northern Virginia, said he isn’t sure how to talk about the issues he described in his book without attracting right-wing conspiracy mongers — at least while civic engagement, driven by a media he sees as beholden to corporate interests, remains so low. Moyers agrees.
“Look at the last 48 hours,” he told BuzzFeed News last week. “Sinclair does this Orwellian propaganda piece. The next day Trump comes to praise it. And certify it. And then he attacks the Amazon-owned Washington Post.” Given that climate, Moyers said, “It’s not possible to have small-d democratic attention paid and voter concern to an issue that is very serious.”
Even so, Moyers said, he has no regrets about helping introduce the term into the bloodstream.
“It’s there and it’s not going away because we’re uncomfortable with how it’s being perverted.”
Neither does Lofgren. As wry in person as he is in his lacerating prose, Lofgren told BuzzFeed News that despite what the “Deep State” has come to mean, he’s happy with the work he’s done.
“I have no trouble getting up in the morning and looking in the shaving mirror. Given the volume of what I’ve written since and the tenor, I feel, to the extent that any of us is driven by idealism and not just vanity, I’ve tried to do my best.” ●
Joe Bernstein is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Bernstein reports on and writes about the gaming industry and web culture.
Contact Joseph Bernstein at [email protected].
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