As Donald J. Trump began his campaign for the presidency, we began to hear about something called the Deep State. He and his followers claimed that a clandestine network of unelected officials was in control of the US government. The Deep State, as the theory goes, is a shadow government acting on behalf of Democrats and the coastal elites against the interests of ordinary Americans.
The obvious irony is that Trump and his closest friends are, themselves, coastal elites.
Once elected, Trump used the theory to explain away his corruption and his failures. The problems weren’t his fault. His agenda was being undermined by the Deep State!
Yet even though Trump and his henchmen are no longer in office, the theory persists. Whenever a government agency debunks a GOP lie, whenever a federal court rules against Trump and the GOP, whenever a talking point of Fox News and the rest of the GOP propagandists is proven false, their most ardent followers simply refuse to accept the outcome.
They cry cover-up. They argue that the system is irreversibly rigged. They are convinced that every competing fact, every datapoint, every adverse ruling is the result of lies perpetuated by the Deep State. They can’t grasp the reality that, aside from elected officials, our government is still run by hard-working, well-intentioned, and often underpaid civil servants. It’s more enticing to believe in conspiracy theories.
Instead of believing that most Democrats are honest, caring people who have genuine differences in policy matters – whose solutions to issues are worth consideration and debate – it’s more exciting for conspiracy theorists to believe they are cunning and evil. That they are pedophiles, cannibals and satanists who, working in concert with A-list celebrities, operate child sex-trafficking rings.
Instead of accepting that our elections results are reliable. They would rather believe that their candidates lost only as a result of fraudulent and illegal votes. Their excuses are many. And all of them are equally preposterous: Thousands of undocumented immigrants voted. Dead people voted. Democrats hauled fraudulent ballots into the polling places by the boxload. China replaced legal ballots with fraudulent ones. Iran and Venezuela hacked the electronic voting machines.
Instead of believing that scientists created safe, effective vaccines to combat Covid, the conspiracy theorists believe social media posts that claim the vaccines are part of a Deep State plot. That they are a form of mind control. That they will make you sterile. That they will turn you into a magnet. That they will give your children autism and make your testicles swell to the size of basketballs.
In previous decades, all of this would have been rejected as absurd and somewhat hilarious theater. But the Deep State conspiracy theory is a very real and ongoing threat.
When a substantial percentage of Americans, including a majority of Republicans, no longer believe in our government of the people, by the people and for the people. When they no longer believe in science, in evidence, in expertise, in truth. When they no longer believe in fair and free elections. When they are no longer willing to compromise, the only winners will be autocrats, theocrats, and our nation’s foreign enemies.