Updated: Mar 3, 2022
“How Deep Is Your Love… of Power?”
(Paranoid Planet Podcast: Season 1, Episode 2.1, Chapter 1)
President Trump: " Deep state' is a threat to democracy”:
That, of course, was American President Donald Trump, thanks to whom the world of conspiracy theories—and the world in general—has become a stranger place since his election in 2016. Thanks in part to Trump, but also to many other political and media personalities, we’ve been hearing a lot about a “deep state” during the past few years. There are many books, films, news stories, even political speeches devoted to that topic. But what exactly is the deep state? What does it look like? How deep does it go? And how long will it take for me and Joan to be kidnapped and tortured for talking to you about it?
Excerpt from John Frankenheimer"s Seven Days In May (1964):
The excerpt you just heard comes from a film called Seven Days In May, a 1964 conspiracy thriller by director John Frankenheimer. This film describes a hypothetical coup d’état organized by conservative senators and high-ranking military officers against an American president who is trying to broker a peace with the communist Soviet Union—America’s rival superpower and ideological enemy. We’ll talk more about this film later; for now, I want to draw your attention to something that’s said in the film’s promotional trailer:
“There are some who will say it can never happen here,
but this is the story of how it could happen.”
The villains of Seven Days in May are a group of unelected Washington powerbrokers ideologically committed to keeping the Cold War going until the Soviet Union either collapses or is destroyed—even if that requires a home-grown conspiracy to overturn a democratically-elected president. It is a story of right-wing paranoia, anti-socialism, American jingoism, and the fragility of democracy. In the context of the anti-communist witch hunts of the Nineteen-Fifties and the growth of right-wing extremism during the early Sixties, the film tapped into a deep concern many Americans shared at the time it was made: namely, that liberal ideas—the ones many believed were embodied by President John Kennedy—were in danger of being suppressed by a conservative “bureaucratic” apparatus, which some began calling the “military-industrial complex”—a phrase used by former U.S. Army General and American President Dwight Eisenhower, whose 1960 televised warning against the growth of “a permanent arms industry” still echoes loudly today. It is interesting to note that the film’s release date—originally scheduled for November 1963—was postponed due to John Kennedy’s assassination. For many who lived through those times, the line between fiction and truth was beginning to look blurry.
A couple decades earlier, director Frank Capra made a film titled Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. This film was produced during the Great Depression, a period of severe economic uncertainty and great individual sacrifice. It was a film about a naïve Boy Scout leader called Jefferson Smith, who gets appointed by his state’s Governor to fill a vacant seat in the U.S. Senate and who, innocently, becomes entangled in a widespread system of graft, corruption, election fraud, and yellow journalism. While the storyline of that film is quite different from that of Seven Days in May, the two films offer similar warnings about the seedy political game in Washington, about the undue influence of unelected officials and financial interests over the elected officials whose job it is (at least on paper) to represent the interests of the wider electorate.
Fast-forward to 2016, when real-estate mogul Donald Trump rose to political prominence during the Republican primaries, making bold claims about a “deep state” operating in Washington. Trump was not the first political candidate to claim he was going to “drain the swamp” of corrupt bureaucrats and lobbyists whom, he claimed, were pulling the levers of power to line their pockets with taxpayer money. He was however the first elected President to publicly and repeatedly use deep state conspiracy theories to explain why many opposed his nomination and why numerous investigations by the media and congress were launched against him during his time in office. In doing so, Mr. Trump drew on a long tradition of conspiracy claims popularized by reactionary conservatives like former Breitbart News chairman Steve Bannon, investor and conspiracy author Jerome Corsi, TV and radio hosts Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, internet shock jock Alex Jones, and the Republican dandy (and convicted dirty-trickster) Roger Stone.
We have since heard various theories about an anonymous Trump supporter—which many call “Q”—who is said to be working inside the “Deep State” protecting President Trump against the evil schemes of a cabal of liberal Satanic pedophiles. We have also heard of a “deep state resistance” taking shape against Trump, represented in the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times by another anonymous bureaucrat claiming to protect American democracy against the Trump administration’s “worst inclinations”. And so, whether or not the deep state is a good or a bad thing for the average American appears to depend on whether or not they like Trump. As is so often the case when it comes to conspiracy claims, what you want to believe is what you end up seeing.
