Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University, editor of “The Presidency of Barack Obama: A First Historical Assessment” and co-host of the “Politics & Polls” podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @julianzelizer. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
“War of the Two Narratives” may not be the next “Avengers: Infinity War,” but it is what the titanic struggle consuming a lot of Washington’s attention should be called.
On one side are the courts and prosecutors – the people who jailed former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort on Friday – who are investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, who are pursuing former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen and are raising new questions about the practices of the Trump Foundation.
On the other side is President Donald Trump, who is distorting the findings of Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s investigation into the FBI’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email probe.
It’s a determined effort to discredit those who are investigating him. The new report adds fuel to Trump’s attacks on the intelligence community and will be used to play into the stories about a “deep state” out to get him.
Abetting him are supporters such as Rudy Giuliani, who demanded the suspension of special counsel Robert Mueller and the jailing of FBI agent Peter Strzok.
The heart of the report goes directly against much of what Trump has been saying. Horowitz issued an extremely tough judgment about how former FBI Director James Comey handled the Clinton email investigation. The report confirms that Clinton did not intend to break the law, and she should not have been charged. Comey, acting in rogue fashion, badly mishandled the issue in late October, which ultimately boosted Trump’s standing.
Yet the sections of the report that discuss the anti-Trump text messages exchanged between FBI agent Strzok and former FBI lawyer Lisa Page are just the kind of lapse the President is looking to exploit. After the report’s release, Trump immediately took to Twitter to proclaim: “The IG Report is a total disaster for Comey, his minions and sadly, the FBI.” In another tweet, he wrote, “FBI Agent Peter Strzok, who headed the Clinton & Russia investigations, texted to his lover Lisa Page, in the IGA Report, that ‘we’ll stop’ candidate Trump from becoming President. Doesn’t get any lower than that!”
And yet the IG didn’t report that Strzok and Page did anything to act on their text messages.
Horowitz did not find that there was any concerted conspiracy against Trump becoming the commander in chief, but the President is adroit at manipulating almost any information to make his case to his adoring fans.
Trump has done more than anyone else to bring the fringe conspiracy concept of a “deep state” into the mainstream, with the help of his son Donald Jr.
Through his attacks on the legitimacy of the FBI, the intelligence agencies and Mueller, he has been able to popularize the notion that certain people in the federal government, who are unaccountable to anyone, are working to push their own agenda and, in this case, subvert the outcome of a democratic election.
The theory of a “deep state” is now discussed regularly in mainstream media conversations. Polls consistently show that the doubts the President has been selling about the legitimacy of the Russia investigation have taken hold among Republicans. A Quinnipiac University poll released in April found that 61% of GOP voters believed that Mueller’s investigation was not being conducted fairly.
Why is it that the concept of a “deep state” is something that resonates in American culture? How is it that a President who has so frequently made claims that are not true and who has a history of spinning false conspiracy theories to the public – such as the “birther” argument – is able to gain some traction with his bold assertions about a cabal out to get him?
How is it that, despite decades of Americans hearing from conservatives about how incompetent government officials are, a substantial number of Americans seem to believe that the government can be incredibly effective and devious when it wants to be?
Part of the answer has to do with the long history in American politics of distrusting government. As historians have been writing about for many years, distrust in government has been an essential part of the fabric of American politics since the founding of the country. In a nation born in a revolution against government corruption and overreach, variations of the “deep state” have repeatedly made their way into our national conversation.
Conspiracy theories, as the historian Richard Hofstadter once told us, have been a recurring theme. Distrust in government institutions has greatly increased since Vietnam and Watergate, and as a result Trump’s allegations play directly into these national anxieties.
Popular culture has also done a great deal to sell Americans on the idea that secret factions of the government are up to no good. Indeed, there is now a British series premiering this weekend on Epix called “Deep State,” which explores government conspiracies.
The smash hit television show “Scandal” involved a man who headed a top-secret division of the CIA, B613, whose uber-agents spied, tortured, killed and had the power to control the entire US government. The list of movies, television shows and novels about this theme is too long to include here.
Perhaps most important is the fact that our intelligence agencies have an extensive record of doing bad things, which makes it hard for them to retain the trust of the American public. Sen. Frank Church’s famous 1975-1976 committee investigations into the CIA revealed how agents conducted illegal surveillance on American citizens and undertook secret operations to assassinate foreign leaders.
During Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the shocking scandal of Iran-Contra in 1986 and 1987 exposed how a small group of officials in the National Security Council and CIA secretly sold weapons to Iran and illegally used the money to support the Nicaraguan Contras.
More recently, Edward Snowden’s leak of classified material revealed how the National Security Agency was conducting far more extensive surveillance of telephone conversations in the post-9/11 era than the public ever knew. While none of these scandals has proven the existence of a “deep state,” they have been more than enough to shake the confidence that citizens have in our intelligence agencies always doing the right thing.
Add all of this up and it is not hard to see why there is room for a president to spread the notion that the “deep state” is real and that its top leaders are willing to attempt to overthrow the democratic process.
Trump will continue his attack on the investigators, arguing that secret pockets of government are out to get him. The accusations make for great political copy, and they have constituted his most effective defense against the investigations.
He has already started to extend his attacks to the New York attorney general, who filed a lawsuit this week against the Trump Foundation. While all his attacks are based on false, thin, imagined or contorted evidence, they have the capacity to resonate in a country where distrusting the government has been a national pastime and where there are many friendly media outlets to report on his story in a favorable way.