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28 June 2024updated 02 Jul 2024 4:07pm

Biden’s performance should make us grateful for the deep state

Even if it’s been on autopilot, America has continued to function.

By Sohrab Ahmari

The deep state gets a bad rap these days, especially on the American right. The permanent bureaucracy, especially the national-security apparatus, pursues its own long-term plans according to its own logic, even if this means frustrating the will of elected leaders. But Thursday night’s US presidential debate raises the question: is that such a bad thing, when the elected leader in question is an 81-year-old mired in the shadowy bogs of semi-senescence?

We should all be grateful to the federal bureaucracy, a marvel of social organisation whose arms reach far beyond the continental nation to embrace the planet. Staffed by 5 million people if you include the military, it structures most global finance and guarantees freedom of navigation – its most important functions as a commercial imperium – and thus orders the experience of billions of people to a degree few of them consciously recognise. You wouldn’t want this leviathan to falter.

As the CNN presidential debate in Atlanta showed, however, the titular head of this enormous body is stuffed with burnt-out synapses telegraphing nonsense: Biden’s pseudo-memories of his son having “died in Iraq, because of Iraq” (Beau Biden died of cancer); his sense of achievement at having “finally beat Medicare”; his outrage at America’s “thousands of trillionaires”; his pride at his golf handicap of six – no, no, eight.

E pur si muove. And yet it, the federal leviathan, moves. It manages the largest land holdings in the US, amounting to 640 million square miles, or more than a quarter of the country’s land area. It oversees the world’s biggest economy and prints the world’s trusty reserve currency, the dollar. Its air force offers the commander in chief “sovereign options” – an immense capacity to bloody the face of any adversary, anywhere, decisively – that would have been unthinkable to any emperor past. It boasts 11 aircraft carriers, whose mere presence nearby can force world leaders to rethink their calculus. It can execute mind-boggling logistical feats, be it launching civilian spacecraft beyond the solar system or arranging the movement of an entire armoured division from bases in, say, Texas or Colorado to the Baltic states. It can intercept basically any and all electronic communications.

All this has proceeded apace even under the ostensible command of the geezer whose shaky voice could barely carry his gibberish on Thursday night. This is because what we call “the Biden presidency” is actually a joint effort by a cohort of national-security lawyers and military-industrial types – think of Biden’s national-security adviser, Jake Sullivan, though most of them are far less visible than he is.

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It is this hidden crew, broadly centre left, that has subtly shifted the leviathan to correct the neoliberal excesses of the post-Cold War era, and render government more responsive to the populist uprising that erupted in the mid-2010s. Notwithstanding their own roots as Clintonian and Obamaian neoliberals, they kept in place Donald Trump’s tariffs against China and launched an effort to reshore and near-shore manufacturing, not least when it came to semiconductors.

This curious turn of events – the security elite’s partial adoption of the Trumpian critique – broadly confirms the consensus theory of American history advanced by mid-century scholars like Richard Hofstadter. According to this theory, US politics is, in its default mode, driven by a national consensus that transcends partisan and individual differences between leaders. Thus, for example, the Jeffersonians, though committed to the precepts of limited government and “strict” constitutional interpretation, found themselves operating many elements of the Hamiltonian political economy. The Jacksonians, while rebelling against that system, merely opened it up to aspiring outsiders who’d been shut out by the Eastern establishment. And so on.

If there’s a difference in our time, it’s that the security apparatus has come to anchor the consensus, diminishing the influence of presidents and legislators. This probably isn’t a healthy development for a democratic republic in the long term. Especially because, try as they might, the aforementioned national-security lawyers and military-industrial types aren’t close enough to Main Street Americans to give fuller effect to the popular will. Hence, for example, the Bidenites’ self-destructive refusal to rethink open borders until it was too late.

The upside of the deep state’s capacity to do its own thing, on a consensus autopilot as it were, is that few of liberals’ worst fears are likely to come to pass as Trump smashes his way past a dazed Biden to become, once more, the titular head of the leviathan.

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