At a conference in mid-July, Barack Obama’s CIA director, John Brennan, remarked that executive branch officials have an “obligation … to refuse to carry out” outrageous or anti-democratic orders from President Donald Trump. The comment quickly caught the attention of Rush Limbaugh, who saw nothing short of a threat to the republic. “He practically called for a coup!” the radio host bellowed on the air a few days later, warning of a plot orchestrated by “embeds in the deep state at the Pentagon, State Department, various intelligence agencies.”
Embeds in the what? A year ago, the term “deep state” was the province of Edward Snowden acolytes and fans of paperback espionage thrillers. Today, Limbaugh takes it for granted that his millions of listeners know what it meant.
The deep state entered America’s national discourse in 2017 with the feeling of an already familiar character, ready to assume a starring role as hero or villain—depending on how you feel about Trump. It’s easy to dismiss the idea as the breathless complaint of a frustrated president who hasn’t learned to work the system. But it’s not that simple: There really is a kind of cabal that operates independently of elected officials in Washington—even if it’s not quite what Trump or his conservative allies think it is.
Thus have the old battle lines flipped. Conservatives who once dismissed concerns about political abuse of NSA surveillance now complain about intelligence leaks linking Trump associates to the Kremlin; liberals who not long ago were denouncing the CIA for its unaccountable power have discovered new affection for the heroes at Langley who might uncover impeachment-worthy dirt.
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