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The Politics of Disclosure

Trump’s Dangerous Authoritarianism

Serious questions have been swirling around the Trump political operation since long before Trump’s November 2016 election. One set of questions has related to the personal, economic, and ideological connections between key Trump people — Paul Manafort, Mike Flynn, Steve Bannon, and Trump and his children themselves — and the Russian economic and political elite centered on Vladimir Putin. A second set of questions related to the Russian hacking of the Democratic party during the 2016 election campaign, and to the connections between this hacking and the remarkably pro-Putin rhetoric of Trump. Lurking in the background was a third question that was entirely speculative: was there actual collusion between the Trump operation, before and after the November 2016 election, and the Putin regime?

Now this question has come out into the open, and certain facts have reached the light of day.

Extensive investigative reporting by the Washington Post, New York Times, and other media outlets has shown that:

  1. Trump’s National Security Adviser, Mike Flynn, already known to have extensive ties to Putin, had numerous contacts with Russian diplomats in December 2016, and that the Obama administration’s newly announced sanctions were among the topics of discussion; and
  2. Paul Manafort and other unnamed important Trump campaign officials had extensive and ongoing contact with Russian intelligence agents during the 2016 campaign.

In the face of these revelations the Trump administration has dissimulated and lied; Democrats and other critics of the administration have denounced this news and called for serious Congressional investigations, including perhaps a Senate Select Committee or a special Commission akin to the 9-11 Commission; and the Republican leadership has cravenly prevaricated and sought to change the subject.

For most critics of the Trump administration, these revelations are incendiary, and they are symptomatic of the broad and deep ways that the administration has threatened, and is threatening, core institutions of constitutional democracy.

The Trump administration has sought to deflect all attention from these revelations by insisting that the “real” issue here is the “leaking” of intelligence information to the press, without which the revelations would never have been revealed. That this move is the height of hypocrisy, because Trump’s entire campaign centered on celebrating Wikileaks disclosures about the Democratic party, has been widely noted. That it is one tactic of obfuscation and demonization of the media in a long train of such abuses is obvious.

And yet, strangely, this critique of “leaking” is now being seconded by an unlikely alliance of skeptics Right and Left who are united by a fear of “the deep state.”

Damon Linker, the prominent moderate conservative writer, has just published a widely-quoted piece entitled, “America’s spies anonymously took down Michael Flynn. That is deeply worrying.” In this piece, Linker declares that: “Flynn’s ouster was a soft coup (or political assassination ) engineered by anonymous intelligence community bureaucrats. The results might be salutary, but this isn’t the way a liberal democracy is supposed to function.” It is worth noting that his piece has been seconded by Noah Millman in American Conservative and, more importantly, by Breitbart news in a piece entitled “Trump is Right About Enormous Problem of Deep State Links .

In making this argument, Linker echoes an argument long made by Glenn Greenwald in The Intercept, most recently in a piece entitled “The Deep State Goes to War with President-Elect, Using Unverified Claims, as Democrats Cheer.” Greenwald, erstwhile left critic of all aspects of the US political establishment, accuses an alliance of Democrats, journalists, and intelligence operatives of seeking to to question the “legitimacy” of the Trump Presidency and, by doing so, undermining democracy itself: “Whatever one’s views… it is the democratic framework — the presidential election, the confirmation process, congressional leaders, judicial proceedings, citizen activism and protest, civil disobedience — that should determine how they are resolved. All of those policy disputes were debated out in the open; the public heard them; and Trump won. Nobody should crave the rule of Deep State overlords.” This is precisely the rhetoric of the Trump administration, and it is no surprise that it has been enthusiastically featured by right-wing pundit Tucker Carlson .

The fact that Linker and Greenwald strangely agree about the “deep state” danger, or that their views line up so well with the claims of Trump, ought to give one pause. But it does not “prove” that they are wrong. All the same, they are wrong. Here’s why:

  • This talk of “the deep state” is overheated and imprecise. Such talk might sound like a simple reference to deeper structures of power not normally in public view. But it is not. The idea of “the deep state” first emerged in connection with discussion of the Turkish, Egyptian, and Pakistani states, all of which were shaped by military coups and have long involved a strong military presence in politics that borders on military dictatorship. The idea of “the deep state” in this context is a reference to the very complex relationships between titular civilian politicians, military institutions, security and police forces, and a netherworld of veritable criminal warlords and mafias.

