The Deep State

London Review of Books, Vol. 39 (5) 02.03.2017
Adam Shatz

A few months before Donald Trump was elected president, I was in Paris talking to an American political scientist, a specialist on North Africa who has made his home in France. Laxminarayan (not his real name) was sceptical of Trump’s chances. And even if he were to win, Laxminarayan added, it was very clear what would happen next.

‘Really?’ I said. ‘And what is that?’

‘He will have to be removed from power by the deep state, or be assassinated.’

Laxminarayan’s faith in the power, if not the wisdom, of the American deep state has declined since the election. If there is a deep state – a network of political, military and economic interests operating behind the scenes to ensure the continuity of America’s governing structures – it isn’t clear that it has the coherence, or the ability to act in periods of emergency, that deep states in the Middle East have, thanks in large part to their foundations in military rule. Laxminarayan and I used to debate the workings of the deep states in Algeria and Egypt, as if it were a kind of experts’ game. We also drew, I suspect, a certain relief from the fact that Western democracies were less burdened by their machinations.

Once Trump came to power, however, Laxminarayan began talking about the deep state in longing tones, hoping – not unlike Middle Easterners welcoming a military coup against a regime they disliked – that it might ‘do the job’. Where, he asked in emails, is Khaled Islambouli, who masterminded the assassination of Sadat, or Lee Harvey Oswald, when you needed him? This was dark humour, of course, but it wasn’t merely that.

I don’t meant to single out Laxminarayan. I was recently on the phone with a woman in her seventies who asked why someone couldn’t ‘put out a contract on …’ I interrupted her; better not to say it.

Talk of violence, civil war and secession is in the air in the blue states today. Many, perhaps most of us who live in coastal cities have found ourselves having criminal thoughts and violent fantasies since 9 November. Some involve Trump and Steve Bannon; others involve white supremacists like Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos; still others involve the fabled white working class that is supposed to have voted for Trump (the reality is more complicated than that, I know), which most of us have found it easier to hate than persuade. (I’m as guilty as the next person.) These feelings provide a measure of psychological release, but they are also difficult to manage. Living with bile and rage is not pleasant; it eats away at the soul, when the adrenaline subsides.

I’ve been thinking a lot, lately, about what these fantasies mean (aside from the obvious desires they express), and how we might use them (other than for the obvious purpose, which would only be a gift to the administration). My hunch is that they express, above all, a sense not only of horror, but of impotence. The ‘resistance’, as the mobilisation against Trump has become known, as if we had all taken to the maquis rather than our smart phones, is gratifying, even encouraging, but it isn’t enough, and no matter how widespread and determined, it cannot, on its own, eject Trump and Bannon from power. It is more likely that our president will be in power for four years than that he will be forced out. He can only be removed before the end of his term by impeachment or death, natural or otherwise. That many are fantasising about the last of these is hardly surprising, since neither impeachment nor death by natural causes seems likely. Trump may not be as healthy as Obama, but he isn’t ill; and he has control of both houses of Congress for the next two years, at least.

There is no inherent harm in fantasising. People living under tyranny often dream that their leaders will come to a violent end (if they haven’t embraced him as a beloved father figure). Still, it’s notable how easily violent thoughts have come to those of us who have known only a single, and much contested, month of the Trump-Bannon era. American exceptionalism may be dead, but it lives on as a habit of mind, measured now not in the supremacy of our democracy but in the unprecedented horror we imagine ourselves to be experiencing. These thoughts are, in a way, a tribute to the power Trump has over our imagination. If he had a sense of irony, he might draw a perverse pleasure from the fact that he has provoked otherwise pacific people into dreaming of violence – and dreaming that violence is their only resort against him.

It might be useful to think about these fantasies in wider terms, as a way of trying to understand the citizens of other countries, particularly those whom Americans have for the most part refused to sympathise with. We might try, for example, to understand why Palestinians have carried out violent attacks against the people who have occupied them for (as of June this year) half a century. They have been under military rule, without recourse to elections or a fair legal system, much less citizenship, for roughly 600 times as long as we have been under Trump. Americans who think suicide bombs are shocking, or are evidence of cultural backwardness or a Muslim disposition towards violence, might do well to reflect on the fragile psychology of political violence, as we feel the fantasy, even the temptation of violence, rise up in ourselves.

The dangerous fantasy that the deep state might rescue us – Laxminarayan’s fantasy – also merits examination, for we have seen its results in Egypt. Without this fantasy, General Sisi could never have come to power. I was among those who deplored Egypt’s coup, not because of any sympathy for Mohammed Morsi or the Muslim Brothers, but because I feared that it would lead to the destruction of the Egyptian democracy movement, and of whatever trappings remained of procedural democracy in an already deeply authoritarian society. I haven’t changed my mind about that. But I have a better understanding of Egyptian friends who welcomed the military’s intervention because they were afraid that Morsi would introduce an Islamist dictatorship. Fear is not a good guide to political wisdom. The Egyptians now live under a far harsher regime than Morsi’s, or Mubarak’s. Military intervention against Trump, even if it were possible, and I doubt it is, would probably result in a more sweeping and destructive transformation of our democracy. When we act on our fears, we usually end up being ruled by them.

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