Recent talk about the “deep state,” with its suggestion of machinations being carried out by stealthy federal administrators, brings to mind my life in a Washington suburb in the late 1980s.
From 1986 until we moved to Pennsylvania in 1990, my family and I resided in a part of Bethesda bordering on Rockville (or was it a part of Rockville bordering on Bethesda?).
From there I commuted every day to work as senior editor of The World and I, a gargantuan monthly put out by the Washington Times Corporation that eventually folded. Being in Washington was not an entirely negative experience. Most of my colleagues and the authors whom we paid to write for us were decent sorts. And I made some friendships that have survived until the present day. But there were other things that I found intolerable about living near our nation’s capital, for example, the commute each way through twenty miles of traffic and the generally sterile Washington environment. I was certainly not exaggerating when in the autobiographical part of my recent anthology of essays, Revisions and Dissents, I stated that for me, living in a Washington suburb was “a foretaste of Hell.” After being there for a few weeks, I came to the conclusion that someone who enjoyed life in Washington “must be either a political junkie or someone who is being paid huge wads of money for stress-laden time.”
Most of the restaurants I frequented or agreed to meet people at were appallingly overpriced and usually served mediocre food. They reminded me of Woody Allen’s quip about two disgruntled, elderly Jewish ladies at a Catskill hotel. One complained, “This food is terrible.” The other observed: “I know and such small portions!” There may be exceptions to this general impression, but during my years in Washington, I rarely dined in a pleasant, moderately priced restaurant. And let me express another gripe: In New York, Boston, San Francisco, and even Chicago and Philadelphia, one encounters lots of artsy types or at least interesting eccentrics, but in D.C., most of those who filled the Metro and other places where Washingtonians (assuming such humans exist) congregate, were depressingly uninteresting. They worked mostly in public administration, or were lobbyists.
Each time I plunged into a Metro train, I found myself surrounded by administrators on their way to work in their “official clothing,” which consisted of dull-looking sports jackets and equally faded trousers. These commuters were usually self-importantly preoccupied with their briefcases. While on the train, I welcomed the tourists who dropped in from the American hinterlands. These visitors brought if nothing else sartorial variation and inquisitive faces. The District closed down after work hours, and although there were some signs of nocturnal life around Dupont Circle on weekends, what there was of urban activity, seemed mostly correlated to the operation of Congress and the myriad government offices. The observation that I heard repeatedly that “Washington is a company town, and the company is the federal government” was unfortunately all too true.
From all reports, the “company town” has developed a more interesting nightlife, particularly for the under-thirty crowd, than what I found there in the 1980s. But from my travels to Washington since I moved away in the late 1980s, it seems that its social and cultural appeal is much less than what is available in other major American cities and certainly in at least a half dozen European capitals.
It is entirely possible that some of my readers may have a much more positive impression of Washington and its environs. They may find that what for me amounted to a human desert to be a warm, charming society featuring excellent cuisine and perpetually stimulating company. I won’t deny that human tastes and experiences differ, but on the basis of living in the Washington burbs for five years, I can honestly say that I’ve never experienced a less congenial living space. And that’s even without factoring in the summer humidity and the Monsoon season, which started sometime in August and which left the ground floor of our ridiculously overpriced split-level flooded with dirty, fetid water.
But I still haven’t explained what I disliked most about my Washington suburban domicile, which ran off a congested onetime country road with the misleadingly bucolic name of Tuckerman Lane. The worst part of this residential experience were my neighbors, who with few exceptions, identified themselves with this sentence: “I work for our government.” Those who uttered this were stiff and arrogant and almost always pronounced themselves for the “Left,” or for whatever was fashionably leftist at the time. Of course I did know some “Reagan conservatives” who worked for the feds. Most of them were amiable hypocrites, who claimed to be collecting salaries as government bureaucrats because they were trying to “end the era of big government.” These “conservative” administrators were often living in bad faith, but were certainly not power-hungry. They just didn’t level about why they stayed in Washington, and they were enamored of what they imagined was the social prestige that their presence there brought. Their interests, however, were rather modest, and they seemed ecstatic when someone noticed them in a cushy armchair at the Cosmos Club or in a prominent place among the attendees at a Heritage lecture. Such social successes may have outweighed for them all the discomfort of living in a humid swamp among their political enemies.
But their leftist counterparts, who physically surrounded me “at home,” were far more unsettling. They were out of touch with most Americans but imagined they understood what was best for all of us. Although their salaries have undoubtedly gone up substantially since 1986 or 1987, I doubt most of these neighbors earned more than modest incomes when I lived near them, even with both spouses working. Most of their houses were bungalows and located in developments or sub-developments, but what these neighbors lacked in emoluments, they made up in chutzpah. Just as our Deplorables rightly suspect, these “public servants” loathed gun owners, religious Christians, and the residents of fly-over country. Their fellow-citizen were there to be “regulated,” and these experts hoped to make all economic transactions rational and humane.
In all the time I spent in their midst, I never perceived any of these neighbors sitting on a front porch. One usually had to reach them by phone or by leaving messages on an intercom system. They did manage to produce offspring, about 1.5 per couple, but one rarely espied their young, unless they were being taken to an “activity.” Needless to say, these “activities” always involved interacting with others of the same social background. Except for a sprinkling of Koreans, I never discerned members of other races participating in these “activities,” when I took my own children to them. But the obvious racial and social self-segregation of these neighbors did not prevent them from loudly lamenting the low-class white bigots, whom they intended to re-educate.
What I concluded from these encounters and from my sojourn in the Washington suburbs is that the deep state has true loyalists. I once lived among them, even if the ones I knew were often near the lower end of the administrative pecking order. Unlike the Reagan appointees of my acquaintance (except for the neoconservatives), these were serious people and jealous of their right to regulate our lives. They were not just filling office space or trying to get their friends to notice them hanging around the Cosmos or Metropolitan Club. They lived for power as a form of self-validation and were willing to put up with all sorts of annoyances in order to exercise it.
Their contemporary equivalents hate and fear Trump and have every reason to bring him down. And that’s not because these “public servants” are outraged by his social vulgarity. They’re afraid Trump might mean business about “draining the swamp,” and they’re understandably irritated that he rules by executive order and through cabinet secretaries who are not in harmony with the permanent government. Because of their network of support, extending to the major media, leftist and neoconservative publicists, and major educational institutions, the deep state holds a very good hand.
If I were a betting man, I’d wager on this crowd remaining around and conspiring in Washington long after The Donald returned to Trump Tower.
Paul Gottfried is Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for twenty-five years. He is a Guggenheim recipient and a Yale PhD. He writes for many websites and scholarly journals and is the author of thirteen books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents. His books have been translated into multiple languages and seem to enjoy special success in Eastern Europe.