The Deep State: the Conspiratorial Turn in America

The phrase actually referred to a real and shadowy power in Turkey. In America, it’s the preserve of those harboring extreme and unfounded theories

The Deep State: the Conspiratorial Turn in America
Jake Angeli, known as the “QAnon Shaman” / Olivier Touron / AFP via Getty Images

In politics, fantasies can be a central motivator for taking action. Such was the case on Jan. 6, 2021, when the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol was animated by fantasy. The motley crew shared a belief that the 2020 election was stolen and could be overturned via obscure constitutional procedure if only a few patriots could take action. Beyond this immediate goal most shared some degree of belief in QAnon — an amorphous set of pseudo-prophetic political beliefs that hold Donald Trump to be a crusader against a satanic, child-sacrificing “Deep State” made up of media elites, Washington insiders and bureaucrats.

Based on anonymous 4Chan posts from a purported administration insider who is codenamed “Q,” QAnon adherents believe that John McCain did not actually die of natural causes but was secretly executed for treason. Some believe that President Kennedy’s son JFK Jr. is still alive, is a covert political operative and will reveal himself as Trump’s new vice president. Others maintain that Robert Mueller was a secret Trump ally investigating the president as a decoy operation. The phantasms that the rioters were fighting had fuzzy edges and definitions as ludicrous and shifting as the rioters themselves. The picturesque blue-painted and fur clad “QAnon Shaman” — Jake Angeli — was better known before Jan. 6 for live-streaming himself entering shopping malls wearing a horned headdress and screaming about how decorative tiles outside bathrooms were coded signals for secret gangs of Deep State child-trafficking pedophiles to abduct children into a cave network to harvest the chemical adrenochrome from their brains. A subset of QAnon followers believes in the existence of the “frazzledrip tape,” a purported video of Hillary Clinton and her assistant Huma Abedin ritually sacrificing and then eating a baby. This chaotic fever dream of demonic imagery is mixed with more prosaic enemies — elitist diplomats, complacent Washington insiders and Trump’s personal enemies list — to make up the shifting cloud of what is called the Deep State, the hidden enemy. The paranoid rage is all-American, but the term is imported.

The Deep State is the Turkish language’s great contribution to political science. The translation from Turkish — “derin devlet” — is literal and direct. A state that exists below and within. The Turkish term, however, doesn’t imply any outside-the-mainstream milieu of ideas, nor does it serve the same role as the American term “conspiracy theory” in describing a way of seeing the political world. “Deep State” in Turkish is not a flight of fancy or an alternative belief; rather, it describes a very specific set of historical actors in a specific time and place. Who is included within the bounds of the term is of course up for debate, because the Deep State is secretive by definition, but the term describes unauthorized and unknown networks of power operating independently of official political leadership. The Turkish Deep State has imprecise boundaries and includes state-aligned mafia figures as well as industrialists and conservative economic elites, but it is not a catchall term for status quo power structures or hegemonic institutions. The Deep State is a shadowy parallel system of power, not the power structure that you can openly see.

There is credible evidence that some of these covert power networks in Turkey have lineages that go back to the 19th century, to secret political organizations among modernizing Turkish nationalist army officers in the last days of the Ottoman Empire. This history does not mean that the Deep State has been the secret hand behind Turkey’s national destiny from the dawn of time but points to the more reasonable fact that parallel power structures form during times of crisis. It is precisely during these crises in Turkey that the Deep State became something named and observed in political life. The left-right political violence of the 1970s and ’80s that resulted in a series of brutal military coups was a time of pervasive covert state violence and Deep State activity. Leftists and students were disappeared, and in 1977 dozens of trade unionists in Istanbul’s Taksim Square were mowed down by gunmen whose identities and motivations remain unknown to this day. In the 1990s, during the Turkish state’s struggle against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) — a fight that broadened into a state assault on Kurdish civil society — the Deep State once again slithered out of the depths and onto the streets. The jarring 1996 “Susurluk incident” was a freak car accident involving a BMW full of cash, guns, drugs, and a notorious mafia drug baron and police general somehow driving together. Susurluk revealed the depths of the connection between the Turkish security services and right-wing organized crime elements in their mutual war against the PKK.

