American Resistance: The Inside Story of How the Deep State Saved the Nation
By David Rothkopf
PublicAffairs, 288 pages, $29
David Rothkopf is the deep state made flesh. A sort of “Yung Kissinger,” Rothkopf has done the cursus honorum of journalism, government, philanthropy, and academia. Not that he is or ever was in charge of anything. No one is in charge of anything. There is only a way things work. But if anyone knows how things work, it is Rothkopf.
That’s why it’s worth reading his new masterpiece of airport nonfiction, American Resistance: The Inside Story of How The Deep State Saved the Nation. Or in case you have better things to do in the airport—my summary of the book’s argument:
- The deep state does not exist.
- The deep state is stronger than the president.
- The deep state is the true democracy.
- There is no deep state.
It is not my business to refute this remarkable logic—only to explain it.
What is the deep state? What does it think? Why does it do what it does? Where does it come from, and where is it going? Rothkopf is here to tell us—and yet, not. Like Kissinger, he loves nothing more than to say a thing and in the next breath deny it.
One random phrase caught my eye as a beautiful sample of his style. Rothkopf writes of “the alleged ties between Joe Biden’s son Hunter and the energy company Burisma in Ukraine” (my emphasis). Alleged! The fact that Hunter Biden was on Burisma’s board is as well-documented as the Holocaust. Yet with this one beautiful word, alleged, the commissar vanishes. Orwell was a rookie.
My dad, once a foreign service officer posted in Africa, explained: “This is how normal corruption works, everywhere, so long as no one is looking.” Or more precisely, when all the people looking are nobodies. When the Venn intersection of people who (like Rothkopf, obviously) matter and people who care is the empty set, all you need is plausible deniability.
Where police and journalists prowl, bribery is hard—corruption takes layers and layers of brokers and consultants. When no one who matters cares, you just pay off the big man’s son through a fake job. Not even a convincing fake job—a ridiculous, utterly implausible, and possibly even funny fake job.
Imagine if Burisma had been investigated under some hypothetical reverse of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which bars American entities from bribing foreign governments. What Burisma did with Hunter Biden was like Exxon putting Nigerian Vice President Yemi Osinbajo’s son on its board—if young Hunter Osimbajo’s energy-sector expertise was limited to huffing gasoline.
Such a transparent subterfuge would fool the investigators for roughly two seconds. Imagine an “investigation” that concluded: “Wait, that’s young Osimbajo! Totally different guy! Sad, his gasoline problem… Nothing to see here, officers—move along…” This is how above scrutiny the deep state is.
Not 1 in 10 NPR progressives will peek behind anything alleged. Nor can anyone challenge Rothkopf’s claim. It is alleged that the Holocaust happened. Duh. It did happen! Why, there is not a lie in the book.
And of course, no one with real power will ever investigate any payment to the Bidens or the Clintons—allowing all such allegations to remain unsubstantiated. Again, the truth is clear. No one—that is, no one who matters—has ever substantiated these allegations. So they are unsubstantiated allegations. How many fingers?
My favorite character in 1984 is O’Brien, the commissar. Everyone wants to be the hero Winston Smith. Winston Smith is boring. Even Julia, his love interest, is boring. The great character is O’Brien, Orwell’s version of Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor. O’Brien knows; he doesn’t care; he also cares. He loves Big Brother, and it’s funny. Isn’t it funny? It’s only funny for him… and his friends, who are in.
There is a kind of humor I call “crocodile humor,” a sort of in-joke in which the only joke is that the ins are in and the outs are out. (I named this after the Soviet “humor” magazine, Krokodil, which thrived on this sort of sneering joke.) Any joke aimed at the lesser, weaker, or other is inherently full of crocodile humor. In the purest 100-percent-cacao-dark-chocolate crocodile humor—nothing else is funny. Rothkopf isn’t really funny. He is always witty. His wit is always crocodile wit.
And above the wit, there is logic. The logic is crocodile logic: logic that delights in its own fallacy. Again like O’Brien in 1984, it revels in proving that 2+2=5. Here is Rothkopf introducing his subject: “The animus of the anti-government crowd has been directed at something characterized as the ‘deep state.’ The idea was that the bureaucracy was too large, too powerful, and that it did not answer to voters. The implication was that therefore it was a threat to democracy.”
Rothkopf then spends 250 pages recounting how the bureaucracy failed to answer to politicians. Now, California and its wacky referendums aside, America is supposedly a representative democracy. Not answering to politicians is … not answering to voters. This is not an opinion. This is logic.
