Republican Party’s right should learn to love the deep state

US Politics: Trump’s malign neglect of institutions does not bode will for long-term battle with China

Fiona Hill, the former top Russia expert on the National Security Council, and David Holmes, an official at the US embassy in Ukraine, testify before the impeachment hearings. Photograph: Doug Mills/The New York Times

Fiona Hill, the former top Russia expert on the National Security Council, and David Holmes, an official at the US embassy in Ukraine, testify before the impeachment hearings. Photograph: Doug Mills/The New York Times

 

It is cheering to believe that the US won the cold war through “blue jeans and rock’n’roll”, presidential bons mots at the Berlin Wall and other endeavours in open sight. But it was an unelected bureaucrat, George Kennan, who authored the conceptual framing of the conflict. It was another, Paul Nitze, who brought about its militarisation. The decoupling of China from the USSR took years of clandestine planning before President Richard Nixon’s grand gesture in 1972.

The US would not have overcome the Soviets without obscure officials who were screened from the vicissitudes of politics. This allowed for the largeness of vision, the consistency of tack, that democracies are not meant to be able to summon against longer-sighted autocracies.

If the US is to enter another multi-decade fight for primacy, this time with China, it will need its deep state again. It will need such people as Fiona Hill and David Holmes, civil servants who testified last week in the presidential impeachment hearings against Donald Trump. That their work – in truth, their existence – is delegitimised by the same people who itch for this second cold war is not just perverse. It is a dismal sign of how the US will fare against a civilisation that literally invented the mandarin.

The US right should learn to stop worrying and love the deep state. Failing that, it should at least stop its active campaign against it. The present hostility goes beyond anti-government rhetoric: that is common enough in a country that does not even accord the state a Weberian monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. No, it extends to the bureaucratic understaffing or mis-staffing under the Trump administration that Michael Lewis catalogues in The Fifth Risk. Conservatives see in this a way back to a government of Jeffersonian sparseness. More likely it will degrade the one functional piece of American public life.

Partisans first

To this foreigner, the deep state – less luridly known as the executive branch – is the gem in the US system. Congress is the most despised institution in the land. The supreme court is so politicised as to count almost as a third legislature. Political parties have turned out to be as corrosive of national unity as the bleakest of the US founders anticipated.

The media is variously mistrusted, commercially beleaguered, devoid of standards or all of these. As for the Third Estate, the public, it is increasingly clear that enough of them to matter are partisans first and only sticklers for the law after that.

The executive is an anchor in the free-for-all. It brims with the kind of person who has appeared before Congress of late: diligent, civic-minded, credentialled to the hilt if not always intellectually original. It balances democracy (the president appoints thousands of officials) with a permanent corps. It avoids the wall-to-wall patronage of a corrupt state, where even the dogcatchers are party picks, and the rigidity of Britain or France, with their eternal bureaucracies.

This is a world of titularies – “senior directors” for this and that, “policy planners” for such and such – who forgo private riches for the vale of tears that is the daily commute into Washington. Indeed, some of the right’s mistrust of this tribe is best understood as wonder that people of talent might choose a merely upper-middle-class life when real loot beckons elsewhere.

Not hallucinating

Trump is not hallucinating when he detects biases among these people. Most have been reared with foreign policy assumptions that are not his own. If he sought Ukraine’s help against domestic opponents, that is a crime. If he does not care to peel Ukraine from Russia’s orbit, as per old US policy, that is not. It is just hard to see how such biases of state are in any way eradicable.

The difference between an institution and a bunch of people in an office is a (sometimes unconsciously) shared cast of mind. It is not such a problem as to be worth destroying the institution.

It is natural to believe that Trump’s most harmful doings are the spectacular ones: the travel ban, the tariffs. But these policies are reversible in short order. The depletion of the state itself through unfilled posts, staff turnover and calumny is something that will cost Americans in unpredictable ways for much longer. Remember, his is not a Gramscian march through the institutions. He is not replacing bureaucrats with a new set of cadres. This is more like malign neglect.

Ronald Reagan’s budget director, David Stockman, believed that a “strategic deficit” in the federal budget would force government to shrink. Consider this a human resources version of the same strategy. It would be bad enough in a country that is spoilt for functioning institutions. In the US, it is callous. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019

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