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“Deep State” Paranoia

In the past several weeks, we have heard ranting out of the White House about a “deep state” conspiracy to frustrate Donald Trump’s objectives.  It is only this current fact-free administration which could turn a well-understand aspect of the American government — mentioned in political science courses for over half a century — into a sinister conspiracy aimed at President Trump.  It’s no secret that bureaucracies across the world (not just in the U.S.) function in their own peculiar ways to keep the government functioning — even when elected officials would rather destroy the government.  There are, of course, some features that are driving the Trumpistas crazy.

  1.  The United States is not a dictatorship.  The jobs and duties of the various departments and agencies are defined by statutes and existing regulations.  Because there are grey areas in these statutes and regulations, the executive branch does have some discretion in interpreting them (as discussed regularly in the posts about legal issues).  However, the President can’t on his own enact new laws or repeal existing laws.  Thus, however, much a President might see a need for new revenues to balance the budget, he can’t simply order the Treasury Department to start collecting a new $1 per day tax on every hotel room in the country.  Similarly, the President can’t simply order the permanent resident status of a legal immigrant revoked simply because that permanent resident posts a tweet criticizing the President.

2.  At the federal level, most individuals working for the federal government are careerists who have civil service protection.  Even for agencies that are exempt from civil service protection (which includes many state and city governments), there are First Amendment protections against discharge for political reasons.  Barring gross insubordination, these individuals can keep on doing their jobs as they understand their responsibilities.

3.  Most career civil servants identify with the mission of their department or agency.  It was not a shock that the organizations representing Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and Border Patrol employees were sympathetic to Trump’s proposals to beef up border security and to step up deportation activity.   Similarly, you would expect that career attorneys in the Civil Rights Division believe in enforcing civil rights laws and that those working in the foreign service believe in diplomacy and the traditional foreign policy objectives of the U.S. government.  You may have some temporary influx of “rookies” when government changes hands that agree with the goals of the new administration.  In the long term, however, it is hard to stay in a job when you disagree with the basic goal of the job.  Additionally, many jobs in the federal government (e.g. EPA and the FDA) require a certain educational background.  Most rational persons do not choose their college majors or graduate/professional schools for the purpose of one day undermining a government department.

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