Friday, 19 May 2017

Donald Trump and the Deep State



We are certainly neither friends nor fans of US President Donald Trump. Yet it is impossible to pore over accounts of his now daily afflictions – mounting to possible impeachment when he is just over 100 days (!) into a four-year term – without reflecting on the role of the Deep State in the operation and governance of the American res publica (Latin for republic, literally “public thing”). It just so happens that Trump’s travails provide a unique illustration of the way in which the Deep State operates and governs what is supposedly a “republic” from behind the screen of the Constitution. Imagine – just imagine for a mad moment – that instead of a nutcase like Trump we actually had in the Oval Office a President who matched in zeal and purpose a reformist agenda as Trump is pursuing his own clearly reckless self-serving and deluded one. If you just bear with us for a few moments to entertain this “thought exercise” – then you will see quite clearly how constrained such a reformist President would be in his reformist path by the very Constitution that grants him such enormous powers in his (or her) office. (For further research on this, see the insuperable works by ES Corwin and R. Hofstadter on the American presidency.)

As we argued in an earlier intervention quite recently, the Constitution sets out the formal relation of certain institutions (the Executive, the Judiciary and the Legislature) to one another. But no constitution can prescribe who the exact person that occupies a particular office actually is or will be and what the precise actions that they take are or will be! And because no written document is ever exempt from “interpretation”, it is clear that “constitutional practice” or “tradition” or “protocol” is inseparable from the written text of the constitution. (Great Britain, for instance, never had a written constitution.)

What we are witnessing with Trump is exactly this process whereby the interpretation of a variety of actions by the current President depends clearly not on his stated intentions, but rather on the common assumptions of an entire network of office-bearers who occupy the myriad institutional positions that form both the Administration (the Executive) and the other two branches of government (Congress and the Judiciary). There is no cut-and-dried definition of “constitutional practice”; nor are there clear boundaries between all these institutions. The functioning of the Constitution depends on implicit behavioural assumptions that take a myriad divers forms until they converge into a given “consensus” (literally, “common direction”).

So here is the rub; here is the kernel of the question; here is the crux: who exactly decides on what this “consensus” is? How is a consensus reached when it comes to interpreting the practical operation of constitutional rules? For it is at this point that the clear evidence emerges that this consensus is arrived at by means of various institutional “checks and balances” that are always and inescapably the province of the various elites – the power elites – that rule America. As we are witnessing quite clearly right now with Trump, the elites – not just the leaders of the political parties, but also and above all the vast army of personalities and leaders who occupy the most powerful positions in the American “republic” (from the military to the industrial, even to the cultural, if one looks at the culture industry, for instance, which is most powerful and influential in the US) – these “power elites” all come utterly exclusively from the “one per cent” that we all know and that we can identify just by looking at their income tax returns!

The Constitution sets out the “formal” boundaries and powers of each office-holder. But the content of what these office-holders do, and the interpretation of their actions, are all subject to a very complex socio-political “informal” process of interaction within and between the “power elites”. (On the concept of “power elite”, we can go no further then C Wright Mills’s great homonymous work dating back to the 1960s. Indeed, the dearth of more recent scholarship simply reveals the extent to which the American power elites have been able to stifle and suppress all forms of countervailing socio-political and economic analyses since the 1960s and early 1970s.)


The innumerable obstacles that Trump is encountering in his maldextrous (insolently incompetent) running of the Presidential office are indeed the same obstacles that even the ablest President would encounter if his or her actions deviated from what the power elites see consensually as their overriding interests. Doubtless, this informal Constitution is what hampered Barack Obama right from the outset of his presidential mandate. The power elites always seek to personify democratic powers by concentrating them in the hands of very few “individuals”. On one hand, this makes the exercise of these heavily concentrated powers very dangerous for the bourgeoisie. Yet, on the other hand, the very fact that constitutional powers are concentrated in the hands of very few “personalities” or “leaders” means also that the bourgeoisie is better able to influence and dictate decision-making and the operation of constitutional powers in its own “consensual” interests.

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