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The first time I heard the phrase "the Deep State" was almost two decades ago, in Turkey. By then, virtually every newspaper-reading Turk had come to believe that their country was really run not by the governments they elected, but by an invisible and powerful force within the public-sector bureaucracy. There was, in this view, a political apparatus hidden inside ministries, courts, police and the military, that plotted to prevent politicians from changing anything too dramatically. If the elected party was deemed too socialist, Islamic or otherwise unfriendly to the Deep State, it would organize a real or de facto coup.

Turkey became a country governed and animated by conspiracy theories. The idea spread to other countries, starting with other coup-prone states. Egyptians, Brazilians and Pakistanis like to huddle over café tables and speak in hushed tones of unelected officials pulling the strings. When Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was booted out of office last week, many Pakistanis argued that it wasn't his lavish corruption exposed by the courts that had ended his reign, but a silent coup by the Deep State.

And now, in more toxic form, belief in a Deep State has spread to North America. That conspiratorial perspective exploded into public view with the election of U.S. President Donald Trump. His aides have frequently expressed their belief that employees of their country's intelligence agencies and civil service are disloyal and highly politicized figures conspiring to unseat and discredit his Republican administration.

This week, it was revealed by U.S. journalist Rosie Gray that a staffer on Mr. Trump's National Security Council, Rich Higgins, had written a memo arguing that "the formation of a counter-state" had taken place in the United States "at the upper levels of the bureaucracies" and that it functioned like a "Maoist insurgency" to destroy the country and was run by public employees who were "Globalists and Islamists" (terms that, in Mr. Higgins's ideological circles, generally refer to Jews and Muslims).

Mr. Higgins's colleague Derek Harvey had drawn up a list of officials he believed were disloyal and should be purged. The two men were fired by national security adviser H. R. McMaster, but their Deep State vision reportedly still holds favour with Mr. Trump's chief strategist Steve Bannon and others in the administration, including, it would appear, the President himself.

The idea that the public sector is a hostile enemy has support well beyond far-right conspiracy theorists. The respectable version of the Deep State concept emerged in the 1990s as an outgrowth of the influential economic school known as public-choice theory. In this view, public employees are a special-interest group driven by economic motives of self-interest to expand their numbers and to seize resources and privileges from the general public. They are not working for the public or the government, but for their own gain.

Canada's most famous proponent of this view was Stephen Harper, who used it as the basis of his 1991 masters dissertation and spent his years in opposition passing around books and articles that characterized the public sector as a malevolent force. Maxime Bernier, the Conservative MP and some-time leadership candidate, likes to refer to his often-reprinted speech in which he uses public-choice theory to warn against "government tyranny" from an out-of-control public sector – a Deep State theory by another name.

Belief in the Deep State might start out as healthy distrust – especially in countries where coups really do take place – but once you start viewing the public sector as an enemy, it rarely ends well. Look what happened in Turkey: under Prime Minister (and then president) Recep Tayyip Erdogan, belief in the Deep State spiralled into a feverish conspiracy theory. At this point, virtually any public employee, from schoolteacher to military general, is suspected of being a stealth member of the Gulenists, the shadowy Islamist organization that Mr. Erdogan believes has organized the entire bureaucracy in a plot against him. In response, he has now purged tens of thousands of public employees, jailed thousands and wrecked much of his country's education system, justice system and independent public administration.

That's the problem with the Deep State vision: If you see the public sector as a partisan political entity, then the inevitable end result is that you will turn it into one. That is, unless somebody – a judge, a general, a senior official or some other public employee – has the moral and professional strength to stop you.

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