Rothkopf’s message is clear: Voters do not and should not control the government. He is right, in my opinion, on both points. “Representative democracy” does not, and should not, exist. He is telling the truth in a language no audience can hear.
Here is how Rothkopf defines the heroes who defeated the politicians’ will—in other words, who defeated the voters’ will—in other words, who defeated democracy:
An informal alliance of women and men working in agencies across the US government, some at the highest level, some several levels down, some well-known, some obscure, some Republicans, some Democrats, some Independents… Time after time it was those who some condemned as members of the (nonexistent) deep state that actually helped to save the country, or at least did their best to protect it.
The (nonexistent) deep state saved the country. There you go. Take another hit of that. Constitutional theory in the early 21st century is really something.
The price of realizing that Rothkopf is telling the truth is being unable, since you are not Rothkopf, to repeat it. This is the relationship between O’Brien and Winston Smith. They agree with each other. O’Brien has read Goldstein’s book. Maybe O’Brien even wrote it.
At the level of power and language, Rothkopf’s usage of “deep state” is brilliant. It reflects a propaganda technique we may call acrolectic privilege, in which the low may not even utter the name of the high. When “deep state” is spoken in a political acrolect—for example, while fly fishing—it is the best thing in the world. When spoken in a basilect—say, on a bass boat—it is a “conspiracy theory” and may not be uttered.
Democracy has become yet another acrolectic euphemism. It does not mean “voters elect politicians who get to run the government.” For the true meaning of democracy, I can turn only to America’s leading statesman —Joseph R. Biden: “Democracy is more than a form of government. It’s a way of being. A way of seeing the world. A way that defines who we are, what we believe, and why we do what we do. Democracy is simply that fundamental.”
“Ah,” as you say at a poetry reading. Yet Rothkopf has a different definition—or seems to. He does think democracy is just a form of government. Or does he?
Of course, in a democracy the ones who are truly in charge, whose values should matter most, are the members of the electorate, the people. In some respects, in a well-functioning democracy elected officials are at the bottom of the totem poll [sic], reporting up to the citizenry at large.
Note the smooth segue from “truly in charge” to “whose values should matter most.” If the people’s values matter most—not, of course, the false consciousness installed by Facebook, Fox News, and Standard Oil, but the true people’s values—the people are “truly in charge.”
Ergo, we have democracy. And who is capable of implementing these people’s values? Why, of course, the (nonexistent) deep state. The politicians are at the bottom of the “totem poll [sic],” above—nothing. It’s almost literally Animal Farm. The people elect—nothing. While they are satisfied with this nothing—the people remain nothing.
In every country in the developed world, representative democracy is dead. In its place, we have oligarchy. The way our oligarchy works is very simple. While hymning “democracy,” it has to disable actual representative democracy. It does this by disabling the control of the chief executive over the executive branch.
Broadly speaking, the procedure, budget, and personnel of the agencies is specified by law. Law, of course, comes from the legislative branch. What does it matter if the Founders would never have recognized a 12,000-page appropriations bill, voted on without being debated or even being read, as “law”? The Founders are dead. (Also, they were racists.)
The legislative branch is still nominally democratic, of course. But the nominal power of the voters over Congress is attenuated by five factors. Together these tame the stormy waves of open-ocean democracy to gentle glassy harbor swell.
The first is that incumbency exceeds 98 percent in the House and 90 percent in the Senate. The second is the seniority system, which ensures that sporadic breaches in incumbency produce no serious changes in policy. The third is the fact that Congress has delegated its authority broadly to the agencies. The fourth is the internal continuity of the Hill staffers, plus the external continuity of donors, lobbyists, and activists. The fifth is that no one has any real emotional connection to any election besides the presidency; so the Congress is largely chosen according to who has the largest budget for lawn signs. The sixth… do we need more? The whole Hill is one great fortress against democracy.
It is necessary to pretend that democracy exists. Yet democracy, to the extent that it still has strength to do anything, can only act through the form of monarchy—by electing a populist leader.
If the voters want to be as powerful as possible, they have to focus all their energy on a single point. Therefore, to pretend that democracy is real, it is necessary to pretend that monarchy is real—in the United States, to pretend that the president is really, genuinely the chief executive of the government. The “leader of the Free World,” or something.
In theory, the president steers the White House, and the White House steers the agencies. But the reality is that all meaningful oversight over the policy, budget, and personnel belongs to the Congress. Agency staff do not testify before the president.
