David Rohde hates the term “deep state.”
“I think (it’s) political rhetoric,” Rohde said. “It’s a term that President Trump has used very effectively to discredit government officials that disagree with (his) claims.”
He compares it to a few of the president’s other favorite phrases: “fake news” and “witch hunt.”
Donald Trump is the first president to refer to a “deep state” within the United States government. According to Rohde, in 2019, he used the term publicly at least 23 times.
Rohde, a two time-Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist, former war correspondent and NewYorker.com executive editor, will be speaking as part of Chautauqua Institution’s Week Two: “Forces Unseen: What Shapes Our Daily Lives.” His lecture will be streamed at 10:45 a.m. EDT Tuesday, July 7, on the CHQ Assembly video platform. A live Q-and-A will follow the program.
In his talk, titled “Does the Deep State Exist?” Rohde will discuss his new book, In Deep: The FBI, The CIA, and the Truth about America’s “Deep State.”
“(For this lecture) I’m focused on the government, and specifically on the recent emergence of fears of a ‘deep state’ in the United States; (fears) that unelected officials have gained huge amounts of power in Washington, as President Trump has claimed,” Rohde said.
His book, which came out this April, is a bipartisan examination of the history of corruption within U.S. intelligence organizations, the current state of American intelligence agencies and Trump’s claims that the “deep state” is conspiring to undermine his administration.
While he disagrees with the president’s rhetoric, Rohde doesn’t argue with the idea that unelected officials in organizations like the FBI and the CIA hold significant political power, or even that this power is ripe for abuse.
“I think the FBI and the CIA are incredibly powerful and dangerous organizations, and I think there needs to be aggressive oversight of them by the president and Congress and (Supreme Court justices) and by the press,” he said. “There is an institutional government — a permanent government — but Donald Trump’s claims that there is a ‘deep state’ planning a coup against him is an exaggeration.”
Rohde said that fears of institutional government overreach are legitimate and exist in different forms on either side of the political spectrum, with liberals concerned about the military-industrial complex and the power of generals and private defense firms, while conservatives fear the Big Government “administrative state” and the potential loss of their privacy and freedoms to the federal government.
Trump’s ability to weaponize this fear against his political rivals, however, and its resonance with the public, is what Rohde calls “a wake-up call for the establishment.”
“I am an establishment journalist. … We’re not trusted by a large number of Americans, professors aren’t trusted by large numbers of Americans, scientists aren’t trusted,” he said. “Beyond Donald Trump, we all need to think about how we can do our jobs better and have more credibility with the American public.”
He advocates for less partisanship in reporting.
“I think it’s important for reporters who are writing news stories to be conservative with their facts and to not be drawn into the opinion battle that’s unfolding around us 24/7,” Rohde said.
The same goes for intelligence officials.
“I interviewed FBI and CIA officials who criticized former FBI Director James Comey and former CIA Director John Brennan for attacking Trump,” Rohde said. “They feel that just plays into Trump’s conspiracy theory.”
QAnon, a far-right conspiracy theory movement centered around the idea that Trump is being attacked by the “deep state” for trying to expose a massive left-wing child-sex trafficking operation, has gained momentum in recent months, with Trump’s former national security advisor Michael Flynn posting a video on the Fourth of July reciting a QAnon oath.
Rohde credits the conspiracy’s momentum to the ease at which misinformation spreads across the internet.
“There’s an explosion of information available to people, and an explosion of misinformation,” he said. “Things that are simply not true (can be accessed) with half a dozen keystrokes. I think we have a crisis of information, and the pandemic shows how important it is to have sources of information that we trust.”
Rohde cites Anthony Fauci’s work during the COVID-19 pandemic as an argument for keeping unelected experts in positions of authority. Fauci has been the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984.
“I think the pandemic shows that we do need career civil servants who are experts in their field … to prepare and plan for calamities,” Rohde said. “(But) career civil servants should obey the orders of elected presidents; that is the essence of our democracy. I agree with Donald Trump about that. The only occasion for a career civil servant to not carry out a president’s order is if they are illegal or unethical.”
This call for bipartisanship and oversight stands in conflict with the beliefs and actions of United States Attorney General William Barr, who Rohde discusses at length in his book.
“One of the disturbing trends is (Barr’s) belief that the president should (be under) less oversight, and that the president should be able to control the justice department and the FBI and the CIA, and use them as (they) like,” Rohde said. “Concentration of power, having less oversight and more secrecy, is a recipe for abuse and corruption.”
Despite this bleak prognosis, Rohde has found some reasons for optimism; he is hopeful that widely held concerns over internet privacy will create a bipartisan incentive to keep intelligence organizations in check.
“There’s an alliance in Congress between Rand Paul, the Republican-Libertarian senator from Kentucky and Ron Wyden, the liberal Democrat from Oregon, to try to protect our privacy in the digital age,” he said. “ I think Americans can build on that; I think there’s deep agreement that we should be protecting our privacy from the government and from corporations. … I think we can find reforms that can help us create rules of the road for the digital age. We need that as soon as possible.”
This program is made possible by the Barbara A. Georgescu Lectureship Endowment.