Dao Du Jour II, Day 17: The Dao of the Deep State

Chapter 17: Acting Simply

“True leaders

are hardly known to their followers.

Next after them are the leaders

The people know and admire;

After them, those they fear;

after them, those they despise.


When the work’s done right,

With no fuss or boasting,

Ordinary people say,

Oh, we did it.”

~ Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)

The Obama administration’s oft-ridiculed phrase “leading from behind” was meant to describe an approach to foreign policy that departed from neoconservative hardcore unilateralism in favor of a softer touch meant to coax allies into joining our causes and putting skin in the game. But it could just as well have described the army of civil servants who ran the federal government under his watch.

Biologist E.O. Wilson once wrote a famous essay, “The Little Things That Run the World,” where he pointed out that while environmentalists tend to wring their hands over the demise of charismatic megafauna like polar bears and rhinos, it’s actually the billions of itty bitty creatures we barely see—insects and fungi and microbes (and, as we say today, microbiomes)—that form the circulatory system that makes the biosphere (and our bodies) function. In The Fifth Risk, Michael Lewis profiles the little people that run the world; not the political appointees who head federal agencies, but the dedicated career people who actually run them, from USDA to Energy to Commerce. The people no one ever hears about, but on whose work and expertise everyone depends.

Trump—the leader who was most feared, most despised, and most known—did more than every previous president to disrupt the smooth operation of the federal government, erode confidence in its competence, and cast doubt on its necessity. He did so because we was not a true leader, but a follower in two senses.

First, Trump read the room correctly—the gathering perfect storm of post-2008 economic malaise, anti-elitist and anti-immigrant sentiment, distrust of experts, and racial backlash against a black president for which Palin and the Tea Party had delivered proof of concept as a powerful political resource ripe for exploitation—and acted accordingly. Demagogues are usually referred to as “popular leaders,” but this is an oxymoron based on an ignorance of political psychology. The demagogue follows the people because he encourages them to follow their own base impulses, and because he is simply following his own hunger for power, fame, riches, or some combination thereof. Plato unforgettably profiles the demagogue in the Republic, noting that he carefully studies the sounds and movements of the inchoate beast of public opinion, and then slavishly imitates and exaggerates them to whip them up into an even greater frenzy. He leads them only in the sense of luring them even deeper into their confusion and crudity.

Second, Trump was following the advice of counselors like Steve Bannon, whose primary mission was the “deconstruction of the administrative state,” or what came to be called, pejoratively, the “deep state.” While the deep state was one of the less outlandish conspiracy theories of the Trump era–in the sense that unlike, say, QAnon or Stop the Steal, there is a factual state of affairs which it misguidedly attempts to describe–the actions taken to weaken it are arguably the most consequential.

Lewis tells the story of Max Stier’s quest to boost public awareness and appreciation of the unsung heroes of the deep state. Lewis writes that if you were to line up the entire American population “by each citizen’s interest in the federal government, and Donald Trump loitered somewhere near one end of it, Max Stier would occupy the other.” Stier adopted an unglamorous role to highlight umglamorous people and unglamorous work. His greatest challenge, Lewis explains, was “explaining the value of this enterprese at the center of a democratic society to people who either took it for granted or imagined it as a pernicious force in their lives over which they had no control.” The administrative state is deep, and that depth is both the source of its operational strength, and the reason the lack of awareness and respect the public have toward it—it’s largely invisible. Like the bugs and bacteria, it all moves silently under the surface of the soil and the skin, keeping things going. A better term than the deep state is what Suzanne Mettler calls the “submerged state.” Stier recently lobbied Congress to reverse the Trump administration’s efforts to increase the ratio of political appointees to career positions in the upper ranks of federal agencies, efforts that are tantamount to deforestation: the more you cut down the trees that have been around a long time that have deep roots in the soil, the more likely the surrounding soil will erode, and the less effectively the ecosystem will function and flourish. And, of course, the more carbon you’ll release into the air.

While the deep state is far from perfect, the alternative is the shallow state. When a Trump administration official finally swung by the Commerce Department to be brief about the organization he would soon by running and was told about NOAA, he replied, “What the fuck is NOAA?”

Now that the country has been through an administration and a pandemic that have made painfully plain how necessary a functional federal government is to keeping us safe, perhaps more people will see the deep state for what it is: not a cabal of corrupt bureacrats on the bankroll of George Soros, but ordinary people maintaining the ark of modern civilization and leading us toward calmer seas.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”