I've heard whispers of a 'deep state' run by the Clintons or Obama or various liberals/democrats and I never really gave it much thought. It sounds kind of crazy - that said, I have to admit, I don't know much about what it allegedly is. So, I'm asking here:

  1. What is "Deep State", according to Wikipedia:

    In the United States, the term "deep state" describes a form of alleged cabal that coordinates efforts by government employees and others to influence state policy without regard for democratically elected leadership. The use of the term as applied to the United States has been dismissed by numerous journalists and academics as a conspiracy theory. The term has also been used to refer to alleged cabals in countries such as Turkey and post-Soviet Russia. In the United States, the term has been used in numerous published titles written by, for example, Marc Ambinder, David W. Brown, Peter Dale Scott, Mike Lofgren, and Michael Wolff.

    The term gained popularity in some circles during the 2016 U.S. presidential election in opposition to establishment Republican and Democratic candidates, and has also been used in 2017 and 2018 during the Trump administration by commentators who argue that deep states are aiming to delegitimize the Trump presidency.

    That gives me some sense of what it is, but how does it allegedly operate? It would seem that there would be a vast number of people involved which would necessarily lead to trails of evidence - especially if it's so sloppily maintained that it's all over various branches of the media.

  2. What evidence is there for Deep State? From what I can tell the answer is, not much. It would seem that for this to be real there would need to be hundreds of people involved. Not one of them has spilled the beans? Not one of them has provided substantial evidence?

Do I have this correct or am I off somewhere (if so, where?)?


5 Answers 5


I think it's worth putting this in the context of real deep state examples. This typically manifests as military or intelligence agencies which do not obey civilian leadership. Brythan's answer seems problematic because it confuses institutional independence with a deep state.

In cases like the militaries of Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan, Russia's KGB, or it has even been alleged the UK's City of London, organisations exist which ignore elected governments or actively control them. This is a deep state. America does not have an equivalent.

In Turkey, historically the military has seen itself as the guardian of the republic. If the Turkish government becomes too religious or unstable, the military has purged them. Only recently have the tables turned with the failed 2016 coup, and subsequently the civilian government purging the military, police, judiciary, etc, of dissent.

Egypt's military doesn't just try to manage the democratic system, they have been described as a "Mamluk State", appointing a general to become president (or perhaps Pharaoh). The Egyptian military is a huge institution, and actually owns a considerable amount of economic assets in order to guarantee their own financial independence.

The closest the US has to a deep state would be the CIA, given opaque budgets and limited civilian oversight. But even that is doubtful. A 2016 book "Debriefing the President" by former CIA officer John Nixon makes scathing criticism of the CIA. He alleges that over the last few decades the organisation has abandoned its early emphasis, that officers should "dare to be wrong", to challenge ideas. Instead it has developed a slavish relationship with the White House, providing shallow nodding analysis in order to protect its pride and budget.

If this assessment is correct, and the least transparent US government agency given the most operational freedom is nothing but a grinning yes man... then the notion of an American deep state is laughable.

The suggestion that the Democratic party is involved in some sort of deep state is absurd. In American political discourse there is an unfortunate tendency to make bizarre unsubstantiated claims. For example, that Obama was going to put his political opponents in concentration camps.

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    Very argumented answer. Just "America does not have an equivalent". Really, hoard of arguments listed. Especiially about those undemocratic regimes, which have a deep state. And shining-city-on-the-hill doesn't have a deep state, just because it doesn't.) Maybe America doesn't have a deep state just because of wonderful air of fredom? Jun 3, 2019 at 8:34
  • Let us continue this discussion in chat.
    – user8398
    Jun 3, 2019 at 14:44
  • One can only imagine how that FEMA conspiracy theory would have been like (nowadays) if Covid-19 had struck during a D presidency... Even today we get some CDC conspiracy theories, somewhat mild in conparison skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/47312/… Apr 15, 2020 at 23:13
  • "Russia's KGB" KGB was USSR, not Russia, and USSR was not a democracy. "For example, that Obama was going to put his political opponents in concentration camps." Well, technically, Trump supporters have been put in disease-ridden, cramped areas, but it's been of their own volition. Dec 26, 2020 at 7:00
  • If alleged things like "UK's City of London" are going to count, it would seem that every mildly plausible conspiracy theory would be a US equivilant.
    – Jontia
    Dec 31, 2020 at 14:51

The general claim that I have seen is not that there is an organization that calls itself the deep state but that there are a bunch of people that have a particular set of views that dominate the bureaucracies. They do not have leaders because they aren't formally organized. However, they have certain things on which there is general agreement.

  1. Bureaucracies are important and perform a useful function. Each bureaucracy once created is required to continue. Any evidence that the bureaucracy is in fact harmful or a failure must be untrue.

  2. The solution related to the purpose of that particular bureaucracy is superior to that of other bureaucracies.

    For example, the State department favors diplomatic solutions tailored to the foreign power. This is because that is what they know. They do not favor military solutions.

