In Tony Gilroy’s underrated reboot of the Jason Bourne series, Bourne Legacy, Jeremy Renner plays Aaron Cross, Jason Bourne’s alter ego. Cross saves Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) at her home, where government goons are trying to kill her. Cross and Shearing flee, but not before offing a handful of bloodless CIA killers and setting fire to Shearing’s mansion. The scene is a media dumpster fire ready to explode, and CIA section chief Eric Byer, played by Edward Norton, asks one of his direct reports, “Dita, how am I going to drop a net over this?” After a moment’s thought, Dita replies, “We go with germs. She took samples from work. Pathogens, viruses. It’s national security.” Byer says, “Good, okay, I like that, it plays. Now, get it out there, get it out there.”
It’s doubtful that our actual deep state functions much differently than this, although perhaps with slightly less hysteria and time crunch. But the idea of managing public perception through the media as one’s first order of business is a steady undercurrent in Mike Lofgren’s The Deep State, a penetrating look at the embedded power beneath Washington’s democratic institutions, a kind of corporate eminence gris, as it were, replete with personhood. Presidents come and go, but the deep state never leaves.
From Sovereign to Servant
According to Lofgren, the deep state was born in the post-war years as the concept of maintaining a peace-time garrison state took hold and the military-industrial complex evolved along with, it should be added, the financial power of Wall Street and the dollar as the world’s reserve currency. Eisenhower’s dire presentiments at the outset of the Sixties fell on deaf ears.
It was decades later, Lofgren writes, that a second critical phase in the history of the deep state occurred. It was the coup de grâce for the ascendant neoliberal ideology against the executive: the Reagan Revolution. Reagan was the president that turned the presidency in stage-managed publicity stunt rather than a serious policy-making post. The office became a role, a public relations gig increasingly freed of the burden of actual governance. What better candidate for this transition than a life-long actor, a brilliant rehearser of lines and a man with faint policy ambitions? (Much as today’s Congressmen are hucksters tasked with fundraising; many of their actual legislation is drafted by private industry.)
Since nature abhors a vacuum, the cipher of ideology in Reagan’s Oval Office was swiftly inhabited by a swelter of ambitious neoliberals anxious to exploit a rudderless executive. The presidency thus became ceremonial to a greater degree than in the past. The heavy scripting of speeches, the use of focus groups and polls to craft policy narratives, the sloganeering of Madison Avenue, all took deep root inside the beltway. As political writer Meagan Day described, “Reagan was the Trojan horse in which a regiment of eager strategists hid, peering through its eye-holes as they wheeled it surreptitiously into the White House.”
The Rise of Display
No surprise the emphasis on Hollywood artifice shifted the focus of campaigns from policy particulars to sweeping narratives. Better to dissimulate and win than lose with earnestness, a lesson learned for all by Michael Dukakis in 1988, with his policy wonk positions and charmless stage persona. It was Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens who said that, “Ceremony was but devised at first, to set a gloss on faint deeds…” As whistle-stop theatrics of pomp supplanted policy rigor, policy itself required less provable impact other than Potemkin successes and plausible deniability. This led naturally to the manipulation of economic math itself, as Clinton altered the formula by which inflation was measured (to understate it) and the manner in which the unemployed were tabulated (again, to understate the metric). Dubya Bush’s bumbling rhetoric, shoddy acting, and transparently diabolical cabinet marked a low tide in the post-Carter era of mythmaking, an epochal descent to be dramatically reversed by the magnetic appeal of Barack Obama, whose policies merely expanded or entrenched those of his predecessors. More critically for the modern presidency, Obama restored a Reaganesque sense of optimism to the national outlook, imbuing his fanboy minions with blushing pride whenever the slim-suited fabulist stepped smiling from the elegant confines of Air Force One to greet some octogenarian or obese or fatally unhip head of state. One could take pride in one’s country again, even if that pride was concentrated in a single man.
It seemed to matter little that Obama continually bragged of a phantom economic recovery that recovered little of the pre-recession standard of living for 95 percent of the population. A counterfeit unemployment index, a sham recovery, and invisible inflation led the Democrats to believe they could win on image rather than substance. The idiot proles could be tricked with token wins and the durable rhetoric of “incremental gains.” Failure could be fobbed off on good intentions and Republican intransigence. This was, Bill and Hillary Clinton thought, as good as it got.
The Populist Undoing
Then Trump happened. Turned out that all the populace couldn’t be fooled all the time, even if most of it could be. Economic populism from the right could win enough hearts and minds to make an election close enough to claim, since gerrymandering could moot marginal losses. Trump, a political outsider if not an economic one, had promised a raft of changes that directly defied the deep state. Epic infrastructure spending. Bringing a theatrical close to an era of immigration that had bolstered the reserve army of labor elite capital depended upon. But more importantly, a disparaging of NATO, which was Washington’s Trojan horse into Eastern Europe; a condemnation of clumsy resource wars in the Middle East; and a stated desire to unwind a meticulously woven narrative of mad Russian imperialism.
Given this openly publicized threat to its decades-long plan for planetary hegemony, it was fairly evident that Trump hadn’t grasped the fact that the presidency had become something of a sinecure, the president a figurehead who soothed the nation’s feelings with embassies of style and oratory. The deep state was going to respond. It was not prepared or willing to abide the populist burlesque of an unlettered real estate charlatan.
The deep state’s primary tool? The media. If indeed the White House were a kind of Hollywood studio set, and the nation itself a cinema back lot, what better point of attack than the public image of the presidency? The inciting incident in this narrative usurpation was the deposing of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. Attorney General Jeff Sessions was next, pilloried for commonplace contact with the Russian ambassador, and overlooking it in his confirmation hearings. Whether the new plot line will include a climactic impeachment is yet unknown. It likely depends on the degree to which the egomaniacal POTUS can affect an obsequious deference to the Pentagon and Wall Street in an effort to fend off the rest of the intelligence community, seeming staffed by phalanxes of Obama loyalists.
In any event, rest assured that we are witnessing the public betrayal of the popular will, insofar as it is embodied in the titular head of state. This idea that Trump represents the electorate is surely laughable to cosmopolitan liberals on the coasts, but likely makes perfect sense to their unloved cousins in our despised flyover states, 45 percent of whom think the country is headed in the right direction, according to the purely objective Fox News. Will there be Ferguson-like riots during the impeachment proceedings, should they come? And will we witness a latter-day House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) targeting the White House rather than Hollywood? In a sense, it would represent not only the deep state conquest of the presidency, but a coup d’état of Washington by Tinseltown. What better than spectacle to mesmerize a mal-educated populace addicted to scandal and thrill? At the heart of the sensation is our trivial-tweeting president, brandishing his blunt rapier, rotating in anxious circles to face his massing foes. The poet W.H. Auden captured well the present mise en scène in his poem, “August 1968.” He may have been thinking of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia, but he may as well have been writing about the latest crass celebrity in our scandal-obsessed society, or perhaps the frivolous society itself:
The Ogre does what ogres can,
Deeds quite impossible for man,
But one prize is beyond his reach,
The Ogre cannot master Speech:
About a subjugated plan,
Among its desperate and slain,
The Ogre stalks with hands on hips,
While drivel gushes from his lips.
It is the Ogre that stands unwittingly in empire’s path, unable to navigate the political pathways of D.C., listing to the right and prepared to fall, his fruitless cries drowned in the din of neoliberals clamoring for the artful sophistry of the Obama years.