And once legislative authority is subtracted, no significant executive authority is left. As Rothkopf explains very neatly in his very true book, the president cannot make DC change its course in any significant or lasting way. He simply does not have that right under the law as we know it.
So the voters, who only really care about the election for the presidency, have no such right under the “law” as we know it. Yes, they could change the law by changing the Congress—but the House, which the Founders designed to be the lungs of democracy, is suffocated by incumbency. Even the Senate, originally designed as the anti-democratic side of Congress, only has a 90 percent incumbency rate. Of course, its six-year staggered terms are another anti-democratic measure. Congress as an institution has a popularity rating that hardly ever breaks above 20 percent, and often menaces the 10 percent line. No one really cares, and it doesn’t matter.
Dear Americans, this is why your vote in the big election doesn’t count. The election isn’t stolen on Election Day, in the voting machines. It is stolen later, in Washington. It isn’t even stolen by any person who you can scream at. Rather, it is stolen by design—and the designers are long since dead.
It works like any con: If you lose, you lose. But if you win, you don’t win. Like a child on a ship, you get to sit in the captain’s chair and spin the captain’s wheel. But you are not steering the vessel.
Let’s let Rothkopf explain to us how it actually works—through the story of Executive Orders 13769 and 13780. We are zooming in on the stolen election—by zooming in on the exact way in which the legislative and judiciary branches, both oligarchic in form, steal the intended constitutional power of the monarchic-democratic presidency.
We first need to remind ourselves that we are looking at a rare exception in which the law gives the president explicit power to set public policy. This almost never happens:
Whenever the president finds that the entry of any aliens or of any class of aliens into the United States would be detrimental to the interests of the United States, he may by proclamation, and for such period as he shall deem necessary, suspend the entry of all aliens or any class of aliens as immigrants or nonimmigrants, or impose on the entry of aliens any restrictions he may deem to be appropriate.
By proclamation! Like a king! Fear not, Americans (and future Americans)—that was only the 1952 Immigration Act. Then, we were learning about Communist infiltration of the water supply. But by 1965, we had learned that It’s A Small World After All: “No person shall receive any preference or priority or be discriminated against in the issuance of an immigrant visa because of the person’s race, sex, nationality, place of birth, or place of residence.”
Psych! President Trump couldn’t simply proclaim, like a king, that some “class of aliens” should be restricted because he “deemed” it “appropriate”—just because that same class, or something like it, had done 9/11 on rubber-stamped tourist visas.
The president is not a king and cannot proclaim or command—even when explicitly allowed by law!—because the government does not work by command. No—there has to be a process. There is always a process—and the process is dictated by law. As Rothkopf explains:
The process of meeting the legal criteria that [Trump administration officials] had ignored led to the effort being bogged down in the courts for a year and a half. It was during this period that officials of DHS, at State, and elsewhere in the government began to do what they could to defuse what several characterized as to me as the “fundamentally racist” origins of the executive order.
US law bans religious discrimination as a reason for denying entry into the country. But it does allow the president to act to protect national security. So an alchemy took place that made a repulsive piece of legislation [sic—an executive order is not “legislation”] somewhat less odious. In concert with the courts, officials worked to come up with national-security criteria that could enable something like the original executive order (which ended up being redrafted two more times) to take effect.
Like the philosopher’s stone, which in ancient legend could be used to turn base metals into gold, there was something about the often dreary, often invisible work of government, the touch of the “deep state” that could turn the repulsive and unconstitutional into government policies that were at least legal and more morally acceptable.
Again we see O’Brien glorying in his power to turn 2+2 into 5. The final outcome of this absurd Kafkaesque process, completed at the start of 2020 right before Covid made it irrelevant, included microscopic loopholes like an exception for cases in which the foreign national
seeks to enter the United States to visit or reside with a close family member (e.g., a spouse, child, or parent) who is a United States citizen, lawful permanent resident, or alien lawfully admitted on a valid nonimmigrant visa, and the denial of entry during the suspension period would cause undue hardship.
In the end, all this squeezing—in 2017 much decried as an American Kristallnacht—resulted in a tiny ort of special-case bureaucracy being applied to a few special cases, in a US immigration system which remains a noxious heap of orts. And Rothkopf, liking this result, gloats.
This is how the voters who voted for Trump had their votes stolen from them. They were not electing the leader of the Free World, or even of the US government. They were electing a figurehead who could do no more than occasionally disrupt the operations of the US government. This is how the wire from the voting machine to power is cut.