  3. Administrations are temporary. There is no need to change to adjust to the current administration. They'll be gone in four to eight years. Just keep doing things the way that you have been, and they'll go away.

  4. Politicians don't know what they're doing, so just ignore them. After all, the bureaucrats are the ones that have been doing the job and understand what's wrong.

The result of this is to create inertia. Things continue to be done the way that they have been done. It's hard to change how things are done.

The only reason why this is partisan is that most of the actual bureaucrats are registered Democrats. This tends to leave Democratic politicians, like Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, supportive of the bureaucratic view, or at least not totally dismissive of it. Meanwhile, Republicans face no such pressure to favor the bureaucratic view, except in areas like law enforcement and the military where there are more Republicans.

The "deep state" causes problems for Democrats as well. For example, Barack Obama came into office as against foreign interventions, particularly the Iraq war. However,

  1. He intervened diplomatically in Egypt to encourage Hosni Mubarak to leave.

  2. He intervened militarily in Libya to block actions by Muammar Gaddafi, which led to Gaddafi's death.

In Egypt, his intervention led to a short-lived democratic regime which the international community opposed. Eventually it was replaced by a military coup to sighs of relief around the world. As interventions go, this was a pretty clear failure.

In Libya, no one has replaced Gaddafi. The country is still in a civil war. While Clinton says she remains hopeful, most observers view this as a failure as well, at least so far.

For a Republican example, in 1991, George H. W. Bush stopped military operations before Saddam Hussein was ousted. He overruled his advisors to do this. But in 2003, George W. Bush allowed himself to be convinced to "finish the job" and remove Hussein. It was this war that Obama listed as the example of bad interventions in his 2008 election and this contributed to his defeat of Hillary Clinton in the primary. Yet he was making the same mistakes. And of course he was back in Iraq before he left office.

Calling the "deep state" a cabal is pushing it into the realm of conspiracy theory. However, that ignores the actual existence of a bureaucracy that fundamentally disagrees with many of the things that someone like Donald Trump might propose. And it ignores the way that the bureaucracy, without any outside organization, can resist administrative priorities. The "deep state" as cabal is thus a way to belittle the concept and mislead people about what is actually being discussed.

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    So is the idea that if it's not elected it's "deep state"? And do you have sources for some of those claims (most bureaucrats are democrats)?
    – rougon
    Jan 25, 2018 at 2:13
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    I agree with rougon that this needs backed up. Until then, -1. Jan 25, 2018 at 3:19
  • 18
    The problem is that none of this is what most people mean when they talk about the “Deep State.” The proponents of this theory don’t just believe that there are bureaucrats who don’t like Donald Trump and sometimes ignore him, they believe that these bureaucrats are working together (perhaps with Obama) to systematically oppose Trump, and perhaps even spy on him or seek to get rid of him.
    – Obie 2.0
    Jan 25, 2018 at 5:38
  • 8
    The definitions of deep state I have heard differ significantly from this (I would also like some sources on that), but if we accept your definition (which basically seems to be "deep state" = "bureaucracy"), I'm not sure how your examples fit. How are Obamas foreign policy actions related to the deep state? That jump of logic is a bit unclear to me and could use some explanation (I guess he acted according to advice from those never-changing bureaucrats?).
    – tim
    Jan 25, 2018 at 8:47
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    These claims could use some sourcing; this sounds very much like the answerer's impression of what people think the Deep State is rather than an analytical response. Plus the paragraphs about Egypt, Libya, and Iraq seem unrelated. Jan 25, 2018 at 19:28

There's something quite mundane and obvious that could be called "deep state", which is simply all of the federal government's permanent bureaucracy, which is quite large.

These people tend to be - by the nature of their position in society - aligned by a certain way of looking at the world and at government.

In particular, you will find less government employees who are really sceptical of government, obviously. You will also find less government employees with a passionate hatred of high taxation than among those parts of the population that are actually taxed - again for very obvious reasons.

You don't need a conspiracy to explain any of those preferences: They simply come from the forces exerted by the circumstances that people find themselves in.

A Trump president coming in at the top can replace the top 1000 bureaucrats or so, but there's a practical limit. All those below those thousand at the top are "deep": The deep state.

EDIT: Here's a link to an article from an anti-Trump perspective that acknowledges this alternative view. Some quotes:

Rather than referring to a "shadow or parallel system of government" operating outside official channels, for Trump the deep state is the government — or at least those parts of it that frustrate him in any way.

"I think it's a silly idea. 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, Medicare." -- McLaughlin, a former deputy director of the CIA

That makes absolute sense: People's idea of the government as being what gets elected every 4 years isn't correct: Most of the government isn't replaced on election day, and basically everyone in the government has an agenda - just like everyone outside the government has one.

