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The Man Who Popularized The 'Deep State' Doesn't Like The Way It's Used

Nov 6, 2019
Originally published on November 6, 2019 7:50 pm

Mike Lofgren is the very definition of a civil servant. He was a congressional staffer for 28 years, with most of that time spent crunching numbers on the Senate and House budget committees.

He's moderate and mild-mannered, saying, "I was on the Republican side my whole career. I wasn't a culture wars Republican, basically a fiscal conservative in the manner of say, [President Dwight] Eisenhower."

Lofgren was turned off by the Tea Party Republicans who came into Congress in 2011, and decided it was time to quit. Three years later, Lofgren wrote an essay called, "Anatomy of the Deep State."

The essay is not partisan. Lofgren criticizes both parties, along with the national security community, Wall Street and Silicon Valley. And he takes pains to point out that he's not a conspiracy theorist.

His basic point is that big institutions, inside and outside of government, are so entrenched it's hard to bring any real change. Political options are limited.

"This is not to say it's the worst of all worlds," Lofgren said. "You sort of get a choice between Coke and New Coke."

His idea first gained traction among progressives who felt Republicans were pursuing a scorched-earth policy to thwart President Barack Obama.

Mike Lofgren, a former congressional staffer, wrote The Deep State in 2016. While the term is now widely in use, it's not in the way that Lofgren intended. He appears here on a PBS program hosted by commentator Bill Moyers.
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In fact, Lofgren wrote his essay for the website of liberal commentator Bill Moyers, and also appeared on the PBS program he hosted.

The state of 'deep state'

Lofgren expanded his essay into a 2016 book called: The Deep State: The Fall Of The Constitution And The Rise Of A Shadow Government. The book got some favorable reviews, but didn't set the publishing world on fire.

Then President Trump took office.

"Unelected, deep state operatives who defy the voters, to push their own secret agendas, are truly a threat to democracy itself," Trump said at a rally last year, one of the many times he's invoked the term.

For the president and his supporters, deep state is shorthand for Democratic-leaning bureaucrats who want to undermine Trump.

Breitbart began extensive coverage to "deep state" stories around the time Trump entered office, and others have followed. In a search of TV transcripts, the term "deep state" appeared only 64 times in 2016, the year Lofgren published his book.

In 2017, it shot up to nearly 2,300 mentions, and surged to nearly 5,000 hits last year, many of them on Fox News.

And it's rarely, if ever, used the way Mike Lofgren intended.

"It's like I released this species into the wild and what it did, or maybe it's a Frankenstein, and what it does is not within my control," he said.

The idea of a conspiratorial deep state goes back centuries. Some trace it to ancient Rome. In recent decades, it has been used to describe countries such as Turkey and Pakistan, where the security forces were seen as dictating orders to elected governments.

Le Carre novel

Lofgren says he first encountered the term in a spy novel A Delicate Truth by John le Carre, who describes the hidden power brokers at work in Great Britain.

Now it pops up everywhere.

"Thank God for the deep state," said John McLaughlin, the former deputy director of the CIA. He spoke ironically, drawing laughs when he made the remark at a recent panel discussion at George Mason University.

But he was making a serious point as he spoke about government officials testifying before congressional committees at the impeachment inquiry.

"Everyone here has seen this progression of diplomats, and intelligence officers and White House people trooping up to Capitol Hill right now, and saying, 'These are people who are doing their duty,'" McLaughlin said.

When we caught up with McLaughlin a few days later, he said he had received some blowback for those comments. Then he went on to say:

"I think it's a silly idea. There is no 'deep state.' What people think of as the 'deep state' is just the American civil service, social security, the people who fix the roads, health and human services, Medicare."

Mike Lofgren, now retired at age 66, used to be one of those people when he was a Republican congressional staffer. Today, he says he's turned his back on the Republican Party.

"I am an independent who will not vote Republican until they demonstrate to me that they've purged Trumpism and that they're a sane party," he said.

Rachel Treisman is an intern on NPR's National Desk.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

President Trump and his supporters often say there's a deep state. They say it's made up of government bureaucrats who want to undermine his presidency, and the label has been attached to government officials, known and unknown, who have alleged wrongdoing by the president. The phrase deep state came into our political discourse very recently, and it's actually not so easy to define. NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre looks at the unlikely source behind this catchphrase.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Mike Lofgren is the very definition of a civil servant. He was a congressional staffer for 28 years, most of it spent crunching numbers on the Senate and House budget committees. He's moderate and mild-mannered. This is how he defined himself politically.

MIKE LOFGREN: I was on the Republican side my whole career. I wasn't a culture-wars Republican - basically, fiscal conservatism in the manner of, say, Eisenhower.

MYRE: He was turned off by the Tea Party Republicans who came into Congress in 2011. He quit his job, and three years later, Lofgren wrote an essay called "Anatomy Of The Deep State." It wasn't partisan, and he stresses he's not a conspiracy theorist. His point is that big institutions, inside and outside of government, are so entrenched it's hard to bring any real change. Political options are limited.

LOFGREN: This is not to say it's the worst of all worlds. You sort of get a choice between Coke and New Coke.

MYRE: His idea first gained traction among progressives who felt Republicans were thwarting President Barack Obama at every turn. Lofgren expanded his essay into a 2016 book called "The Deep State." It got some good reviews, but it didn't set the world on fire. Then President Trump took office.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Unelected deep-state operatives who defy the voters to push their own secret agendas are truly a threat to democracy itself.

MYRE: For the president and his supporters, deep state is shorthand for Democratic-leaning bureaucrats who want to undermine Trump. Now the phrase is a staple on cable TV. Breitbart News has an entire section called the deep state. That's not what Mike Lofgren intended.

LOFGREN: You know, it's like I released this species into the wild or maybe a Frankenstein monster. And what it does is not within my control.

MYRE: The idea of a conspiratorial deep state goes back centuries. Lofgren says he first encountered the actual term deep state in a spy novel by John le Carre, who describes the hidden hands at work in the British government. Now it pops up everywhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: Thank God for the deep state.

MYRE: That's John McLaughlin, the former deputy director of the CIA. In this recent panel discussion, he spoke about government officials testifying before congressional committees at the impeachment inquiry.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCLAUGHLIN: Everyone here has seen this progression of diplomats and intelligence officers and White House people trooping up to Capitol Hill right now and saying, these are people who are doing their duty or responding to a higher call.

MYRE: When I reached McLaughlin on a cellphone in his car, he said he'd caught some blowback for what he described as a facetious comment to make a point.

MCLAUGHLIN: I think it's a silly idea. There is no deep state. What people think of as the deep state - they're just the American civil service - Social Security, the people who fix the roads, Health and Human Services, Medicare.

MYRE: Mike Lofgren, now retired at age 66, used to be one of those people when he was a Republican congressional staffer. Today, he says...

LOFGREN: I am an independent who will not vote Republican until they demonstrate to me that they've purged Trumpism and that they're a sane party.

MYRE: He didn't say when he thought that might be.

Greg Myre, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.