Does the United States have a “national security establishment?” Yes. Is it “a national security state?” Perhaps. It is true, and important, that in the midst of the Cold War, institutions of “national security,” including the National Security Council and the Central Intelligence Agency, were created. It is true that throughout the Cold War period these institutions engaged in may nefarious activities, domestically and abroad. And it is certainly true that after 9-11, the announced “War on Terror” greatly empowered institutions of surveillance, detention, and repression. These are real and troubling features of US politics, that have been criticized for decades by people on the democratic left.

But do they constitute a “deep state” that operates analogously to the functioning of the Turkish, Pakistani, or Egyptian states? No. Do their officials represent puppet masters pulling the strings of politics from behind the scenes? No, outside of far-right conspiracy theories about dangerous UN “blue helmets” and Justice Department “jackboots” and far-left conspiracy “truther” theories about 9-11 as a CIA plot. The institutions of the US “national security state” surely represent serious constraints on, and defects in, the politics of constitutional democracy. But they are not “rogue” institutions involved in systematically or regularly subverting domestic politics. To the contrary, the institutions, and the priorities they serve, have for a very long time been supported and justified by both major political parties. Yes, as Noam Chomsky has long argued, this has involved a “manufacturing of consent.” But it has also involved a general hegemony; this hegemony has been sustained by a very public politics; and it has sometimes been electorally contested and has frequently been criticized. In short, the US political system is a constrained, inegalitarian, and flawed liberal democracy, but it is a liberal democracy nonetheless, and has not yet crossed the line to authoritarianism.

Further, most of the many thousands of individuals who work in these institutions are professionals. Yes, there is some corruption, especially in many Pentagon contracts. But there is not the widespread corruption, graft, and clientelism that characterizes actual “deep states.” The people who work in the CIA, and the State Department, and the Pentagon are mostly highly professionalized civil servants who take their jobs seriously and who take the institutional subordination of military authority to civilian control and democratic determination very seriously. By all accounts, at every step along the way, the handling of secret information has involved great care and attentiveness to institutional rules.

  • The public revelations of secret dealings involving Flynn and others very close to Trump might have involved some “leaking” of information by intelligence officials seeking to “protect their turf” from Trump’s repeated attacks, but it mainly involved relentless investigative reporting by independent journalists who were able to find sources within the security establishment and the White House willing to disclose classified or confidential information in order to shine a light on official misconduct . To denounce or criticize intelligence professionals willing to whistleblow important information as “leakers” exercising powers of “the deep state” is wrong.

Such a claim does a real injustice to some excellent investigative journalists. To imply that they are hacks of the CIA is to adopt precisely the derisive tone of Trump himself.

And it does an injustice to intelligence professionals, who in fact were in possession of very important information, bearing on US foreign policy and possible collusion in the interference with a Presidential election. (interestingly Greenwald himself, who has devoted much critical attention to “deep state” opposition to Trump, defends the most recent whistleblowing as criminal but “wholly justified,” declaring that “Any leak that results in the exposure of high-level wrongdoing — as this one did — should be praised, not scorned and punished.” Greenwald does not reconcile this observation with his other arguments about how “deep state” attacks on Trump represent a threat to democracy).

Such revelations are not nefarious. They are genuine contributions to public understanding.

To say this is not to celebrate the vast and troubling expansion of surveillance powers by the US government since 9-11. Such powers ought to be reined in, and reining them in ought to be a priority for liberals. But there is a difference between harassing dissidents or detaining suspects at “black sites,” on the one hand, and wiretapping the phones of Russian diplomats and intelligence agents, on the other . And if important information about questionable or borderline illegal activity by public officials is uncovered through such wiretaps, and if such information is shared with political authorities, but political authorities, for a variety of reasons, refuse to act on this information and indeed disparage its sources, what is better for democracy, continued secrecy, or public disclosure? And it is quite obvious that neither the White House nor the Republican Congressional establishment have had any interest in seriously pursuing Trump’s many troubling Russian ties. Indeed, even now, after the whistleblowing that alone brought important facts to light, Senate Republican leaders are maneuvering to limit any inquiry to secret Intelligence Committee hearings, and Representative Jason Chaffetz, the Republican chair of the House Government Oversight Committee, is insisting that no investigation is needed because “ the situation has taken care of itself.”