  • While some use this term for deep state I think it's clear that is not the sort of 'deep state' the OP is referring to, as this doesn't fit the definition the OP quoted from Wikipedia as to what a deep state is.
    – dsollen
    Dec 28, 2020 at 22:55
  • The OP has "heard rumors" about the deep state. Those rumors aren't necessarily based on Wikipedia's definition. I doubt Trump has that definition in mind, and you can easily Google anti-Trump material where that is acknoledged (I will add a source to my answer).
    – John
    Dec 31, 2020 at 13:27

Regarding question #2, on the nature of available evidence indicating the presence of powerful shadowy cabals, and how they might best maintain their mysteries.

Preventing testimony against traditional criminal organizations uses a direct approach -- coercion, removal, or defamation of witnesses and evidence. Presumably any self-respecting deep state should at least do that much.

If it's not possible to keep a secret out of the public eye, (i.e. somebody already spilled some of the beans), it may be possible to perplex the public mind. With the "firehose of falsehood" propaganda method -- the propagandist basically spills bushels of variously colored beans atop those spilled, then makes an even bigger mess pretending to clean them up -- a torrent of poorly argued inconsistent information and misinformation, (and meta-info and meta-disinfo, i.e. punditry wrestling itself), sufficient to exhaust and confuse the public's faculties and patience, until raising the topic is viewed as an annoyance.

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    Caveat: I'm favoring the theory that states are shallower than supposed, so that 1) petty conspiracies seem like great ones, 2) oblivious collective clumsiness generates noticeably unfortunate emergent phenomena we incorrectly impute to intention.
    – agc
    Jan 26, 2018 at 18:12
  • so are you actually presenting evidence of a supposed deep state, or just theorizing on techniques a deep state could potentially use if it existed? the later doesn't really seem all that on topic, being better suited for a comment. If the intent is the later then you need to provide evidence of how it has happened.
    – dsollen
    Dec 28, 2020 at 22:54
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    @dsollen, The OP's #2 leading question was why, if such a large cabal existed, would the public not have heard from any credible dissident, whistle blower, defector, or flipped witness. Which begs the question, since it presumes that we have in fact not heard from such persons, whereas it's quite possible that we have, but we may incorrectly doubt their sincerity, for reasons given in this answer.
    – agc
    Dec 30, 2020 at 18:03

In my opinion, the CIA, Pentagon, defense contractors, and public representatives related to the military-industrial ecosystem are the deep state in the USA.

Watch President Donald Trump's speech in this link. The budgets and funds that Trump rejected are probably prepared by them.

Why do I say that?

Take for example Pakistan.

From Trump's speech, we can glean that some people are proposing a fund of $25 million for democracy and gender programs in Pakistan which is completely ridiculous.

In the case of democracy, Pakistan is currently enjoying the probably most democratic and inclusive government in history after Pakistan's founding fathers.

In the case of gender programs, Pakistan is probably the only country in the Indian subcontinent where transgenders can have passports, enroll in academia, and can work in government and private jobs. Also, Pakistan's rate of rape and violence against women is one-tenth of either India's or the USA's.

In my opinion, this fund will be given to the NGOs either to 'educate' people on China's 'predatory' investments in BRI projects in Pakistan or to create a favorable climate for Israel's recognition.

  • 2
    Sorry, I can't help but laugh at this: "In the case of gender programs, Pakistan is probably the only country in the Indian subcontinent where transgenders can have passports, enroll in academia, and can work in government and private jobs." Soooooo, uh, the only country among a mere five countries: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Nepal? And only "probably." And what is this grand achievement? Why, that transgender people are not non-citizens (can get passports) and are not legally excluded from education and employment?
    – Obie 2.0
    Dec 26, 2020 at 6:48
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    There are dozens of countries in Europe and the Americas (if not many other regions) where the ultraconservative parties are that "progressive." Also, a country that Chaudhry Sarwar, the governor of Punjab, says is in the ten worst when it comes to rape cases being portrayed as an oasis of women's rights....
    – Obie 2.0
    Dec 26, 2020 at 6:53
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    Punjab has that title? I would have thought that would be either South Africa or Botswana. Anyway, the problem is that all crime rates are reported crime rates, and are thus influenced by commission rates and reporting rates. Some of the countries with low rates likely heavily discourage reporting sexual assaults.
    – Obie 2.0
    Dec 26, 2020 at 7:06
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    I am sure that reported rape rates reflect the true rates in Pakistan, and that people would have no reservations about talking to the police about it. After all, according to Asma Jahangir, only 72% of women in jail or prison are sexually abused.
    – Obie 2.0
    Dec 26, 2020 at 7:13
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    Actually, now that I look at your comment again, I see something even funnier. It only makes sense if you assumed that I was talking about Punjab in India and you somehow did not notice that Chaudhry Mohammad Sarwar is the governor of Punjab in Pakistan!
    – Obie 2.0
    Dec 26, 2020 at 7:17

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