Recently the term “Deep State” has been employed by the Trump Administration to characterize a conspiracy of government employees to take down the president and his agenda. The drumbeat against this supposed cabal has dramatically increased in tempo and volume as Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation comes ever closer to the Oval Office. Newt Gingrich went so far as to refer to Robert Mueller as “the tip of deep state’s spear.”
The “Deep State” that the current administration is railing against is not a conspiratorial group of anti-Trump partisans, but simply the ship of state. It encompasses the core bureaucracies, with their various missions, that keep our country operating smoothly on a daily basis. I was a member of the “Deep State.” As a retired federal air traffic controller with 25 years of decorated service, I understand how critical government services work on a day to day, year to year basis.
Civil service employees are hired with very specific jobs or missions to perform. In my case, it was air traffic control (ATC) within my area of jurisdiction, which happened to be the airport tower. There are thousands of rules, procedures, and specific phraseology involved in that mission. And just as the “Golden Rule” is a distillation of the major tenets of religious commandment and secular ethics, those rules and procedures, which result in the safe, orderly and expeditious movement of air traffic, constitute the “Golden Rule” and mission of ATC.
When we were hired, we took an oath of office to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States from enemies both foreign and domestic. I took that oath and our mission very seriously, as did my colleagues of every political stripe.
Over the years I observed the pendulum swings of various administrations. Sometimes administrations interfered with our mission through budget cuts and staffing shortages. Other times they used our agency as a political football to score political wins, without seriously regarding the actual life and death importance of the mission with which the agency and its employees were tasked.
As a civil servant, I was not bound by the terms of my employment, my oath, or the core mission to “swing” with the pendulum. In fact, our mission remained the same from the day I was hired to the day I retired (and beyond). Come hell, high water, or an adversarial administration making my job harder to perform, my mission never changed. My mission remained the safe, orderly and expeditious movement of air traffic. Anything else was extraneous, to be done when appropriate or to be resisted, sometimes mightily, if it interfered with our primary job description.
My experience as a civil servant has run the gamut from basking in the glow of administrative cooperation, to carrying on through periods of benign or malignant neglect, to resisting attempts by elected officials to negatively impact the ability to complete the mission of front line service providers. Although I only have my FAA experience to speak to, I’m certain that my experience translates to the FDA, CDC, NTSB, FBI, NPS, DOE, DEC, and the whole alphabet soup of governmental agencies providing service to the American people.
None of us want our department or other agencies of the government to be politicized. There is stability and reliability to be gained by keeping politicians and their politics out of the minutia of running essential governmental services. Our mission is not amenable to micromanagement, especially by political types who have no interest in our actual mission. A novice could not walk into the most simple, low traffic density control tower and expect anything other than disaster at the microphone, multiplying that result a million times over with complex radar facilities across the nation. The same applies across the board to every other governmental agency, especially essential services.
Do you ever ask yourself why the Third World kleptocracies are so notoriously inefficient? Why they can’t get out of their own way? Why they can’t get their act together? Because everything is ripe for political interference, is constantly for sale to the highest bidder, or is held for ransom in political contest where winner takes all. And with each regime change comes different players with different ideas, looking for new parts to chop off and sell, or that have no real interest at all. These countries are neither stable for its citizens, nor reasonable platforms for business investment.
The next time Hannity, Bannon, Gingrich, or Trump and company blather on about the “Deep State,” understand what it is that they are attempting to accomplish. Ascribing nefarious and conspiratorial motives to and painting portraits of treasonous actions by public employees destroys public trust in institutions established to serve as checks on illegitimate power. It lays the groundwork to make these governmental institutions less effective against autocratic intentions. If American citizens allow themselves to be deceived by “Deep State” conspiracy theories, they risk losing the protections necessary to check immoral and even criminal behavior by elected officials.
As a person who took the oath to protect and defend, I am extremely concerned with the recent state of affairs. The headlines are filled with attempts by Trump and his collaborators to discredit civil servants, whose mission is essential to public safety. The next time you fly, you want someone like me in that airport tower, not a hired lackey of the highest bidder or a golf buddy of the latest chieftain. It is not Trump (regardless of his absurd claim) who is responsible for the excellent 2017 airline safety report. It’s the “Deep State.”