A friend, settled in the US, recently quipped that never has he heard so many Pakistanis (in the US) use the word ‘deep state’ as much as they have been doing since the recently concluded US presidential elections. The elections were won by the Democratic Party nominee John Biden. My friend clarified that the mentioned term was being used mostly by those Pakistani-Americans who actually voted for Trump.
Even though exit polls published by the New York Times show that a majority of Asians had cast their vote for Biden (63 percent), up to 31 percent of them voted for Trump. According to my friend, a majority of these included Pakistanis who believed Trump was good for the current coalition government in Pakistan being led by PM Imran Khan’s centre-right PTI.
The opposition parties in Pakistan have increasingly insisted that certain state institutions installed Khan ‘through an engineered election’ in 2018, and was using him as a ‘puppet.’
So far Trump has provided no evidence whatsoever of this and is largely sounding like an archetypal conspiracy theorist. The difference between the US and Pakistan in this context is the fact that there is now enough evidence in the latter country to build a substantiated history of the state’s overt involvement in influencing political matters outside of its constitutional obligations. So what really is deep state?
In an April 10, 2017 essay for JSTOR Daily, the scholar Matthew Wills writes that the term is a translation of the Turkish phrase, derin devlet. In February 10, 2010, author and academic Ryan Gingeras writes in the same online publication that deep state generally refers to a kind of a parallel system of government in which unofficial or unacknowledged individuals play important roles in implementing state policy. According to Gingeras the idea of a deep state can be traced to the twilight years of the Ottoman Empire.
Gingeras writes that clandestine forces were recruited from paramilitary and criminal elements by the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), the party that ousted the Ottomans in 1923. Across much of the 20th century, opponents of the CUP claimed that the party had established a clandestine network of military officers and their civilian allies who, for decades, suppressed anyone thought to pose a threat to the secular order established in Turkey by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
The term deep state means a very different thing in countries such as Pakistan. But when President Donald Trump uses it in the context of the US, he often does it as a ploy to deflect attention from his own failures
Dexter Filkins in a March 2012 article for The New Yorker writes that the former PM of Turkey (now president), Recep Erdogan, was extremely nervous when he was first elected as PM in 2003, because he believed that since he was a candidate of an (albeit ‘moderate’) Islamic party, Turkey’s ‘deep state’ would never allow him to rule. But no such thing happened. His party has continued to win elections since the early 2000s and the only coup attempt that his government faced in 2016, according to Erdogan’s own admission, was mounted by a faction of the military influenced by a clandestine Islamic group.
There is nothing secretive about how, after 1923, the Turkish military continued to directly and indirectly interfere in Turkish politics, and the country’s judiciary and bureaucracy were committed to secure Kamal’s secular Turkish republic. For this military rule, military-backed candidates, and constitutional courts were used. But there were no hidden agendas, as such, even though men such as Erdogan believed that shadowy forces were at work and would topple him. Interestingly, all talk of deep state vanished from his rhetoric once he consolidated his power.
So what does this imply? In many countries, certain powerful state institutions do interfere in political processes, but increasingly, it’s being done rather unabashedly. It was always justified as a ‘necessary step taken to curtail political chaos’, but now the interfering state institutions use social and electronic media to generate support for its actions in this regard. Again, there is nothing clandestine about all this. There has always been ‘a state within a state’ in most modern nation-states.
But what about the US? Does it have a deep state that, as Trump believes, helped Biden hijack the 2020 election? In the January 27, 2020 edition of the Business Insider, the American academic Rebecca Gordon writes that the idea of a sinister deep state in the US, popularised by Trump across his presidency, is somewhat different than how it is understood in most other countries. According to Gordon, “rather than referring to a parallel system of government operating outside official channels, for Trump the deep state is the government.”
For Trump, any state or government institution which stalls any of his orders, is working for a deep state. To him elements within America’s domestic and international intelligence agencies, such as the FBI and CIA, were also working for the deep state. In November 2019, the former deputy director of the CIA, John McLaughlin, was amused about Trump’s constant usage of the phrase. In a radio interview McLaughlin said, “There is no ‘deep state.’ What people think of as the ‘deep state’ is just the American civil service, social security, the people who fix the roads, health and human services.”
In his 2016 book, “The Deep State”, the American author and a former Republican US Congressional aide Mike Lofgren wrote that the deep state was not some secret, conspiratorial cabal. It is a state within a state that is hiding in plain sight, and its operators mainly act in the light of day.
As I argued earlier, there is really nothing clandestine about what is understood as deep state. Its actions are in the open because it wants to impose the fact that it will secure its interests in a political arrangement. Governments negotiate a space for themselves with the state as long as that space is not overtly violated by state institutions in an unconstitutional manner. If and when it is, the government has constitutional tools to push the state back as much as it can, or just give in and get on the same page just to survive. This is common in most countries.
But what if the government starts to see its own elements in league with the so-called deep state, as Trump saw it? I’m afraid this is then nothing more than either a delusion, or simply a cynical ploy to blame something sinister, intangible and largely imaginary, for one’s own failures.
Published in Dawn