A Summary of the Deep State in the United States

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According to an American political conspiracy theory, the deep state is a clandestine network of members of the federal government (especially within the FBI and CIA), working in conjunction with high-level financial and industrial entities and leaders, to exercise power alongside or within the elected United States government. 

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The term 'deep state' is thought to have originated in Turkey in the 1990s, but belief in the concept of a deep state has been present in the United States since at least the 1950s.

A 1955 article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists quotes Americans sharing their belief in the existence of a "dual state": a hidden national security hierarchy and shadow government that monitors and controls elected politicians. 

The term has gained more popularity and recognition under the presidency of Donald Trump, who frequently referenced an alleged "deep state" working against him and his administration's agenda.

The use of Trump's Twitter account, combined with other elements of right-wing populist movements during his presidency, gave birth to numerous conspiracy theory groups, such as QAnon.  

Opinion polling done in 2017 and 2018 suggests that approximately half of all Americans believe in the existence of a deep state. 

Usage by journalists and academics

Some journalists and academics have used the term 'deep state' to describe various aspects of the US government that are not directly accountable to or influenced by elected officials.

The Origins of the Deep State

One of the earliest and most influential proponents of the deep state theory is political scientist George Friedman, who alleges that such a deep state has existed since 1871 when the president's power over federal employees was restricted.

According to Friedman, this created a permanent civil service that was independent of the elected officials and could pursue its own interests and agendas. Friedman argues that the deep state consists of three main groups: the federal bureaucracy, the military-industrial complex, and the intelligence community.

He claims that these groups have formed alliances and coalitions over time to shape and control U.S. foreign and domestic policy, often in opposition to the will of the people or the president.

The Rise of the Intelligence Community

Another influential scholar who supports the deep state theory is historian Alfred W. McCoy, who argued that the increase in the power of the United States Intelligence Community since the September 11 attacks "has built a fourth branch of the U.S. government" that is "in many ways autonomous from the executive, and increasingly so".

McCoy traces the origins of the intelligence community to the Cold War when it expanded its scope and capabilities to counter the Soviet threat.

He contends that after 9/11, the intelligence community gained unprecedented resources, authority, and secrecy, enabling it to conduct mass surveillance, covert operations, drone strikes, torture, and assassination without effective oversight or accountability.

McCoy warns that the intelligence community poses a threat to democracy and civil liberties, as it can manipulate information, influence public opinion, and undermine elected leaders.

The Challenge of the Double Government

A third perspective on the deep state comes from Tufts University professor Michael J. Glennon, who stated that President Barack Obama did not succeed in resisting or changing what he calls the "double government" and points to Obama's failure to close Guantanamo Bay detention camp, a major campaign promise, as evidence of the existence of a deep state.

Glennon defines the double government as a dual structure of power in which there is a visible government composed of elected officials who are accountable to the public and a hidden government composed of unelected officials who are responsible for national security and foreign affairs.

Glennon argues that the hidden government has more expertise, information, and influence than the visible government and that it often dictates or constrains the policy choices of the president and Congress.

Glennon suggests that this situation is not a conspiracy, but rather a result of institutional inertia and cultural norms that favor continuity and stability over change and innovation.

The Response of the Public Figures

Public figures from various political backgrounds have voiced their opinions on the deep state.

Former Congressional staffer Mike Lofgren alleges that a deep state protects powerful vested interests, controlling defense decisions, trade policies, and national priorities.

Dennis Kucinich, a former Democratic U.S. Representative, has accused individuals in the intelligence community of sabotaging U.S.-Russia relations.

Edward Snowden, the former NSA leaker, believes that a deep state exists within the civil service.

The Response of the Political Leaders

The idea of a deep state has also been invoked by some political leaders and activists who have felt frustrated or threatened by the actions or inactions of certain government agencies or officials.

For example, in a 2017 interview several weeks before Trump was inaugurated, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer called Trump "really dumb" for having repeatedly criticized the CIA, saying, "Let me tell you, you take on the intelligence community, they have six ways from Sunday at getting back at you."

Schumer's remark implied that the intelligence community had some leverage or power over Trump that could harm or hinder him if he crossed them.

On the other hand, Trump himself frequently used the term "deep state" to denounce his perceived enemies within the government who he believed were leaking information, sabotaging his policies, or plotting against him.

Trump often accused former FBI Director James Comey, former CIA Director John Brennan, former National Security Advisor Susan Rice, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, former Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and other current or former officials of being part of or working for the deep state.

Trump also claimed that there was a "deep state department" within the State Department that was undermining his foreign policy goals.