The Deep State is not a fantastic conspiracy but something tangible and real. Parliamentary investigations in Turkey in the early 2000s confirmed the existence of whole military units and intelligence bureaus whose very existence was unknown to the elected government. Some Deep State structures, like the national gendarmarie’s secret intelligence unit JİTEM, have been fully exposed. For others, mystery remains. Turkey’s U.S.-trained counter-guerrilla unit, known variously as the Special Warfare Department or Tactical Mobilization Group, was instrumental to Turkey’s Cold War anticommunist violence. It remains unclear whether that unit operated under Turkish government authority, with some anonymous former members claiming that they answered only to NATO while also readily confessing to involvement in torture and instigating Istanbul’s 1955 anti-Greek pogroms.

Although the Deep State in Turkey refers to a secret network, it is actually very well documented and proven. The term Deep State has left Turkish history and entered into global political discourse because it is a useful and accurate tool to describe specific forms of state and para-state violence that actually happen. The concept is not specific to Turkey or the Middle East. Criminal investigations in Italy and Belgium have uncovered similar Cold War-era networks in Europe under the codename Operation Gladio.

I was very much surprised, then, to see “Deep State” emerge in post-2016 American politics as an explicitly Trumpist term. Devoid of context, Trump administration figures used the phrase initially in much the same way that Barack Obama coined the phrase “the blob” — as shorthand for the Washington establishment consensus. Google searches for “Deep State” spike in April 2017 shortly after Trump’s administration started. In October 2017, posts from “Q Clearance Patriot” appeared for the first time on 4chan, setting the QAnon mythos into motion. Searches for Deep State spiked again and, with time, the phrase has become more sinister and accusatory.

It would be easy enough to write a taxonomy of the term “Deep State,” tracing how it entered into Trumpworld and shifted its meaning therein. There is even a prime candidate for who brought the phrase into the White House: Gen. Mike Flynn, who lasted as Trump’s national security adviser for all of 22 days and who had deep and possibly illegal connections to Turkish politics.

Flynn initially made a name for himself within the U.S. military and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) as a hawk’s hawk, fixated on the threat of militant Islamism. Before he was forced out of the DIA in 2014 for his chaotic and abusive management style, Flynn frequently accused Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of being a crypto-jihadist and a threat to the West. In 2016 Flynn initially hailed the abortive Turkish coup d’état as an attempt (he assumed) to defend secularism.

Mike Flynn’s tune quickly changed when he launched his consulting company and quickly became one of the most ardent pro-Turkish government lobbyists in Washington. Flynn published editorials denouncing cleric and Erdoğan rival Fethullah Gülen as the puppet master of dark and shadowy forces. Flynn’s reversal was as adamant as it was sudden. The Turkish government would eventually offer the general $15 million cash to kidnap Gülen (a U.S. permanent resident) and transport the cultish and reclusive cleric to Turkey to stand trial for instigating that same coup attempt Flynn once praised. Unbelievably, accepting cash from a foreign government to stage a kidnapping on U.S. soil was not actually the reason Flynn eventually had to resign. His time in the Trump White House was short, but it was only after this brief stint that the administration began to use the phrase Deep State.

This could be a tidy and convenient story: A conspiracy-minded operative falls into the orbit of Erdoğan and picks up a very politically useful narrative of a shadowy conspiracy by hidden establishment actors against democracy. But Flynn was not young and innocent, and his hobnobbing with Turkish government bigwigs was not his introduction to the idea of a Deep State. Before he was a “consultant,” and before he was assistant director of the DIA, Flynn made a career as a young staff officer in the then-small and close-knit U.S. special warfare community. He trained and made plans at Fort Bragg’s John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center in the 1980s. The center was previously known as the U.S. Army Institute for Military Assistance, and the generation of men who trained the young Flynn were veterans of dozens of American covert efforts to fight communism — the men who ran the Phoenix Project death squads in South Vietnam and trained anticommunist secret police and commandos in Thailand, Iran, Italy, Greece, Guatemala and a dozen other countries, including Turkey.

