Deep States and Demagogues

Sean Hannity reminds us that the paranoid style in politics is alive and well today.

By Bret Stephens

           Steve Bannon and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Photo: Zuma Press


In September 1980 the Turkish military mounted a coup, arrested half a million people, sentenced more than 500 of them to death, and executed 50. The military left power two years later, having imposed a constitution that further entrenched its prerogatives.

For decades, the generals’ veto power in Ankara formed the legal spine of what Turks call derin devlet, or deep state—the self-appointed defenders of the national interest, nobody above them, nothing beneath them. As a descriptor for Turkish reality this had a lot going for it, except for this: There was nothing deep about the deep state. Everyone knew who called the shots. Everyone understood the nature of the regime. Undemocratic it might have been. Shadowy it was not.

What once went in Turkey—and still goes in Egypt and Pakistan—has now come to America, or so we’re told. “Deep-state Obama holdovers embedded like barnacles in the federal bureaucracy are hellbent on destroying President Trump, ” Sean Hannity opined last week.

“It’s time for the Trump administration to purge these saboteurs.”

Mr. Hannity has suggested that the CIA has conducted “false flag” cyberattacks against American targets while pretending the attacks emanate from Russia. The Daily Mail claims Barack Obama intends to convert his new home into “the nerve center of the mounting insurgency against his successor.” A Breitbart author warns: “The Deep State never sleeps. It’s always doing something. Something, that is, to undermine the Trump administration.”

The idea of a deep state isn’t new to U.S. politics. Nor is it particularly right-wing: The left has its own lunatic theories when it comes to the workings of the CIA, NSA or NSC, which explains why Mr. Hannity and Julian Assange are now fellow travelers.

But as the Turkish example reminds us, whatever else exists in Washington, it isn’t a deep state.

When Mr. Trump demanded the resignations of 46 U.S. attorneys, they all left, except for Manhattan’s Preet Bharara, who asked for a firing and got it. The CIA is run by a Trump appointee, and the only generals in charge of federal departments are the ones the president nominated to their positions. The GOP establishment has rolled over for the new president. As for the “corporatist, globalist media” that Steve Bannon rails against, it also includes Fox News.

Ordinarily it should go without saying that Washington is not Ankara, that the CIA and FBI are staffed by patriots, that a flurry of invidious leaks is not tantamount to tanks in the streets, that complex institutional networks are not conspiracies in government, and that the predictable reflexes of bureaucracies to defend their turf are not acts of sedition. Neither Dilbert nor his creator is a member of the Resistance. But, to borrow a phrase, this is no ordinary time.

This is paranoid time.

Specifically, we are again in territory best identified by Richard Hofstadter in “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” It may be one of the more overworked essays in academic history, but see for yourself whether Hofstadter’s description of the “modern right-wing” applies today:

“America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesman who are at the very centers of American power.”

This was written in 1963.

Hofstadter took it as a given that the purveyor of paranoid conspiracy theories is himself a believer in them; that Joe McCarthy was, himself, McCarthyite. But is that true of Mr. Trump, Mr. Bannon or aides such as Sean Spicer, who on Monday rolled back the president’s accusation that Mr. Obama had personally ordered the wiretapping of Trump Tower?

The paranoid style can be evidence of irrationalism bordering on mental illness. It can also be a form of a cunning instrumentalism to destroy your political opponents by stoking hysterical fears in your supporters. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a master of the latter method. What about Mr. Trump?

We may never know the answer. What we know is that after eight weeks of the Trump administration we have talk from the most popular conservative media about the need for “purges” to cleanse what Mr. Bannon calls “the administrative state.”

Conservatives used to understand the ideological provenance of words and the consequences that flow from treating political differences as mortal threats to the state. Too bad too many intelligent conservatives gave up worrying about the use of language sometime last year. They will come to regret what they’ve allowed, perhaps only when they, too, become its victims.

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