None of this proves that Trump’s immigration policy is right, or the deep state’s immigration policy is right. It just proves that oligarchy is boss over democracy.
Rothkopf is a big fan of Rep. Jamie Raskin, red prince of his father Marcus Raskin’s Institute for Policy Studies, and a “constitutional scholar.” Raskin, naturally in this our golden age of gaslighting, thinks the White House has too much power:
You know, the role of the president came after. It didn’t exist in the Articles of Confederation or the article of association that was added afterward. It was a gesture towards executive efficiency and keeping things going on when Congress was not in town.
But now everything has been capsized and turned on its head, and the president is somehow deemed to be something like a king of the world. And it is an absurd departure from the basic constitutional understandings the framers had. We were conceived in insurgency against monarchical power.
This picture of the relationship between the Articles and the Constitution boggles the mind. Don’t take it from me—take it from Hamilton, who wrote in Federalist 70:
Energy in the executive is a leading character in the definition of good government. A feeble executive implies a feeble execution of the government. A feeble execution is but another phrase for a bad execution; and a government ill executed, whatever it may be in theory, must be, in practice, a bad government.
Every man the least conversant in Roman history, knows how often that republic was obliged to take refuge in the absolute power of a single man, under the formidable title of dictator, against the intrigues of ambitious individuals who aspired to the tyranny, and the seditions of whole classes of the community whose conduct threatened the existence of all government, as well as against the invasions of external enemies who menaced the conquest and destruction of Rome.
In England, the king is a perpetual magistrate; and it is a maxim which has obtained for the sake of the public peace, that he is unaccountable for his administration, and his person sacred. Nothing, therefore, can be wiser in that kingdom, than to annex to the king a constitutional council, who may be responsible to the nation for the advice they give.
Without this, there would be no responsibility whatever in the executive department, an idea inadmissible in a free government. But even there the king is not bound by the resolutions of his council, though they are answerable for the advice they give. He is the absolute master of his own conduct in the exercise of his office, and may observe or disregard the counsel given to him at his sole discretion.
But America is not England, nor is she Rome. Perhaps these ideas of monarchical government are alien to our sacred American tradition? Well, kids, as it happens, the deep state is the ossified corpse of an American monarchy—the New Deal, the personal regime of FDR.
Rep. Raskin, the constitutional and historical scholar, is the son and political heir of Marcus Raskin, who was himself an acolyte of core New Dealer Rexford Tugwell. Harold Ickes, Tugwell’s colleague, described how FDR’s regime “kept things going when Congress wasn’t in town”:
The discussion of subsistence homesteads led the president to say something about his proposed setup for public works. Apparently he has in mind to set up quite a large Works Board…
He said that there would be one man in charge of procurement (evidently having in mind Admiral Peoples), one man in charge of labor, and one man to keep track of the schedule. Over the whole setup he would be in charge. He said that in England the Prime Minister was Chairman of the Works Board.
I believe his plan is unworkable. I don’t believe that there can be a successful administration through a board, especially a large board such as he proposes. Here is the biggest program on record in the history of the world in peace times, and in my judgment, the administration will break down or else it will find itself in the hands of one man, just as I took over control of the Public Works Administration that he set up in 1933.
This is not a world of government by process. It is a world of government by command. FDR ran DC as if he were Elon Musk. He was surrounded by little kings like Ickes and Tugwell. They got things done. In fact, they literally conquered the world.
Things have changed; a monarchy has become an oligarchy. Yet it would be a mistake to view the Rothkopfs and Raskins as acolytes of oligarchy. Now and then, they are acolytes of—what is. They are acolytes of power—in every place, in every time, in its every luscious form. Rep. Raskin, the “constitutional scholar,” would be a diehard New Deal cult-of-personality FDR Stalinist.
No, they do not believe in democracy or oligarchy. They believe in nothing. Nothing is true to them, unless it is useful. Nothing is useful, unless it makes them powerful. History and law and logic and the Constitution and morality have one lesson for them: Might makes right. Whatever is strong is true, legal, constitutional, and right.
Ultimately, Rothkopf and his party are practicing Nietzcheans and Machiavellians—not in the philosophical sense, but in the colloquial sense. Power has consumed them.
Their faith is nihilism—and only nihilism can defeat them. To pretend that they believe in anything, even to offer contrary arguments, is simply to play their game.