Infernal Machine   /   March 17, 2017

It’s Not the “Deep State.” It’s the State.

The truth is out there? X-Files cosplay image via Wikimedia Commons.

Earlier this month, Rep. Mike Kelly, a Republican from Pennsylvania, got in on the latest pro-Trump talking point, telling a gathering of Republicans at a Lincoln Day dinner:

President Obama himself said he was going to stay in Washington until his daughter graduated. I think we ought to pitch in to let him go someplace else, because he is only there for one purpose and one purpose only, and that is to run a shadow government that is going to totally upset the new agenda.

The idea that a “shadow government” or “deep state” has been actively resisting Trump since the president’s inauguration has been widely circulated on right and alt-right media channels. Last week, Rush Limbaugh published an article indiscreetly titled, “Barack Obama and His Deep State Operatives are Attempting to Sabotage the Duly Elected President of the United States.” Meanwhile, Sean Hannity took to the airwaves to argue that the Russian hacking of the DNC was actually the work of American intelligence agencies seeking to undermine Trump. And I’d best not mention Breitbart News on the matter.

Thankfully, the notion that that the “deep state” is responsible for the Trump administration’s bumbling, stumbling first couple months in office has been panned by pundits on the left and the right. The New Yorker’s David Remnick wrote last week, “The problem in Washington is not a Deep State; the problem is a shallow man—an untruthful, vain, vindictive, alarmingly erratic President.” Similarly, Kevin Williamson writes in the National Review that “it isn’t the “Deep State” that is making President Donald Trump look like an amateur. It is amateurism.”

But if reports are true that Trump, Bannon, and other members of the White House inner ring are feeling frustrated and blaming it on the “deep state,” maybe we should ask why. Clearly, they feel like they are bumping up against something big. Just because they may be mistaking it for the “deep state” (let alone an Obama-run deep state), does not mean that they are not in fact facing some real big resistance: the state itself, that vast network of bureaucracies, rules, regulations, institutions, and cultures that comprise the United States government.

Despite Bannon’s boasting that he and Trump are engaged in the “deconstruction of the administrative state,” they are finding that state much more difficult to navigate (let alone deconstruct) than they probably ever imagined, and not just because it’s big, unwieldy, and complex. Rather, it’s because Team Trump itself is a makeshift alliance that is now trying to become the state.

In Fear of Small Numbers, a study of globalism, Arjun Appadurai distinguished between two particularly powerful forms of social organization in the late age of globalization, what he calls the vertebrate and the cellular. Vertebrate systems, he explains, are normative and structured—they comprise social institutions that are, in a certain sense, bigger and more powerful than the sum of their component parts, and they operate according to implicitly or explicitly agreed upon rules. The nation-state system, Appadurai suggests, is the most extensive of today’s vertebrate systems, but we might also think of the air-traffic control system, the protocols of the internet, or the rules of the road.

Cellular social forms, on the other hand, are more independent and improvisational. The terrorist cell, Appadurai argues, is exemplary:

Connected yet not vertically managed, coordinated yet remarkably independent, capable of replication without central messaging structures, hazy in their central organizational features yet crystal clear in their cellular strategies and effects, these organizations clearly rely on the crucial tools of money transfer, hidden organization, offshore havens, and nonofficial means of training and mobilization, which also characterized many levels of the capitalist world.

Cellularity is not automatically good or bad, but simply a way of ad hoc organizing that does not depend on big, established institutions. Terrorist cells may be exemplary, but so are grassroots democratic movements and farming cooperatives. Because cellular organizations are relatively autonomous, they are far more nimble than vertebrate organizations. They are also far more fleeting: They can come and go, blown with the winds of funding, charisma, or the Zeitgeist.

Given this distinction between the vertebrate and the cellular, we might see the story of the early Trump White House as the fumbling, difficult, not-yet-desperate attempt of a cellular organization—Team Trump, composed of Steve Bannon, Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, and a few others—to conform to a vertebrate organization. If they are successful in this effort, they will cease to be a cellular organization—they will be absorbed by the vertebrae that are the Republican Party and the U.S. ship of state. If they are unsuccessful—if they remain a cellular organization—they will be frequently frustrated by the vertebrate structures in which they operate, and, following true Trump form, will shift blame on the “deep state” or other quasi-conspiratorial entities.

For most presidential administrations, this transformative process is either unnecessary (the presidential candidate was already part of party and state vertebrate structures) or underway  well before the president-elect takes office (during the campaign itself, when the party’s nominee is folded into a larger vertebrate political party system, making the transition to the White House easier). Team Trump, however, largely resisted this transformation, in part because they were determined to deconstruct the old Republican Party and the “administrative state,” but also in part because Trump himself is so much a product of cellular worlds: deregulated and dark forms of finance capital, television celebrity, and Right-wing populist politics.

It would not be a stretch to conclude that the cellular world is the only world in which Trump feels comfortable. It is obvious that he cares very little for institutional norms. He has no truck with the “establishment” if it impinges on his sense of self. (Recall his discomfiting performance at the Al Smith dinner during the campaign.) Rather, Trump, it seems, wants to be able move on a whim, shift this way and that, re-negotiate at will. The ties of the Trump campaign to Russia, while far outside the norms of the state and the American political party system, make intuitive sense once we see the Trump campaign as a cellular organization, winding its way through networks of power, finance, communication, and mobilization.

For the time being, the Republican Party has been bending over backwards to “flex” with the cellular ways of the Trump Team, hoping, it seems, for symbiosis. But the American state has not been so accommodating, because it is not as flexible. There are many in the “administrative state” who are frustrated with the Trump administration and may deliberately work to create friction. But that’s not the central force that the White House is feeling. Rather, it’s the vertebrate ways of the state itself, which Team Trump has yet to take hold of because it has yet to conform to it. Any failures this will produce is preemptively justified by relabeling the state, and nothing more insidious than the state, as the “deep state”—as if the world according to Team Trump were not dark enough already.