In season four of the 1990’s television drama The X-Files, there is a scene where one of the villains is meeting with his subordinates. Staff members are asking their boss how they should rig things like Hollywood award shows and sports events. The boss says that he will not allow the Buffalo Bills to win a Super Bowl and one of the staffers questions if that is possible. Another staffer then explains how the boss was able to rig the 1980 Olympic hockey tournament.
The villain is a famous character from the show called Cancer Man or the Smoking Man, because he is a chain smoker. No one seems to know his real name. He just seems to be a guy who is at the heart of every conspiracy and coverup, one step ahead of everyone, especially the protagonists. He appears to work for the government, but he also represents the interests of a shadowy group of old white men who may or may not control the governments of the world.
That is what makes that scene memorable. To that point the show was a little dodgy about the nature of the various conspiracies. Most of the time the protagonists are racing to expose a coverup by the government. At other times, it appears they are being manipulated by some shady actors using their investigations as a way to coverup some more sinister plot. In that scene we see that the deep state literally controls the things we take for granted, like sporting events.
The X-Files franchise was a huge success because people like to think that their world is controlled by someone. This is a feature of the human condition. Early man thought the sprits that animated the natural world altered the behavior of man. The ancients thought the gods manipulated the affairs of man. Of course, Christianity starts with the assumption that God created a rational world and he intervenes from time to time to nudge man in a certain direction.
This is why the intelligent design concept is popular. For most people, the idea of a chaotic, purposeless world is upsetting. Even though the basics of intelligent design contradict the fundamentals of Christianity, many Christians would rather believe God is endlessly tinkering with his creation than accept evolution. Even though evolution fits in with the concept of maker’s knowledge and the perfection of God, people struggle with the seeming randomness of the natural world.
This also explains the appeal of the deep state. It is possible that the raid on Trump’s villa was carried out by bit players exploiting an opportunity. A regional FBI officer saw a chance to make a name for himself, got a nutty judge to sign off on the search warrant and now we have a scandal. This is a very unsatisfying explanation for most people, so they reach for the deep state as an answer. This raid is part of some plot run by shady characters who will never let Buffalo win a title.
None of this is to suggest that there are no conspiracies. A central feature of human nature is cooperation, which is another way of saying that it is the nature of man to plot with other men. Politics is defined by the plots hatched and executed by factions within the political system. Court intrigue has been with us since the first man was named the leader of his people. Often, these plots take on a life of their own. The original plot gets away from the plotters and becomes a scandal.
The Russian collusion hoax is a good example. We now know the idea was hatched by Clinton operatives as a political dirty trick. They made up some phony evidence showing Trump was in league with Putin. Then they fed it to the media and the FBI in order to force it into the general conversation. The paranoid bigots of the far-left then turned it into something the JFK conspiracy. The grifter-right then turned that into a moneymaking scheme blaming the deep state.
The Russian collusion hoax is a good entry point in understanding the appeal of the deep state concept. Most of the people who hated Trump could not tell you why they hated him so much. The deep state concept filled that whole. Trump was in league with those dark forces that manipulate the world. On the other hand, Trump supporters could rely on the deep state to explain why the system attacked Trump. Both sides of the Trump story could sense the Cancer Man in the room.
John Derbyshire famously said, “The ordinary modes of human thinking are magical, religious, social, and personal. We want our wishes to come true; we want the universe to care about us; we want the approval of those around us; we want to get even with that s.o.b. who insulted us at the last tribal council. For most people, wanting to know the cold truth about the world is way, way down the list.” From that it should be easy to see why the deep state is a popular villain.
Another reason people like the idea of secret actors controlling events is that it is easier to hate a person than a process. Anyone who has worked with big complex systems knows the frustration of not having someone to blame. The people are all doing the right thing, both morally and technically, yet the results are wrong. There is no one to blame but the system and the system is the result of all of those correct and well-intended actions by the people involved.
Blaming the system for American decline is too much for most people. They were raised to worship the idea of America. Blaming the system for why things are getting progressively worse is like burning the flag. It is a lot easier to blame some corrupting forces that are manipulating events. The same phenomenon set in with the Soviet Union after Stalin. Blaming bad actors operating in the shadows of the party was safer than questioning the system.
The deep state is why popular government is a terrible idea. In popular government, in theory at least, policy reflects the popular will. Therefore, bad results must be the fault of the people. How can this be possible when most people never wanted the bad result? It must be something else. Whether communism, socialism or liberal democracy, the people can never blame themselves, so they will find someone to blame, even if they have to invent him.
In personal rule, everyone knows who to blame. If gas prices go up, the people go down to the ruler’s house and demand he lower gas prices. There is no deep state in personal rule as there is no need for one. The motivations behind public policy are real and easily assigned to the people in charge. Popular government needs a deep state onto which the sorrows of the people can be cast. Otherwise, they will figure out who is responsible and abandon the system in favor of personal rule.
From a dissident perspective, the deep state concept is mostly useful as it is a vehicle for normal people to the land of doubt. The millions of Trump supporters who think their man is the victim of the deep state are losing faith in the system. The reckless shenanigans of mostly midlevel players make others wonder if there really is a secret cabal manipulating things. The deep state may simply be a sign that the system is in severe decline and nearing collapse.
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