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'Deep State' conspiracies thrive in our messy and divisive cultural wars

'Deep State' conspiracies thrive in our messy and divisive cultural wars
President Trump speaks during a campaign rally at Four Seasons Arena on July 5 in Great Falls, Mont. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

We are in a deep state time of conspiracies and invisible hands. Or so it seems.

President Trump tweets about vast plots against him. Fox News sees conniving spies and Washington bureaucrats hatching covert schemes to bring down America. Orwellian podcasts muse on the end of days and “Why Big Brother is smiling.” And Steven Seagal, the martial arts actor and Russian apologist, has written his own deep state novel, with a foreword by Trump’s favorite sheriff, Joe Arpaio.

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The deep state is a potent, if shadowy, narrative in our bitter cultural wars. It is likened to a dark force, unknowable and unseen, manipulating our national fate. It brims with the ominous aura of a “Twilight Zone” episode, an intricate labyrinth unfolding beyond our grasp. Its most common definition is a cadre of military, intelligence and security officials working as a parallel power inside the government to control policy.

There are other meanings too, depending on one’s suspicions and political leanings. In his novel, “A Delicate Truth,” John le Carre casts the deep state as an ever multiplying legion of “non-governmental insiders from banking, industry and commerce.” Seagal’s book, “The Way of the Shadow Wolves: The Deep State and the Hijacking of America”, co-authored with Tom Morrissey, a former U.S. marshal, suggests the threat of wars and imperiled economies emanate from a network that encompasses “one of the world’s largest churches and one of its most powerful families.”

It gets more sinister. The opening sentence in Jeremy Stone’s “The Deep State: The Novel” begins as such: “Deep in the dark of night, deep in a wasteland beyond the prying eyes of civilization, hidden deep in the vast recesses of clandestine wildernesses, lies ‘The Deep State.’” Yikes.

Not to be outdone, Lt. Col. Robert Maginnis has published “The Deeper State: Inside the War on Trump by Corrupt Elites, Secret Societies, and the Builders of an Imminent Final Empire.” The cover is a swarm of black clouds and lightning engulfing the nation’s Capitol. Meanwhile, in the Middle East, British spook Max Easton (Mark Strong) is navigating vengeance, explosions, double-crossers and kaffiyehs in Epix’s new series “Deep State.”

A Monmouth University poll of 803 adults this year found that 80% think the U.S. government is spying on them, and about 47% believe a deep state “probably exists.” It’s yet another indication that since Trump’s election, and the White House’s ensuing scandals, notions of the deep state have crept from the echo chambers of left- and right-wing fringes toward the mainstream.

Most Americans, however, still have a hazy idea of a concept that is more prevalent in countries like Egypt and Pakistan, where generals and intelligence men pull levers behind the scenes and act as “the great Oz.” Satirists have their own notions. “The Late Show” host Stephen Colbert said the deep state is “what you achieve after doing three bong hits and watching ‘Planet Earth.’”

“The deep state is like polio,” said Samantha Bee in a monologue last year in her show, “Full Frontal.” “It exists, just not in America right now.” She added: “Turkey and Egypt have shadowy government assassins. America’s sinister junta is an insubordinate park ranger tweeting that climate change is real.”

Deep state fears gnaw at the anxiety and paranoia of the day. We are in a post-truth, alternative-fact nation driven by social media and divisive politics. Allegations of fake news have become a dangerous motif, keeping us unsure and off balance, which is where conspiracies, real and imagined, thrive. Our unease is often tied to larger agendas, from Facebook’s sharing of personal data to Edward Snowden’s leaks of classified information detailing how the National Security Agency runs surveillance on Americans. They move like chimeras, fleeting, gone until another revelation arises.

Villainous plots have long fascinated the nation’s imagination. Reams of books and essays have explored alleged conspiracies behind the assassination of President Kennedy, the staging of the 1969 moon landing, the military’s cover-up of UFOs, and a number of revisionist-minded documentaries after 9/11, including a YouTube sensation that purported the attack was an “inside job” by the government, which brought down the Twin Towers in a controlled demolition and removed billions of dollars worth of gold.

President John F. Kennedy waves from his car in a motorcade before his assassination in Dallas. The National Archives released the John F. Kennedy assassination files on Oct. 26, 2017.
President John F. Kennedy waves from his car in a motorcade before his assassination in Dallas. The National Archives released the John F. Kennedy assassination files on Oct. 26, 2017. (Jim Altgens / AP)

Trump’s presidency is the ideal canvas for outlandish scenarios. It reads as a mystery-thriller-comic book mash-up, with more sub-plots and skulking characters than a Shakespeare tragedy. The investigations into the White House, including Russia’s interference with the 2016 election, have given us spies, dossiers, bank accounts, Paul Manafort, alleged FBI schemes, hotel meetings and a “seductress” arrested in Thailand who claims to have “missing puzzle pieces” on Trump’s connections with Moscow.

The president and his supporters say these are the conjuring of Obama administration holdovers out to undermine him. “What’s unfolding about the deep state is so dramatic, so shocking, but at the same time so very predictable, given everything we have now been uncovering for over 18 months,” said Fox News talk show host Sean Hannity, whose hyperbole sounds as if fired from a cannon. “We are now seeing the cracks in the deep state, in the dam, it’s about to burst.”

It’s as if Trump is Julius Caesar, enemies all around. That’s the gist of “The Plot to Destroy Trump” by Theodore Malloch with a foreword by Roger Stone, a Trump advisor and longtime political operative. The president’s critics, including fired FBI Director James Comey, say Trump is spinning fictions and summoning imaginary bogeymen. “I hear this term ‘deep state’ all the time,” Comey said recently on CNN. “There’s no deep state.”

But its specter is enduring. It is “the big story of our time,” writes Mike Lofgren, a former congressional staff member, in his book, “The Deep State.” “It is the red thread that runs through the war on terrorism and the militarization of foreign policy, the financialization and deindustrialization of the American economy, the rise of a plutocratic social structure that has given us the most unequal society in almost a century, and the political dysfunction that has paralyzed day-to-day governance.”

It makes one feel like a character in a thriller: Jason Bourne trying to peel back the curtains to see the demons arrayed against him; Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein wading through the Watergate scandal in “All the President’s Men”; intelligence analyst Joe Turner in “Three Days of the Condor” running from the CIA after his colleagues have been murdered; Edward Snowden in “Snowden” asking another intelligence analyst who the U.S. is spying on. The answer: “The whole kingdom, Snow White.”

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