Trump's 'Deep State' rhetoric is part of his overall desire to dismantle the bureaucratic layer of government.
Since taking office, Donald Trump has waged a war against the administrative state, attempting to destabilize and undermine government agencies. Of late, when he isn't doing that, he’s been trying to force Ukraine to investigate his political rivals. Trump has also busied himself with pushing the long-debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, meddled in the 2016 election.
At first glance, these things may not seem related. However, they’re all of a piece. Trump's "Deep State" rhetoric is part of his overall desire to dismantle the bureaucratic layer of government — and it's a desire shared by many ostensibly mainstream Republicans.
The impeachment hearings have highlighted the necessity and wisdom of career civil servants. National Security Council adviser Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the NSC's top expert on Ukraine; Fiona Hill, a former NNSC aide and Russia expert; and former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, who served as ambassador to multiple countries in multiple administrations, all gave well-versed and hard-earned expert testimony about Ukraine and Russia in recent days.
Their testimony also revealed the extent to which Trump had ignored that expertise in favor of allowing Rudy Giuliani, Lev Parnas, and Igor Fruman — none of whom have any background in foreign policy — to conduct what was apparently State Department business with Ukraine.
Giuliani and his associates subsequently worked to pressure Ukraine to launch investigations into Trump's opponents and pursue discredited theories.
The GOP appears to have wholeheartedly signed on to those theories.
In an interview with Fox News on Sunday, Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) declined to agree with U.S. intelligence community's unanimous conclusion that Russia meddled in the 2016 election, asserting instead that "it could also be Ukraine."
Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), the ranking member on the House intelligence community, spent most of the public impeachment hearings pushing similar conspiracy theories.
There was never really any chance the GOP wouldn’t back Trump on this. The hatred of the "deep state" — while more obviously repugnant and highly visible — is an extension of the GOP's broader dislike of federal agencies and their expertise, and that’s a loathing that well predates Trump.
President Ronald Reagan, for example, was famous for fact-free pronouncements about the environment. He declared that "trees cause more pollution than automobiles do." He also named Anne Gorsuch — mother of current Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch — head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Gorsuch had been a corporate attorney and a deputy district attorney, neither of which served as adequate preparation for running a massive and complex environmental agency. She instead spent time leasing public lands to private companies for oil, gas, and coal development, similar to the EPA under Trump.
Then, as it is now with many of Trump's appointments, the move was more than just a crass giveaway to industry. Gorsuch had no scientific or administrative background that warranted her getting the job. It was emblematic of Reagan's refusal to engage with experts and part of his overall goal of undermining the ability of agencies to make rules and regulate matters.
This paradigm continued into the tenure of President George H.W. Bush — but it was Bush's son, President George W. Bush, who really turned his dislike of experts into a governing policy.
In fact, Bush ignored his own experts within the Department of Energy (DOE) in the run-up to the Iraq War. Those experts had concluded that Saddam Hussein possessed tubes intended for small artillery, but then-Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice declared, without evidence, that they could only be used for nuclear weapons.
In a move distressingly similar to the Trump administration, Bush also ignored and undermined his own intelligence services when it came to Iraq. That administration insisted that there were substantial contacts between Iraq and Al Qaeda, but both the CIA and the FBI said that was simply not true. The view of the intelligence agencies — the experts in this sort of thing — was later borne out by the 9/11 Commission.
Much like Trump, the younger Bush also made every effort to politicize his Justice Department. That agency imposed a political litmus test on candidates for nonpartisan career attorney jobs, assessing whether they displayed "loyalty" to the president’s policies.
Early in Bush’s tenure, he purged eight experienced U.S. attorneys for what appeared to be purely political reasons, including their failure to aggressively pursue entirely fictional "voter fraud" allegations. Bush later installed in their stead unqualified loyalists such as Matthew Whitaker, Trump's hand-selected "acting" attorney general, who replaced former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and served in the role until Attorney General William Barr took over in February this year.
After the Reagan and Bush 43 eras, Republicans were primed to accept the brute force of presidential political appointees against career experts.
During President Barack Obama’s second term, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) suggested states should simply ignore EPA climate rules. During the 2016 election, Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Joni Ernst (R-IA) proposed scrapping the EPA entirely.
That disregard for this particular agency is borne out of a GOP belief that climate change isn’t real — a belief Trump also strongly holds. Of course, Trump has gone a step further, declaring without proof that both windmills and energy-efficient light bulbs cause cancer.
This anti-intellectualism isn’t limited to elected officials nor is it limited to a hatred of the EPA. Only 36% of Republicans surveyed in an August 2017 Pew Research Center poll believed colleges had a positive impact on society, for example. Twice the amount of Democrats said the same. The disconnect can likely be attributed to a belief among many Republicans that colleges are hotbeds of liberal indoctrination.
While Trump’s Supreme Court picks, Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, can hardly be called anti-intellectual, they do share the GOP’s hatred for agencies and regulations. Gorsuch has made clear he doesn’t believe that courts should defer to an agency’s interpretation of a rule, even though agency personnel are the experts. And Kavanaugh really doesn’t like regulators.
With conservatives now in control of a solid majority on the court, chances are high the Supreme Court could upend the idea that experts at agencies know best how to interpret complex and technical laws.
This assault on expertise is comprehensive, spanning the legislative, judicial, and executive branches. It’s been that way for years, but the Trump era is its apex. It’s a gleeful refusal to recognize knowledge, and it has resulted in the wholesale firing of scientists and the outsourcing of complex foreign policy issues to Trump’s personal lawyer and his cronies.
In the end, it’s difficult to disentangle Republican motivation. Are they indulging in anti-intellectualism because they genuinely distrust experts or is it merely a means to consolidate power?
Undermining agencies, destroying the bureaucratic layer, ignoring the conclusions of experts — all of these have happened before under Republican presidents.
Jut never at this scale.
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.