The country that invented the ‘deep state’ teaches us how it can be dealt with.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and his officers in Smyrna (now Izmir) in 1922. (Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images)
The idea of the “Deep State” took root in the American mind in response to the “Resistance” against Donald Trump’s election as president in 2016. Proponents of the term use it casually, as an epithet against the political establishment, often without due regard to the concrete historical experiences that gave rise to it. Critics of the idea claim that it oversimplifies complex governmental dynamics and amounts to nothing more than political fabulism or conspiracy-mongering.
But this issue is not just a food fight for cable TV. Considering it in polemical terms obscures the troubling reality of the problem and its deeply damaging impact on American governance.
Part of the difficulty with the Deep State discourse in America is that the concept is a foreign import, requiring some translation. It comes from Turkey, a country with a rich, ancient, and sophisticated non-Western civilizational heritage. Turkey also has a long, complex, and difficult experience with Westernized modernity and democratization, including at least four military coups d’etat since 1960—the most recent a failed bloody putsch in 2016. Nevertheless, with the rise of the administrative state in the United States, particularly in the wake of the Cold War and the first decades of the 21st century, the Deep State idea serves as a useful Turkish contribution to political discussion in a society once considered by many to be poor soil for such activities due to its liberal political culture, history, and legal and governmental traditions.
Deep State operations have been a fact of life in Turkey since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk established the secularist Turkish Republic on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire in 1923. The term itself, Derin Devlet in Turkish, emerged by the late 20th century to explain the actual workings of the ideologically rigid and authoritarian Kemalist regime, in contrast to its formal, Western-influenced constitutional arrangements. Among Turkish citizens of different political persuasions, raised in a political culture in which public military pressure campaigns, threats, and outright coups against nominal civilian rulers had become commonplace, the Deep State has long been understood as encompassing the informal, extrajudicial, or illegal networks among state bureaucracies and oligarchic interests.
Of particular importance to the Kemalist Deep State were the military and security services, business interests including mainstream media establishments, academia, and organized crime operations. These networks operated behind the scenes of formal political life, with scant regard for, and even openly hostile to, the formal authority of elected civilians. They functioned as the formation and implementation nexus of any policy the Kemalist establishment deemed important to maintaining its ascendancy.
The Kemalists portrayed every issue as a matter of vital national security. This made it easier for them to assert their prerogatives in a country that had long been vulnerable to instability at home and manipulation and meddling from abroad. Moreover, the Deep State thrived on the corruption inevitable in any bureaucratic environment lacking the transparency that, in theory, is a bedrock of republican government.
As an illustration of the principle, consider the following historical sketch of what is by now a universally accepted example of a Deep State at work:
The Deep State had long been accustomed to public deference to its dominance of state and society. Eventually, however, it faced a genuine challenge from an unconventional politician, animated largely by profound dissatisfaction with the status quo that, after simmering for decades, finally erupted into view first among more traditional, non-elite elements. Jealous of what it considered its rightful equities, the Deep State launched a coordinated and wide-ranging counterattack. The goal was to eliminate from public life not only the challenger himself but all manifestations of opposition to the dominant ideology that served as the basis of authority and power.
At the tip of the spear was the media, dominated by corrupt corporate oligarchs who entrenched their position by cultivating and maintaining close relations with the state. It was staffed by a journalistic elite deeply indoctrinated in the official ideology of the Deep State, submissive to the permanent bureaucracy. The media barons and their subordinates willfully operated under the direction of the state’s censorship proponents, dutifully inciting public fear of instability, and occasionally even lacking in self-awareness as to their role as establishment tools. “Mainstream” politicians, bureaucrats, the judiciary, military leaders, and academic experts made headlines on a daily basis by accusing the challenger and his supporters—directly or through purported leaks—of exhibiting anti-progressive attitudes, denying science, and plotting violent insurrection.
Military leaders, claiming to represent the most revered institution in the country, appropriated the public’s respect for serving soldiers as an endorsement of the leadership’s political interests and post-retirement perks. Protecting their position in the state hierarchy, the generals issued veiled warnings and eventually directly confronted the challenger precisely at the moment it appeared he might succeed. They reiterated their commitment to the dominant ideology and conducted high-profile military maneuvers near the capital to show the world they meant business. They investigated and drew public attention to the alleged threat posed by the challenger and his supporters. Among the generals’ favorite targets were the adherents to ancient religious rites, demonized as enemies of the state. The military’s eager journalistic handmaidens underscored to anyone who didn’t get the message that the military was ready to act.
Prominent members of the elite managerial and professorial class, ensconced in their stylish metropolitan bubbles and generally clueless about the wider society, called on the military to save the establishment, which they equated with democracy itself. They feared what they saw as the rising power of the political reactionaries in their cheap suits, their religious obscurantism, and their unwashed supporters from the hinterlands.
Mass demonstrations were organized, castigating the traditional religious values important to the challenger’s voters as inherently theocratic and unacceptable. They underscored the message that when it came to political thought, no diversity was to be permitted. Conformity to elite delineation of what constituted acceptable discourse was rigidly enforced. Media organs that on rare occasions permitted deviation from the establishment view were silenced—sometimes their stay in the penalty box was short-lived, on other occasions it was permanent.