But right-wing deep state theories like these are not strictly American, nor particularly new. Nineteenth century Europe was rife with claims that secret societies, international bankers, munitions makers, and powerful ethnic minorities—namely Jews—were secretly manipulating the world’s greatest powers, even to the point of triggering wars to get rich off them. Such theories are popular today among nationalists and populists in Russia, Poland, Britain, Portugal, Argentina, Iran and Turkey, to name but a few. Many scholars agree that the very expression “deep state” appears to have originated from Turkey, where its current President Recep Erdogan, a populist strongman, has been fighting off several attempts—some real and some imagined—to force him out of office. But like in America, there seems to be little agreement or continuity in whom or what exactly this clandestine clique consists of. Is the “deep state” just another term for the military? Or is it made up of socialist bureaucrats? Or liberal jurists? Or organized criminals? International bankers? A network of powerful Jews? Or perhaps a confederation of all of these working together? Again, the answers you get will vary greatly depending on whom you ask.
But if you thought you are free from all this because your political views align on the left, then there are good reasons for you also to pause. "Deep state" type conspiracy theories have been floating around for several decades on the political left, whether or not they borrow the expression “deep state” or some similar term like “the deep political system”, “the oligarchy”, the “one percent”, the “Secret Team”, the “Power Elite”, the “Establishment”, or something like that. Scratch any left-wing conspiracy theorist and quite frequently you’ll expose a “deep-stater” who believes that the death of JFK, the 9/11 attacks, the War on Terror, HIV/AIDS, and even the Covid-19 virus, were deliberately caused by a shadowy puppet master ensconced in the halls of political power.
Sociologist Türkay Nefes wrote: “All political actors talk about it, but there is little agreement as to what it is. […] The political parties [interpret] the conspiratorial rhetoric about the deep state in line with their ideological perspectives and interests. […] The deep state seems to function as an alternative explanation to significant events that are not convincingly explained by the official narratives.”  He said this about politics in Turkey. But it sounds awfully similar to what’s happening in the U.S. and other Western democracies today.
So what exactly is the Deep State? Does it truly exist, or is it all in our heads? And if it does exist, does it look like the world describe by Donald Trump and his supporters—a swamp of liberalism destroying American values? Or more like the world of Frankenheimer’s military putschists, ready to toss out, blackmail, blackball, even murder the bleeding-heart peaceniks that stand in their way? Or is it more like the world of Frank Capra’s lying journalists and greedy politickers, ripping each other to shreds to fill their pockets for no other reason than old fashion greed?
We have three interviews lined up for you over the following episodes. The first is with a conspiracy researcher who argues that the Pentagon and CIA are indeed in the business of controlling the world against the best interests of American citizens. We then have an interview with a veteran Washington bureaucrat who blames the power of money and the revolving door of private contracts and campaign donations for the pitiful state of contemporary American politics, for the dumbing down of public discourse, for interminable wars, and for the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. Finally, we'll speak to an historian and expert on the history of American conspiracy theories, who tells us that reality is a bit more complicated than most deep state theories suggest: namely, that there does exist something like a deep state or “secret government”, but that there are also many imagined deep states which are not real at all, and that those who perpetuate official conspiracies and those who popularize alternative stories about conspiracies are guilty of feeding each other’s madness—like King Kong and Godzilla brawling over a skyscraper. Well, she doesn’t say that last bit, but I think it gives you a powerful image. We’ll also talk about movies, books, and some other weird stuff. So put on some black gloves and dark clothing, turn on your infrared light, pull the chip out of your cell phone, and follow us into the bowels of the deep state… if you don’t mind getting soiled.
President Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell speech (Warning against the Military Industrial Complex):
Michel J. Gagné, 2020.
Readings related to Episode 2.1:
1. (Anonymous Author): “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” New York Times, Sept. 5, 2018.
2. David D’Amato: “The Deep State’s Tyranny Endures” libertatianism.org, Dec. 20, 2019.
3. Rebecca Gordon: “Trump’s Idea of a Conspiratorial Deep State Is… Just the Regular Government,” The Nation, Jan. 15, 2020.
4. Türkay Salim Nefes: “The Conspiratorial Style in Turkish Politics: Discussing the Deep State in the Parliament,” in Joseph E. Uscinski, ed: Conspiracy Theories and the People Who Believe Them. Oxford University Press, 2019.
5. Peter Dale Scott: “The State, the Deep State, and the Wall Street Overworld,” Asia-Pacific Journal (Vol. 12, Issue 10, Number 5), March 3, 2014.
6. “Understanding Trump's 'Hit List': Experience Matters Far Less Than Loyalty,” (an interview with Axios reporter Jonathan Swan), NPR: Fresh Air, Feb 28, 2020.
7. "Virgil": “The Deep State vs. Donald Trump,” Breitbart, 12 Dec. 2016.
8. President Dwight Eisenhower Farewell Speech, January 17, 1961. C-SPAN.
9. Seven Days in May (Paramount, 1964), Directed by John Frankenheimer; Starring Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, and Fredric March.
10. Jesse Walker: The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory. Harper, 2013.