The Man Who Popularized The 'Deep State' Doesn't Like The Way It's Used Meet Mike Lofgren, a long-time congressional staffer who describes himself as a political independent. He says the current discourse has turned his notion of a 'deep state' into a 'Frankenstein.'
NPR logo

The Man Who Popularized The 'Deep State' Doesn't Like The Way It's Used

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/776852841/776968374" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
The Man Who Popularized The 'Deep State' Doesn't Like The Way It's Used

The Man Who Popularized The 'Deep State' Doesn't Like The Way It's Used

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/776852841/776968374" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

President Trump and his supporters often say there's a deep state. They say it's made up of government bureaucrats who want to undermine his presidency, and the label has been attached to government officials, known and unknown, who have alleged wrongdoing by the president. The phrase deep state came into our political discourse very recently, and it's actually not so easy to define. NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre looks at the unlikely source behind this catchphrase.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Mike Lofgren is the very definition of a civil servant. He was a congressional staffer for 28 years, most of it spent crunching numbers on the Senate and House budget committees. He's moderate and mild-mannered. This is how he defined himself politically.

MIKE LOFGREN: I was on the Republican side my whole career. I wasn't a culture-wars Republican - basically, fiscal conservatism in the manner of, say, Eisenhower.

MYRE: He was turned off by the Tea Party Republicans who came into Congress in 2011. He quit his job, and three years later, Lofgren wrote an essay called "Anatomy Of The Deep State." It wasn't partisan, and he stresses he's not a conspiracy theorist. His point is that big institutions, inside and outside of government, are so entrenched it's hard to bring any real change. Political options are limited.

LOFGREN: This is not to say it's the worst of all worlds. You sort of get a choice between Coke and New Coke.

MYRE: His idea first gained traction among progressives who felt Republicans were thwarting President Barack Obama at every turn. Lofgren expanded his essay into a 2016 book called "The Deep State." It got some good reviews, but it didn't set the world on fire. Then President Trump took office.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Unelected deep-state operatives who defy the voters to push their own secret agendas are truly a threat to democracy itself.

MYRE: For the president and his supporters, deep state is shorthand for Democratic-leaning bureaucrats who want to undermine Trump. Now the phrase is a staple on cable TV. Breitbart News has an entire section called the deep state. That's not what Mike Lofgren intended.

LOFGREN: You know, it's like I released this species into the wild or maybe a Frankenstein monster. And what it does is not within my control.

MYRE: The idea of a conspiratorial deep state goes back centuries. Lofgren says he first encountered the actual term deep state in a spy novel by John le Carre, who describes the hidden hands at work in the British government. Now it pops up everywhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: Thank God for the deep state.

MYRE: That's John McLaughlin, the former deputy director of the CIA. In this recent panel discussion, he spoke about government officials testifying before congressional committees at the impeachment inquiry.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCLAUGHLIN: Everyone here has seen this progression of diplomats and intelligence officers and White House people trooping up to Capitol Hill right now and saying, these are people who are doing their duty or responding to a higher call.

MYRE: When I reached McLaughlin on a cellphone in his car, he said he'd caught some blowback for what he described as a facetious comment to make a point.

MCLAUGHLIN: I think it's a silly idea. There is no deep state. What people think of as the deep state - they're just the American civil service - Social Security, the people who fix the roads, Health and Human Services, Medicare.

MYRE: Mike Lofgren, now retired at age 66, used to be one of those people when he was a Republican congressional staffer. Today, he says...

LOFGREN: I am an independent who will not vote Republican until they demonstrate to me that they've purged Trumpism and that they're a sane party.

MYRE: He didn't say when he thought that might be.

Greg Myre, NPR News, Washington.

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.