There is a moment early in the film The Death of Stalin in which, as the titular dictator lays dying, the circle of Soviet officials just beneath Stalin (Khrushchev, Beria, Malenkov) panic at the prospect of finding a reputable doctor to treat him. Why? Because a few years earlier, Stalin, in a fit of characteristic paranoia, had become convinced that doctors were conspiring against him, and he had many of them arrested, tortured, and killed.
I thought of this cinematic moment—the very definition of gallows humour—while reading an article by Peter Wehner in The Atlantic observing that part of the appeal of QAnon (the number of whose adherents have, counter-intuitively perhaps, inflated since Biden’s election) is precisely because of its many disparate components. “I’m not saying I believe everything about Q,” the article quotes one Q follower as saying. “I’m not saying that the JFK-Jr.-is-alive stuff is real, but the deep-state pedophile ring is real.”
As [Sarah Longwell, publisher of The Bulwark] explained it to me, Trump supporters already believed that a “deep state”—an alleged secret network of nonelected government officials, a kind of hidden government within the legitimately elected government—has been working against Trump since before he was elected. “That’s already baked into the narrative,” she said. So it’s relatively easy for them to make the jump from believing that the deep state was behind the “Russia hoax” to thinking that in 2016 Hillary Clinton was involved in a child-sex-trafficking ring operating out of a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant.
If you’ll recall, the “Deep State” bogeyman was central to Steve Bannon’s rhetoric during his tenure early in the Trump Administration, alongside his antipathy to globalism. The two, indeed, were in his figuration allied to the point of being inextricable, which is also one of the key premises underlying the QAnon conspiracy. And throughout the Trump Administration, especially during his two impeachments and the Mueller investigation, the spectre of the Deep State was constantly blamed as the shadowy, malevolent force behind any and all attempts to bring down Donald Trump (and was, of course, behind the putative fraud that handed Joe Biden the election).
Now, precisely why this article made me think of this moment in The Death of Stalin is a product of my own weird stream of consciousness, so bear with me: while I’ve always found Bannon & co.’s conspiracist depiction of the Deep State more than a little absurd, so too I’ve had to shake my head whenever any of Trump’s detractors and critics declare that there’s no such thing as a Deep State.
Because of course there’s a deep state, just one that doesn’t merit ominous capitalization. It also doesn’t merit the name “deep state,” but let’s just stick with that now for the sake of argument. All we’re really talking about here is the vast and complex bureaucracy that sustains any sizable human endeavour—universities to corporations to government. And when we’re talking about the government of a country as large as the United States, that bureaucracy is massive. The U.S. government employs over two million people, the vast majority of them civil servants working innocuous jobs that make the country run. Without them, nothing would ever get done.
Probably the best piece of advice I ever received as a university student was in my very first year of undergrad; a T.A. told me to never ask a professor about anything like degree requirements or course-drop deadlines, or, really, anything to do with the administrative dimension of being a student. Ask the departmental secretaries, he said. In fact, he added, do your best to cultivate their respect and affection. Never talk down to them or treat them as the help. They may not have a cluster of letters after their name or grade your papers, but they make the university run.
I’d like to think that I’m not the kind of person who would ever be the kind of asshole to berate secretaries or support staff, but I took my T.A.’s advice to heart, and went out of my way to be friendly and express gratitude, to be apologetic when I brought them a problem. It wasn’t long before I was greeted with smiles whenever I had paperwork that needed processing, and I never had any issues getting into courses (by contrast, in my thirty years in academia from undergrad to grad student to professor, I have seen many people—students and faculty—suffer indignities of mysterious provenance because they were condescending or disrespectful to support staff).
The point here is that, for all the negative connotations that attach to bureaucracy, it is an engine necessary for any institution or nation to run. Can it become bloated and sclerotic? Of course, though in my experience that tends to happen when one expands the ranks of upper management. But when Steve Bannon declared, in the early days of the Trump Administration, that his aim was “the deconstruction of the administrative state,” I felt a keen sense of cognitive dissonance in that statement—for the simple reason that there is no such thing as a non-administrative state.
Which brings us back, albeit circuitously, to The Death of Stalin. There is no greater example of a sclerotic and constipated bureaucracy than that of the former Soviet Union, a point not infrequently made in libertarian and anti-statist arguments for small government. But I think the question that rarely gets raised when addressing dysfunctional bureaucracy—at least in the abstract—is why is it dysfunctional? There are probably any number of reasons why that question doesn’t come up, but I have to imagine that a big one is because we’ve been conditioned to think of bureaucracy as inevitably dysfunctional—a sense reinforced by every negative encounter experienced when renewing a driver’s license, waiting on hold with your bank, filing taxes, dealing with governmental red tape, or figuring out what prescriptions are covered by your employee health plan. But a second question we should ask when having such negative experiences is: are they negative because of an excess of bureaucracy, or too little? The inability of Stalin’s minions to find a competent doctor is a profound metaphor for what happens when we strip out the redundancies in a given system—in this case, the state-sponsored murder of thousands of doctors because of a dictator’s paranoia, such that one is left with (at best) mediocre medical professionals too terrified of state retribution to be dispassionately clinical, which is of course what one needs from a doctor.
I’m not a student of the history of the U.S.S.R., so I have no idea if anyone has written about whether the ineptitude of the Soviet bureaucracy was a legacy of Stalinist terror and subsequent Party orthodoxy, in which actually competent people were marginalized, violently or otherwise; I have to assume there’s probably a lot of literature on the topic (certainly, Masha Gessen’s critical review of the HBO series Chernobyl has something to say on the subject). But there’s something of an irony in the fact that Republican administrations since that of Ronald Reagan have created their own versions of The Death of Stalin’s doctor problem through their evisceration of government. Reagan famously said that the nine most frightening words were “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help,” and since then conservative governments—in the U.S., Canada, and elsewhere—have worked hard to make that a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thomas Frank, author of What’s the Matter With Kansas? (2004) has chronicled this tendency, in which Republican distrust of government tends to translate into the rampant gutting of social services, governmental agencies from the Post Office to the various cabinet departments, which then dramatically denudes the government’s ability to do anything. All of the failures that then inevitably occur are held up as proof of the basic premise of government’s inability to get anything right (and that therefore its basic services should be outsourced to the private sector).
In my brief moments of hope I wonder if perhaps the Trump Administration’s explicit practice of putting hacks and incompetent loyalists in key positions (such as Jared Kushner’s bizarrely massive portfolio) made this longstanding Republican exercise too glaring to ignore or excuse. Certainly, the contrast between Trump’s band of lickspittles and Biden’s army of sober professionals is about the most glaring difference we’ve seen between administrations, ever. What I hope we’re seeing, at any rate, is the reconstruction of the administrative state.
And it’s worth noting that Dr. Anthony Fauci has been resurrected from Trump’s symbolic purge of the doctors.