Evaluating the 'deep state' conspiracy theories
It was during Donald Trump’s campaign in 2016 that he discovered a particularly effective metaphor, one that resonated with his still nascent MAGA followers. It was “Drain the swamp.” Leaning forward, he would pose what would become a signature question: “What do we want to do?” and then repeat slowly, along with the audience, “Drain the swamp!”
Defining the swamp was unnecessary (actually, Trump spent his entire campaign avoiding proffering any concrete policy proposals). He relied instead on an ever-changing list of grievances, laced with bitterness and anger that became the scaffolding of his rallies. And he often reached for that image of Washington as a fetid swamp that desperately needed to be drained. The MAGAs got it. It resonated.
But there was also a more insidious subtext that has gradually become evident and is an effective adjunct to the swamp trope: Trump glibly traffics in unsubstantiated conspiracies and feeble explanations for events, offered with conviction, all while constructing versions of reality that question memory, perception, sanity and truth. In other words, truth is not truth, but twisted and distorted with remarkable aplomb. What comes to mind is Trump’s characterization of the media as “fake news” and using words such as “hoax” and “witch hunt” as verbs. And, of course, science is not science but simply alternative facts (e.g. global warming).
The period we are entering into now, as the impeachment inquiry gains full-throated momentum, will result in Trump and the Republicans offering up free-range gaslighting accusations and conspiratorial thinking.
This spoken paranoia, these fantasies and delusions are familiar and yet are still profoundly unsettling when originating from the Oval Office. Recall the “birther” theory; the 2016 election was “rigged,” until it wasn’t; the campaign was spied on; thousands of Muslims cheered as the Twin Towers fell; the Park Police distorted the inauguration crowd-size photos; Trump Tower was wiretapped; climate change is a hoax perpetrated by a cabal of scientists with an agenda; the Mueller investigators were anti-Trump Democrats; the Steele dossier was written in collaboration with Hillary.
And consider the now familiar “deep state” theory, initially created in the darkest recesses of the web and embraced by Trump et al., that there exists inside of government a shadow government, hidden in the bureaucracy, comprised of unelected civil servants who are undermining Trump’s agenda while fulfilling its own.
It was the deep state that orchestrated the Mueller investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and it is the deep state that is intent on thwarting the Trump administration. This belief allows Trump and aides to delegitimize criticism and deflect blame, and has now entered the mainstream discourse. It is no longer the geography of crackpot trolls and alt-right talk radio.
For example, when recently questioned about the impeachment inquiry, senior White House aide (the architect of the border/asylum policies) Stephen Miller claimed, in an interview with Mike Wallace on Fox News, that the whistleblower was “a deep state operative, pure and simple. You have a group of unelected bureaucrats who think they need to take down this president (who) publish hit-pieces and fake news.”
Initially, the alt-right trolls insisted that the whistleblower rules were changed (by the deep state) to allow hearsay and second-hand information of wrongdoing to be used as a basis for a complaint. Trump asked, via tweet, “Who changed the longstanding whistleblower rules just before submittal of the fake whistleblower report? DRAIN THE SWAMP!” This initial fabrication soon morphed into Trump claiming that the whistleblower and those who assisted him/her were spies and guilty of treason and should be treated accordingly.
Such initial responses by Trump and the Republicans are just the beginning; there will be very little restraint.
But there’s far more to this story, which can track like a John le Carré spy novel. More to come.
Chris Honoré is an Ashland Tidings columnist.