The political leader was subjected to investigation and prosecution, hounded from office, and banned from the public square. Anti-establishment activists and critics, political moderates who simply questioned the wisdom of the established order, pious citizens, and others were threatened with exposure as closet reactionaries, shunned, and purged from public life. They were condemned by judges and bureaucrats relying on establishment media “reporting” as evidence of criminality.
Education bureaucrats stepped up their efforts to indoctrinate school children in the dominant ideology and undercut religious instruction and values. Many students, particularly women, who did not affirmatively support the ideological line were denied access to universities.
The enforcement of the dominant ideology and the establishment regime, one top general proclaimed, would continue for 1,000 years under the watchful eye of the security apparatus.
Perhaps some readers will see in the above a description of America in the Trump era. In fact, it is a general account of a seminal event in modern Turkish history, the Deep State operation par excellence: the “post-modern” coup launched on February 28, 1997, against the government of Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan and his Islam-rooted Refah (Welfare) Party.
This coup is often referred to in Turkey as “the February 28 Process,” an acknowledgment of its campaign-like nature and continuation in force even after the Erbakan government was brought down in June of that year. It stands as a testament to precisely the kind of surreptitious political engineering that has long been common in parts of the world thought by many in the West to be insufficiently evolved and enlightened. In this case, the coup orchestrators saw themselves as the vanguard of progress against the backwardness of religiosity and traditional social structures. That there are similarities between these events in Turkey and the current American political climate, including a strong polarization between a progressive elite cadre and a more traditional populace, suggests the model applies in the era of the administrative state even across distinct cultural environments.
Despite the judicial banning of Refah and the Turkish military’s insistence that the February 28 Process would endure, the political movement once nurtured by Erbakan came roaring back. The charismatic Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who as a young Erbakan associate and popular mayor of Istanbul was stripped of his office and jailed as part of the accompanying crackdown, returned to politics as the leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). He became prime minister shortly after the AKP won its first election in 2002. Erdogan’s AKP benefitted from the fervent commitment of its core supporters, the growing public sense of the secularist elite’s disconnectedness from the aspirations and interests of the electorate, and the generally catastrophic political performance of the secularist governments that followed Refah. All in all, the AKP’s emergence was a resounding rebuke to the February 28 Process and its pretensions.
Or so some might have thought. Rather than accept the AKP as a reflection of deeply rooted political realities, the Kemalist establishment, blinded by ideology and power interests, resumed what it perceived as its existential struggle against the forces of reaction—acting, in the words of an old Kemalist saying, “for the people, in spite of the people.” Erdogan and his party faced daily pressure from the generals, including open threats of intervention, military-orchestrated efforts by the Kemalist judiciary to destabilize the government through novel interpretations of Turkish election laws, and even a Constitutional Court case in 2008 to outlaw the AKP that was defeated by the slimmest margin amid elite concerns of a popular backlash.
The last chance for compromise on the rules of the game in Turkey ended on July 15, 2016, with an attempted military coup that left about 250 people dead and another 2,194 injured. For Erdogan, who in 2014 became Turkey’s first popularly elected president, the February 28 Process had been a politically formative experience. He and his associates had learned well the Kemalist regime’s harsh lessons. Their response to the failed 2016 coup—which ran aground after Erdogan called for his supporters to take to the streets in protest—was a broad purge of the state bureaucracy along the lines established by earlier military purges against their enemies. The targets included the followers of Fethullah Gulen, an erstwhile AKP ally, who under pressure from the Kemalists left Turkey for the U.S. shortly after the February 28 Process began. Gulen’s own movement, once influential in Turkish bureaucratic life, is widely believed in Turkey to have been behind the coup attempt. The other targets were the Kemalists themselves, in the military apparatus and elsewhere.
America is not Turkey. Nevertheless, the ease with which the Deep State narrative has planted itself in the American political consciousness owes a great deal to the increasingly evident factors America now indisputably shares with that particular Turkish experience. The consolidation of elite, oligarchic, managerial, bureaucratic, and ideological class interests at the apex of power, the casual equation of those “progressive” interests with the public good, the eagerness with which many ruling class representatives seek to manipulate and limit public discourse, and demonize non-progressive opponents as unenlightened, deplorable, traitorous, and unworthy of consideration—with scant regard to the consequences of such framing—suggest little willingness to accommodate. Indeed, among American elites, notions of prudence and tolerance have given way to a radical impulse to impose upon society—for the people, in spite of the people.
Perhaps the congressional elections in November will provide an opportunity for America’s Kemalists to take stock and reassess their trajectory. But if the Turkish experience with the Deep State is any guide, don’t count on it.
Nicholas Spyridon Kass served with the U.S. Government for 31 years, retiring on January 20, 2021. Most recently he was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Director for European Affairs (twice) and Director of Intelligence Programs at the White House/National Security Council, and Deputy National Intelligence Officer for Europe at the National Intelligence Council. A Turkish and Kurdish speaker, for many years he was at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey. He also served at the Central Intelligence Agency, including as Intelligence Briefer to the Director of Central Intelligence, and was awarded for unique contributions to the CIA HUMINT mission. Now in the private sector, he is responsible for international corporate affairs at the Alexandrion Group, headquartered near Bucharest, Romania. He can be found on LinkedIn.