‘Silent coup” and “deep state”: two memorable phrases adopted by Donald Trump’s defenders and turned into a mantra by those who believe that the president is the target of a secret conspiracy. Both phrases essentially evoke the same thing: an illegal, covert operation by forces within the establishment, including the media, intelligence services and Democrat bureaucrats, aimed at undermining and eventually destroying the Trump presidency.
Both expressions have long and unlikely histories, one American and the other Turkish. Both are myths, based more on fear than facts. And both offer vital insight into the strange and powerful paranoia that suffuses the Trump White House.
Silent Coup: The Removal of a President was a book written by the journalist Len Colodny and published in 1992, claiming that an innocent Richard Nixon had been brought down in a secret plot orchestrated by a shadowy internal faction, including elements of the press and the intelligence community. The book was savaged as factually incorrect and extremely boring. The claims led to a series of lawsuits. But despite (or perhaps because of) what The Washington Post called its “wild charges and vilifications”, Silent Coup was a bestseller. The phrase lodged in the lexicon of conspiracy, and has remained there ever since.
Last week, the conservative radio host Mark Levin claimed that Barack Obama had plotted a “silent coup” against Trump by wiretapping his campaign and leaking information to the press. Rush Limbaugh repeated the claim on his radio show: “It’s been orchestrated by Obama and the Democrat party. It’s that simple.”
Levin’s claims were reported by the Breitbart website, and within 24 hours President Trump was on Twitter accusing Obama of a “Nixon/Watergate” plot. The roots of Trump’s attack on his predecessor lie in a discredited, 25-year-old conspiracy theory.
Simultaneously, talk of a “deep state” is gaining traction among Trump’s backers, amid claims that a plot involving phone-tapping, leaks, media collusion and opposition from within the US bureaucracy is being organised by a cabal of unelected officials determined to frustrate American democracy.
Breitbart, which used to be run by Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon, frequently claims that a deep state is seeking to “terminate” the Trump presidency, while other members of the White House team argue that a covert group of officials is conspiring to undermine his agenda and credibility. “As leaks multiply, fears of a ‘deep state’ in America,” ran a recent New York Times headline. Bill Kristol, a conservative critic of Trump, tweeted: “If it comes to it, prefer the deep state to the Trump state.”
The notion of the deep state derives from the Turkish phrase derin devlet, referring to the shadow pseudo-government of Turkish officers, officials, spies, judges and business leaders believed to control Turkey; unseen, unelected and unaccountable, a state within a state. For decades, the derin devlet was said to be working beneath the radar to oppose communism and defend the secular values and institutions established by the founder of the Turkish republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
This “hidden hand” in Turkish politics was undoubtedly real, at least initially: a mysterious, loose network with links to organised crime and former generals, prepared to use violence and intimidation. For 40 years the Turkish deep state sponsored murder and created chaos.
But its influence waned; over time, the deep state in Turkey became a useful bogeyman, a tool for maintaining power and promoting Islamism. President Erdogan has brilliantly manipulated the semi-mythical deep state, particularly in the wake of the failed coup, to silence opposition and promote his own Islamist agenda, attacking the courts, intellectuals and the media, purging the military and security services while insisting that he is rooting out an illegal, sinister, anti-democratic cabal of plotters.
No evidence has been produced to back up the president’s claims
There is undoubtedly resistance to Trump within the US bureaucracy. Some American officials may see themselves as an unofficial opposition, using leaks to try to embarrass his administration. But this is a long way from the deep state. Trump’s internal opponents may be willing to spread damaging information, but they are not uncontrolled elements seeking the downfall of the government. No evidence has been produced to back up Trump’s claims that the nation’s spies spied on his campaign.
Ever since Watergate, America’s intelligence agencies have been subjected to close oversight by intelligence committees in the House and Senate. The intelligence community may have little affection for Trump, but unlike Turkey’s deep state these are professionals operating inside the law. Some of Trump’s more extreme backers claim that there is already a “war” between the president and the deep state. When Trump compares leaking information to the practices of Nazi Germany, denigrates negative coverage as fake news and hints at a dark conspiracy against him, he is echoing the methods of Turkey’s leaders, using fear of the “hidden hand” to strengthen his own.
As with all conspiracy theories, lack of evidence is no bar to belief: if you cannot identify the conspirators, insist the theorists, that is because the conspiracy is deep, effective, and secret. Hillary Clinton evoked a “vast right-wing conspiracy” in her husband’s defence, and Trump is now doing the same, looking in the opposite political direction, and in his own defence.
Trump has yet to utter the phrases “silent coup” and “deep state”, but these concepts underpin his sense of embattlement. They will surely appear in his tweets before long, and when they do it is worth remembering this: one refers to a conspiracy that did not happen, and the other to a rogue internal state that does not exist.