The deep state is the right’s new bogeyman.

I’d wager that until fairly recently, few people had ever heard the phrase. I’d also bet that roughly 99 percent of those who fling the term around have no idea that it’s borrowed from Turkish politics.

The idea of a deep state, or “state within a state,” is that there are undemocratic forces within the permanent bureaucracy, the military and the intelligence services who pursue their own interests rather than those of the people or the agenda that voters desire.

Depending on the country in question, deep states are not only real, they are sometimes as devious as people fear.

In the democratic West, the civil service and other bureaucratic institutions often accumulate enough power and arrogance that they see themselves as immune to the desires of voters or politicians. Prior to a few years ago, some people would call this sort of thing the “deep state,” and depending on the context, that was fine.

Impeachment, we’re told almost every day, is a “deep state coup.” When the Turkish military launched a “deep state coup,” it launched an actual, you know, “coup” — which the dictionary still defines as an extralegal violent overthrow of a government.

The sort of coup that some on the right are talking about isn’t a coup. In fairness, impeachment arouses partisan excess, and it’s no surprise when partisan rhetoric gets heated. Democrats called the effort to impeach Bill Clinton a coup. And they were wrong, too.

The problem is that this deep state contagion has spread far outside of impeachment.

“Just this week, I stuck up for three great warriors against the Deep State,” Trump declared Nov. 26 night at a rally in Florida. The crowd loved it, of course. But think about what Trump is saying. The three warriors Trump was referring to were three men charged with committing war crimes. He pardoned all three. One hadn’t even received a trial yet. Many great warriors put their careers in peril to testify against the two other men.

Reasonable people can disagree on the specifics of the acts, but military law experts are uniformly aghast at Trump’s decision. According to, Trump’s move has “blown a hole in the military justice system and will make it harder to prosecute future war crimes, military law experts say.”

Whatever you think of that, the idea that the military justice system is part of the deep state because it sought to enforce prohibitions against war crimes is grotesque. Indeed, the impeachment witnesses defamed as deep state operatives by Trump and his defenders testified that the president was orchestrating an effort in Ukraine for his own self-interest.

Deep staters are now those who follow the rules in ways inconvenient to Trump’s personal desires or political ambitions. But Trump does seem to adhere to a view of the state most famously articulated by Louis XIV: L’état, c’est moi (I am the state). And any obstacle to his unfettered rule is now the deep state and by extension illegitimate.

© 2019 Tribune Content Agency LLC

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