  • Indeed, while the disclosures do not constitute a “soft coup” or a nefarious interference in an otherwise pure democratic process, they do constitute a kind of resistance—to an administration very publicly committed to rolling back long-standing limits on state power, in connection with the rights of immigrants (“extreme vetting”), prisoners of war (“waterboarding is not torture, it is extreme interrogation”), women, the free press and domestic political opponents. Intelligence professionals are not noble liberals or uniquely heroic defenders of liberal democracy. They are mostly professionals by and large committed to bureaucratic lines of authority and even to a certain understanding of the rule of law. There is of course an underside to all of this. But this does not mean that everything that they do constitutes a nefarious intervention.

Another way of putting this: they are officials of the state. The state is a bureaucratic institution that claims a monopoly over the legitimate use of force within the country. It involves institutional routines and loyalties, and a certain institutional conservatism and resistance to radical change. But to consider such bureaucratic resistance as a kind of coup is to abandon any sense of intellectual proportion.

The fact is that the Trump administration is a uniquely dangerous, authoritarian administration. It is headed by a small group of people, most of whom have no experience of public service, and who are hostile to all forms of proceduralism, institutionalism, and constitutionalism. In Steve Bannon, they have an ideologue who has quite emphatically committed himself to disrupting the basic operations of the state. They are starting to make read headway in this agenda. And in response, there is an emerging resistance by public officials. Within the State Department, and the Justice Department, and the Department of Education, and the EPA, civil service employees and long-term appointees committed to the missions of their agencies are offering bureaucratic resistance to Trump’s most disturbing initiatives. Is this bad? Does it automatically become bad when it involves intelligence officials who are in possession of explosive information about serious wrong-doing and who confront a paranoid administration committed to public dissimulation and deceit?

We are in the midst of a serious political and constitutional crisis.

No major social, economic, or political institution is untouched.

The Trump administration is not the “cause” of the crisis. But it has brought this crisis to a head, and has promised and begun to enact one very frightening way of resolving the crisis — through the creation of a truly anti-liberal, xenophobic and authoritarian regime.

To ignore the questionable circumstances under which it came to power, and even more to bracket out the very dangerous ways it has already begun to exercise its power, and to treat it as an expression of “democracy” and to treat intelligence whistleblowers as agents of “the deep state” or even enemies of democracy — this represents a serious lapse of good political judgment. That a similar rhetorical tack is being relentlessly pursued by Trump and his lackeys is something much worse — a form of pure cynicism.

The current clear and present danger to democracy is the man who won 306 Electoral College votes, Donald Trump, the so-called President of the United States, who has already placed his administration on a collision course with liberal democracy and with reality.

The danger is not a “soft coup” by “the deep state.” The danger is a hard push to authoritarianism by an elected President committed to making war on science, public education, a free press, rational bureaucracy, the rule of law, and all forms of intelligence. The main work of resisting this danger falls to citizens acting autonomously. But we can only hope that there will continue to be conscientious journalists willing to relentlessly pursue leads, and conscientious public officials and civil servants willing disclose publicly important information even when, and especially when, elected leaders do everything in their power to keep it secret.

Jeffrey C. Isaac

  • Eric Odgaard

    Unless I missed something, this thesis needs some serious work. If I’ve read correctly, people who worry that this sort of leak is bad are focusing on a fear of “deep state”ness, which is inappropriate because there are other, much more “deep state”y, states out there. Even if we accept the inherently weak rebuttal of relativism, why doesn’t the same principle apply to the writer’s fixated danger? Trump’s administration is “uniquely dangerous” in it’s athoritarianism? Really?? The guy who’s had one executive order squashed by courts, and at least three other initiatives stalled by a Congress who refuses to take them up? In the world of the modern regimes of Turkey, Iran, North Korea, China, and others, the wannabe authoritarian Trump is the dangerous one? Preposterous.

    • D Fernandez

      The question lies in the intent – the hyperbole is a rhetorical device to highlight the absurdity of calling the leaks evidence of an intelligence community that resembles the “deep state.” Of course it’s “preposterous” as you say; that’s what the article is trying to illuminate.

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