American democracy rests on a belief that elections change things, and the stakes in this story we tell ourselves are highest when it comes to electing a president, our national Rorschach test. This presidential mythology was on display most recently in the brief moment of liberal joy that greeted the prospect of an Oprah Winfrey presidency — a kind of ultimate antidote to the Trump years. That such a “liberal revenge fantasy” resonated as a serious idea spoke to the undiminished power of the presidential mythology.
Oprah herself says she’s not interested in running. And that should be a major relief for her many fans, because the experience of the post–September 11 era suggests a troubling lesson: If necessary, President Winfrey would probably drone you.
The idea that our government carries out the killing, detaining, and spying that make up our national security policy in similar ways no matter who occupies the Oval Office conjures conspiratorial visions of a “deep state.” That phrase may be trending among Trump supporters these days, but there’s far more to it than Sean Hannity’s paranoid fantasies about a secret society of FBI agents.
Consider some of the policies that remained consistent across the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama: the rendition of terrorism suspects to countries with records of serious human rights abuses; military detention and tribunals for terrorism suspects (who are denied the ability to challenge their detention); covert drone strikes, including those that have killed US citizens without judicial process; the secret use of special operations forces in undeclared conflicts around the world; the seemingly endless war in Afghanistan; and sweeping digital surveillance that collects the phone and internet activity of millions of Americans.
Each has continued or expanded since 2001, despite what was once seen as an epochal shift between Bush and Obama. You don’t need to pass judgment on the morality or effectiveness of these policies to note that, despite their controversy, they have endured while so much else has shifted, and to be fairly confident that they will survive both Trump and whoever follows him.
So what explains why Oprah would extend our military presence in Syria, or why Bernie Sanders might send more special forces into the Horn of Africa?
Michael Glennon, a law professor at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of International Affairs, believes that the answer lies in “double government,” a model sketched out by English journalist Walter Bagehot in the 19th century.
Bagehot used the term to describe the transfer of power from the United Kingdom’s old, “dignified institutions” where power was hereditary — the monarchy and House of Lords — to the democratically elected House of Commons, cabinet, and prime minister, which he deemed the country’s new, “efficient institutions.”
Glennon argues that a similar thing has happened in the United States: a transfer of national security power from the old “Madisonian” institutions — Congress, the president, and the courts — to those established during the massive post–World War II reorganization of the Truman administration: the National Security Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Council, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Defense Department.
These agencies have given rise to a “network of several hundred high-level military, intelligence, diplomatic, and law enforcement officials within the Executive Branch” who are the real shapers of national security policy, Glennon writes. This vision of double government — he calls the new institutions the “Trumanite network”— is not that of an organized cabal enforcing a conspiratorial agenda, but an organic response by the American system of government to a world that its aging constitutional bodies seem increasingly unable to handle.
In the post–September 11 atmosphere of sustained crisis, homeland security has become the government’s guiding principle. People, objects, and information continue to travel faster, carrying threats along with them. Someone must manage those threats. Former vice president Dick Cheney’s “one percent doctrine” — that threats with a 1% chance of occurring must be treated as certainties and countered appropriately — still dominates decision-making.
Under such thinking, the agencies created to manage national security must move swiftly and in secret. The courts must give them leeway to act, elected representatives must fund them and not pry too deeply into their actions, and the president must bow to their expertise. Even President Winfrey.
Faced with a terrorism threat that has no end in sight, presidents have happily outsourced crisis management to the experts, shedding their campaign personae. In the case of both Trump and Obama, those included promises to radically shake up how things are done in Washington. But once they got there, the shake-up suddenly became less of a priority.
"It's a different set of responsibilities," a senior administration official said in 2009 to explain why Obama had not prosecuted anyone for torturing terrorism suspects. "He's sitting in the Oval Office."
There are exceptions to this: Bush invaded and occupied Iraq, Obama campaigned on ending the occupation and did so. But even here we can see the double government at work: The decision to invade emerged largely from the efforts of a group of Bush administration officials who removed themselves from the “Trumanite” state in order to ignore or shape its advice as they saw fit.
That’s the thing about double government: How you feel about it depends a lot on your politics.
If you wanted better relations with Iran, then the ability of the Obama administration to engineer a major change in the course of US foreign policy — going against the establishment famously described by adviser and speechwriter Ben Rhodes as “the blob” — was a great victory.
If you now oppose war with nuclear-armed North Korea, then you are likely rooting for the blob as it exercises all forms of restraint available to it. And you might be relieved by the fact that lifelong inhabitants of the Trumanite national security system currently occupy the positions of national security adviser, defense secretary and White House chief of staff — and have frequently booted Trumpist insurgents from key positions of power. Some now argue that Trump's deference to the Trumanites will lead the United States deeper into quagmires in Syria and the broader Middle East.
But there’s a deeper risk here. If this seemingly endless array of conflicts continues, and if their management remains unchanged whether the president is Bush or Obama, Trump or Winfrey, people will more and more be inclined to believe that the story they’ve been told about American democracy is more fable than fact.
In the event of another catastrophic attack, our “Madisonian” institutions will again come under intense pressure to let the expert class shape the response. The potential for overreach is high, and a public with diminished faith in its highest elected officials may come to believe, in Glennon’s words, that the government is “hiding what they ought to know, criminalizing what they ought to be able to do, and spying upon what ought to be private.”
Back in the 1860s, Bagehot saw double government as a precariously balanced spinning top. “If you push it ever so little,” he wrote, “it will depart farther and farther from its position and fall to earth.”
Evan Hill is a researcher and writer focused on the Middle East and US security policy.
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