The Shallow State’s Need for Attention Is Destroying Trump’s White House

The White House, Donald Trump
Former officials say that the Trump administration moved quickly in January to develop plans to lift sanctions on Russia. Joshua Roberts/Reuters

For months, supporters of President Trump have fretted about the Deep State, a shadowy network of career federal employees resistant to his administration, which they have systematically undermined by refusing to carry out his orders, sabotaging his agenda and, most perniciously of all, talking to the press.

Nearly 200 days into the Trump presidency, however, it is clear that there is no Deep State, neither in secret warrens underneath Foggy Bottom nor aboard the yachts of billionaires contemptuous of assault rifles and fossil fuels. It is just as clear that Trump’s presidency is imperiled. The threat comes from a poisonous network of operatives known as the Shallow State. That network’s epicenter is a fortified mansion at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. Its inner sanctum is the Oval Office.

Credit goes to David Rothkopf of Foreign Policy for first identifying the Shallow State back in February as a governing apparatus “propelled only by emotion and reflex.” Rothkopf argued that while the Deep State allegedly wants power, the Shallow State craves ratings. “Trump’s team has seemed much more focused on offering up something that is more like a television show about a president than actual governance,” Rothkopf wrote.

For proof of that assertion, look at Trump’s Twitter feed, full of (false) claims about CNN’s declining viewership or how nobody reads the “failing” New York Times anymore. He has a high-schooler’s obsession with popularity, his own and that of his critics. He craves the facile affirmation that comes with ratings, whether from NBC or Gallup, and he wants easy, photogenic “wins” that will push those ratings even higher. He’s back on Celebrity Apprentice, only this time he’s got nuclear warheads. Look out, Wolf Blitzer!

The Shallow State cares only for appearances. Announcing a ban on transgender individuals serving in the military on Twitter was calculated to stir up the social conservatives in Trump’s base, their delight doubled by liberals’ outrage at yet another reversal of an Obama policy. But there was no plan for how such a ban would take place; despite assertions by the White House of consultation with generals, the Pentagon was surprised and irritated by the Twitter directive. At the same time, its more seasoned operators must grasp that Trump has no intention of actually putting the ban in place. The point was to please the religious right with a show of intolerance. Point made, points scored. Time to move on to birth control or prayer in the classroom, to whatever other issue that might yield an easy victory.

Yet the wins have been sparse for the Shallow State, the project of making America great again subsumed by rather more pedestrian concerns. For most senior staffers in the White House, the goal seems to be to survive Hurricane Trump just long enough to score a lucrative book deal or television gig. “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” the Roman poet Horace wrote: “How sweet and proper it is to die for one’s country.” Whatever, dude.  A seven-figure deal with Fox News is much, much sweeter.

Last month, White House press secretary Sean Spicer resigned abruptly, unable to stomach the prospect of working for incoming communications director Anthony Scaramucci. “I hope he goes on to make a tremendous amount of money,” Scaramucci said at the following day’s press briefing. That’s not a customary send-off for a federal employee, but it is in keeping with the primary Shallow State principle of self above state. Reports have Spicer possibly landing on Dancing With the Stars, a fitting next step for an alumnus of the must-watch reality television series that is the Trump administration.

Everything is personal in this White House. And nothing is honorable. Scaramucci’s profane rant to Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker signalled the end for Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, who lost his job at the end of last week. Over the weekend, a Scaramucci associate threatened, via Twitter, to reveal a supposed extramarital affair if Priebus babbled to the fake-news media. That tweet was deleted, but the message was sent.

Just as Priebus was turning in his badge, the New York Post published a report about Scaramucci’s wife reportedly seeking a divorce because she’d grown exhausted with his “naked political ambition” and “ruthless quest to get close to President Trump, whom she despises.”

In Trumpland, they roll by rolling heads. On Monday, Scaramucci lost his job, too, part of an apparent West Wing house-cleaning by new Chief of Staff Gen. John F. Kelly. Trump adores his generals, less out of genuine veneration for their service than for the superficial images of machismo he associates with the military. If there were a Deep State, it couldn’t have a better representative than Kelly, a career servant of the U.S. government. It’s also hard to think of someone less equipped to deal with the histrionics of the Shallow State than the decorated Marine used to unbreakable chains of command.

Back in December, Sebastian Gorka, the self-serious and soporific anti-terrorism hack, crowed that with the election of Trump, “the alpha males are back” in the White House. More like the drama queens. The Real Househusbands of Capitol Hill include Bannon gripping about centrists like Jared Kushner and Gary Cohn, calling them “cucks” and “globalists” behind their backs, as if the federal government were an 8th grade classroom; Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seemingly on the cusp of quitting, dismayed by the chaos of the White House; Attorney General Jeff Sessions enduring Twitter waterboarding from the President, which he admitted to Fox News was “kind of hurtful.”

Trump seems to revel in the drama, the denunciations, the questions of loyalty, the incessant auto-da-fé . He is a medieval king, watching his retinue scramble for his approval. As for healthcare reform? Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell can deal with that. House Speaker Paul Ryan can figure out infrastructure, if he wants to. “Survivor: White House,” the New York Post called it in a widely-shared cover. Meanwhile, on NPR, a commentator wondered if soap opera actress Susan Lucci would soon be joining Team Trump. One hopes this was a joke, but one can’t be sure. Not anymore.

How long can the Shallow State can keep this up? Washington, D.C., may have been founded on a swamp, but from its noxious depths issued institutions beneficial to millions of Americans. And those institutions—offering healthcare, collecting taxes, gathering intelligence—can’t run on television ratings alone. They need dispassionate men and women who rely on reason and shun ideology, who trust numbers over words, who put the rule of law over retweets and crowd sizes.

We miss you, Deep State. Please come back.