The Turkish Special Warfare Department and its larger counter-guerrilla program, when they functioned openly in the ’50s and ’60s, were supported and organized directly by the American special warfare community via the U.S. military assistance mission. The Green Berets who trained the Turkish operatives who instigated the Istanbul pogroms and tortured dissidents at the Zivirbey Villa in 1971 would, in the twilight of their careers, rotate back to the Kennedy Special Warfare Center to train the next generation of American covert warriors — men like Flynn. The mania for conspiracy and Deep State suspicion is not something Flynn contracted from Turkey like some Oriental disease, but he was shaped and molded within real existing conspiracies. Deep states are not fantastic when they are something you have been trained to construct and support.

In American and Turkish conversations about the Deep State, everything is reversed. In America real and specific Deep State agents — celebrities, politicians, institutions — purportedly commit horrific torture on abstract categories of victims (patriots, children, etc.) who can never be specifically named or seen. Nobody has successfully proved voter fraud in the 2020 election. No child survivor of the elite Soros adrenochrome harvest has come forward.

The victims of the Turkish Deep State, on the other hand, are not hypothetical or mythical. From the 1970s hundreds of people, mostly leftists and minorities, were murdered by state or para-state gangs. When encountering a real Deep State the question is never if what is happening is real, but to what degree it will do harm. Were the masked men who threw grenades into a Kurdish bookstore undercover military, or were they a far-right mafia gang? Or were they from a conservative Kurdish clan given money and arms to suppress separatists? The fear and doubt that an unknown perpetrator provokes is a key part of Deep State violence. Only the victims are real: A comrade’s body is dumped outside the union office; protesters die after being gunned down in a rainy square; a reporter simply never comes home one day. You do not have to posit the existence of underground child-abuse tunnel networks when there are funerals to go to.

Almost as if they have become sensitive to the absurdity and implausibility of many contemporary conspiracy theories, there is a strain within the Jan. 6/QAnon world who are much less prone to the fantastic and make more concrete (although still totally baseless) claims. The events that they claim happened, the jargon they use to impart verisimilitude to their stories, and frequently the conspiracy theorists themselves are linked to the U.S. military or security services.

A month before Jan. 6, rumors swirled among the Telegram channels and yet-unbanned Facebook groups where the Capitol rioters mobilized. For example, a specific military unit, the 305th Military Intelligence Battalion, was reported as having raided a secret underground server farm in Frankfurt, Germany. It was there, the story went, that the CIA had secreted away a server farm full of voting data with incontrovertible proof that the 2020 election had been stolen from Donald Trump. There had been casualties, but the raid was a success. The 305th had captured CIA Director Gina Haspell, and she had already been flown to Guantánamo Bay and been executed for high treason. While the real public affairs officer for the actual battalion was busy drafting a statement explaining that no, the Arizona-based unit of analysts was not a secret shock troop tasked with overturning the 2020 election and had not been engaged in a subterranean battle with the CIA in Germany, a retired lieutenant general, Thomas McInerney, was solemnly intoning that the 305th had taken heavy casualties. A month later, while the QAnon Shaman stood shirtless on the Speaker’s rostrum in the House of Representatives chamber in a horned headdress and howled about impending doom for traitors, Larry Rendall Brock stood on the House floor in a tactical plate carrier and helmet giving instructions to other rioters. A former Air Force lieutenant colonel, Brock had tucked into his vest a bundle of zip ties meant to restrain detainees. (After his arrest, he claimed he actually had no targets for detention in mind but wanted to give the zip ties to the police.)

Seven percent of Americans are veterans, but almost 20 percent of the Jan. 6 rioters had served in the military. A midlevel State Department official who covered South American affairs has now been charged with assaulting a police officer during the riot. This strike against the American Deep State on Jan. 6 was therefore demographically closer to any putative Deep State than to the general public. Not all American security institutions are bad in this fantasy world.