Criticism and controversy

The term 'deep state' has also been criticized and rejected by some journalists and academics as a vague, misleading, or conspiratorial concept that lacks empirical evidence or logical coherence.

Deep State is inappropriate for describing the U.S. government

Journalist David A. Graham argued that the term 'deep state' is inappropriate for describing the US government because it implies a level of coordination and secrecy that does not exist among federal employees who are mostly loyal to their agencies and congressional statutes rather than to any political agenda.

Graham wrote that the term 'deep state' originated in Turkey, where it referred to a shadowy network of military officers, bureaucrats, and criminals who wielded enormous power behind the scenes and often orchestrated coups and assassinations.

Graham pointed out that there is no evidence of such a network in the US, where federal employees are subject to oversight, accountability, and transparency.

He also noted that most federal employees are career professionals who serve under different administrations and do not have a partisan or ideological bias.

Graham concluded that the term 'deep state' is a "lazy shorthand" that obscures the complex and diverse nature of the US government and its institutions.

Deep State is a classic authoritarian tactic

Journalist James B. Stewart wrote that the term 'deep state' is a "classic authoritarian tactic" that aims to undermine public trust in democratic institutions and processes by creating an "us versus them" mentality among supporters of populist leaders who claim to be fighting against a corrupt elite.

Stewart wrote that the term 'deep state' is often used by Trump and his supporters to delegitimize any criticism or opposition from the media, the courts, the Congress, or the bureaucracy.

Stewart argued that this tactic erodes the norms and values of democracy, such as pluralism, tolerance, compromise, and checks and balances.

He also warned that this tactic could lead to violence and extremism, as some of Trump's supporters may resort to armed resistance or insurrection against the perceived enemies of their leader.

Stewart concluded that the term 'deep state' is a "dangerous lie" that threatens American democracy and its institutions.

Deep State is often used by conspiracy theorists

Professor Joseph Uscinski noted that the term 'deep state' is often used by conspiracy theorists who believe in a vast and hidden network of powerful actors who control world events, such as QAnon followers who think that Trump is secretly battling a cabal of satanic pedophiles led by Hillary Clinton and other Democrats.

Uscinski wrote that the term 'deep state' is appealing to conspiracy theorists because it offers a simple and coherent explanation for complex and uncertain phenomena, such as pandemics, wars, elections, or social movements.

Uscinski argued that the term 'deep state' is based on false assumptions and faulty logic, such as confirmation bias, selective evidence, circular reasoning, and paranoia.

He also pointed out that the term 'deep state' is unfalsifiable, meaning that any evidence or argument that contradicts it can be dismissed as part of the conspiracy itself.

Uscinski concluded that the term 'deep state' is a "delusion" that prevents rational and evidence-based discourse and decision-making.

Deep State is a dangerous illusion

Professor Robert David English wrote that the term 'deep state' is a "dangerous illusion" that distracts from the real problems of American democracy, such as polarization, inequality, misinformation, and foreign interference.

English wrote that the term 'deep state' is often used by Trump and his supporters to deflect responsibility and blame for their failures and shortcomings, such as mishandling the COVID-19 pandemic, inciting violence at the Capitol, or losing the 2020 election.

English argued that the term 'deep state' is a "scapegoat" that diverts attention from the actual causes and solutions of these problems, such as improving public health, strengthening democratic institutions, promoting civic education, and countering foreign adversaries.

He also warned that using the term 'deep state' could undermine national security by eroding public confidence in intelligence agencies and law enforcement institutions that are essential for protecting American interests and values.

English concluded that the term 'deep state' is a "myth" that harms American democracy and its people.


Opinion polls conducted in recent years reveal a divided perception of the deep state among Americans.

A 2017 poll found that approximately half of surveyed individuals believed in the existence of a deep state, while a third considered it a false conspiracy theory.

A 2018 poll indicated that a majority of respondents believed that this type of group likely exists in the federal government.

An October 2019 poll showed that a significant portion of Republicans believed a deep state was attempting to overthrow Trump.

Closely Related Concepts

The deep state is often associated with other related concepts.

These include the dark state, which refers to networks of officials, private firms, media outlets, and interest groups that attend to the needs of capital.

The fourth branch of government, as described by Tom Engelhardt, represents an unchecked and unaccountable center working behind a veil of secrecy.

Additionally, the deep state has been linked to the military-industrial complex, which involves the collusion of generals and defense contractors to profit from endless wars.


The concept of the deep state continues to spark debate and intrigue in the United States.

While some believe in its existence and view it as a powerful force within the government, others dismiss it as a baseless conspiracy theory.

Regardless of one's perspective, it is clear that the deep state concept has captured the attention of the American public and shaped political discourse in recent years.

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