For decades the American far right has depended on conspiracy theories to explain why the nation keeps adopting progressive policies of which they disapprove.
Sen. Joseph McCarthy famously argued in 1951 that the World War II hero Gen. George C. Marshall, who had been both Harry Truman’s secretary of state and then secretary of defense, had made decisions that helped the Soviet Communists in their drive to dominate the world. McCarthy did not go as far as branding Marshall a traitor, but he did charge that Marshall—a great war hero who helped lead the planning of D-Day and had been Time Magazine’s Man of the Year in 1943—led “a conspiracy so immense and an infamy so black as to dwarf any previous venture in the history of man.”
Were old Joe McCarthy still with us he would be in awe of the lengths to which Donald Trump and his GOP and “conservative” lackeys have gone to discredit their perceived Democratic enemies. Each day Trump ups the ante by openly seeking the help of foreign governments (Russia, Ukraine and now China) to take action to destroy his main political rival in 2020, former Vice-President Joe Biden.
He has also made it clear what he thinks of those Democrats, especially Rep. Adam Schiff, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, who are daring to begin an impeachment inquiry and to ask all the right questions. The latest nonsense the president has come up with is to argue that it was Ukraine, not Putin’s Russia, that hacked the DNC in 2016—all without any evidence whatsoever indicating that might have happened.
Trump is now reactivating and trafficking a theory that started after his election, but that was left to fringe elements on the right and largely ignored. This is the belief that Trump’s opponents, most coming from the camp of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama supporters, and their holdovers still sitting in major government positions in various agencies, are using their positions to slowly undertake a coup d’état, meant to remove from power the legally elected president and destroy his administration.
As the president put it in an Oct.1 tweet, “what is taking place is not an impeachment, it is a COUP, intended to take away the Power of the People, their VOTE, their Freedoms, their Second Amendment, Religion, Military, Border Wall, and their God-given right as a Citizen of the United States of America.” Clearly, he believes that if one favors sane gun restrictions, opposes the border wall and backs a strong separation of church and state, that makes one part of the conspiracy.
This theory began at the start of his presidency, when General Michael Flynn was removed from office by the president. Writing in PJ Media, (a webzine for which I once wrote), Michael Walsh called Flynn’s dismissal “a rolling coup attempt, organized by elements of the intelligence community, particularly CIA and NSA, abetted by Obama-era holdovers in the understaffed Justice Department… and the lickspittles of the leftist media.” The clear intent, Walsh wrote, was to “overturn the results of the November election.”
Others too picked up that argument, but it was still under a cloud, read only by Trumpist true believers who saw it as an explanation for anything Trump was forced to do of which they did not approve. As I wrote earlier in these pages, in June 2018 conspiracy theorist and largely ignored extreme-right writer Jerome Corsi penned an entire book devoted to proving the nature of the “deep state conspiracy to remove Trump from office. He was joined and legitimized to some extent by Trumpist “intellectuals” like Roger Kimball and Victor Davis Hanson, who wrote their own more sophisticated versions of Corsi’s thesis.
Now, that explanation is again being offered as the best way to show that it’s Trump himself who is the victim of these empowered and deeply embedded “deep state” staffers in the State Department, the CIA and the NSA—and now evidently in the U.S. Foreign Service as well. As David Rhode writes in The New Yorker, “some aides also genuinely believe the conspiracy theories.” Attorney General William Barr is evidently “convinced that there is something nefarious in how the F.B.I. started its investigation, in 2016, of possible ties between Trump campaign aides and Russian officials.”
There is then only one way the right-wing intellectuals of sites like American Greatness, PJ Media and Frontpagemag can continue to support the president. They will argue more vociferously than before that the “deep state” conspiracy is more powerful than ever, and only its dismantling will save America.
In this effort, a new book by journalist Lee Smith, The Plot Against the President: The True Story of how Congressmen Devin Nunes Uncovered the Biggest Political Scandal in the United States, will become its new bible. Unlike Corsi, Smith, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a writer for Tablet magazine, has a sound and well-deserved reputation as an analyst of the Middle East and Iran. In the 2000s, he wrote a book arguing that Osama bin Laden rose from an Arab political culture that was violent by its nature. It was controversial, but it was a serious book.
And now? His new book’s Amazon description delivers Smith’s thesis as follows:
“While popular opinion holds that Russia subverted democratic processes during the 2016 elections, the real damage was done not by Moscow or any other foreign actor. Rather, this was a slow-moving coup engineered by a coterie of the American elite, the ‘deep state,’ targeting not only the president, but also the rest of the country.”
And Rep. Devin Nunes, the ranking Republican member of the House Intelligence Committee, is the only leader available to save the Trump presidency from destruction.
Where will this all ultimately lead? If Trump is removed from office by either impeachment or losing the 2020 election, will he refuse to accept the outcome, as he and his cadre say it is illegitimate and the result of the coup carried out by the deep state? Will his actions decimate many government agencies, as he carries out a purge of dedicated staffers, all of whom keep our government functioning, but whom he sees as perpetrators of the coup?
Finally, and most frightening, as Thomas Edsall disclosed in The New York Times, many of his followers are taking seriously the idea of Civil War. He cites the words of Prof. David Leege of Notre Dame University, who believes that Trump could gain the support of troops in the barracks to go into action should the deep state coup take place, and that “his best strategy to keep all levels of the military loyal to him rather than to the Constitution would be to embroil us in a major war.”
Predicting an actual Civil War might be overreacting, but it is precisely what many armed groups on the right are saying. The right-wing cheerleaders in the Fox News-Wall Street Journal-New York Post orbit might be enough to give them encouragement to go ahead, should Trump be impeached or defeated in the 2020 election. It can happen here.