Guantánamo Bay looms especially large in the fantasies of QAnon. It will be the site of execution, trials, extrajudicial torture and retribution visited on the Deep State child abuse mainstream media globalist sickos. Hillary Clinton and George Soros will be hanged there. There is a good reason that the lurid fantasies of revenge and torture in “The Storm” — the QAnon day of judgment when Trump and his patriotic allies defeat the Deep State — all take place at Gitmo: Everybody in America knows that Gitmo is where the United States actually sends people to be extra-judicially tortured. Men held there are fed out of dog bowls. They are hooded and kept in sensory deprivation. They are subject to sexualized abuse and kept in solitary confinement for years at a time and detained for decades without trial. The place of Guantánamo Bay in QAnon mythos tells us something very important about the actual American Deep State, the one that ran a torture camp outside Kabul, the ruins of which you can now find on Google maps (it has a one-star review), and the actual secret intelligence services that are probably skimming metadata off the device you are using to read this article. Indeed, since 9/11, what would amount to a Deep State in the U.S. is no longer deep. It functions brazenly, right in the open, without any conspiracy or concealment, in places you can find on Google maps. Former Army officers Brock and McInerney want to send their enemies there.

In the days after Jan. 6, the entire U.S. military was tasked with addressing extremist infiltration within their ranks. The Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Pentagon met behind closed doors to privately reaffirm their commitment to a constitutional transfer of power. It has become clear that conspiracy theories like QAnon and militias like the Oath Keepers that participated in the Jan. 6 insurrection have found fertile recruiting ground within the ranks of law enforcement and the military. Indeed, when investigating far-right domestic terrorism, the FBI no longer shares suspect information with local police departments, assuming a level of sympathy among local cops. U.S. President Joe Biden took the oath of office surrounded by tens of thousands of troops, the individual loyalties of whom were not entirely certain.

When I was serving at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, my job was mostly administering the Trump-era Muslim ban as it applied to thousands of would-be immigrants from Iran. It was a disgusting, bigoted policy I made no secret of opposing. My newly arrived boss, who I forgot also spoke Farsi, overheard me being too sympathetic to a family I had just banned. My supervisor took me aside. “No trash-talking policy in front of applicants.” He also hated the ban. “If you are going to be a Deep Stater, do it in private.” Outside of the conspiratorial fringe, this is what we mean when we say Deep State in America. Obstructionist insiders. Two multilingual bureaucrats from “The Blob” in J. Crew suits trying to pull a little polite veneer over their opposition to Trump.

I walked away from my desk into the old embassy grounds, shrugging off the incident in the same cafeteria garden in which generations of American officials had sat while mulling over their own pet issues in Turkish-American relations. It was the same garden where U.S. officials celebrated after the 1980 Turkish coup d’état — the height of Deep State power in Turkey — which arrested tens of thousands overnight and crushed the left in that country for a generation. It was where the legendary Radio Free Europe psychological operations expert and self-identified CIA official Paul Henze had probably sat to relax during his own Cold War assignment in Ankara. After his work in Ankara was done, Henze would be the man who would lean over to Jimmy Carter and gleefully proclaim that “the boys in Ankara have done it!” as they watched American-trained officers overthrow an elected government in 1980.

The situation in which I found myself exemplifies the exact problem with translating the idea of Deep State between the U.S. and Turkey. There are two versions of this term now: a Turkish one that describes something horrifyingly real and an American one that stands for either stodgy bureaucratic annoyance or lurid fantasy. This gap in translation is not a linguistic inadequacy. Rather it masks a central truth: that the Turkish Deep State was an American-backed project. The most dangerous, capable and avid adherents of Deep State conspiracies in the U.S. are themselves products of the same military and security institutions that supported the Deep State in Turkey. The targets of the real existing Turkish Deep State and the Americans who regard themselves as fighting against a fictional Deep State are the same. They are democracy, minority rights and the left.

Standing in the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, a place as tied to the Turkish Deep State as any American building can be, while being half-scolded by a supervisor who calls us Deep Staters with a hint of pride, illustrates the poverty of American understanding of this term, which should be taken seriously. As it meanders in translation, Deep State loses useful meaning and becomes the territory of wingnuts and cranks. If this continues to happen, we will lose sight of one last terrifying irony: that with their infiltration of the military and the security services, contempt for democratic processes and willingness to use political violence, the anti-Deep State conspiracists in the United States are well on their way to creating the unauthorized and unknown networks of power that the term Deep State was coined to describe.

Years after Ankara, on my way to work at another diplomatic post, I watched Jan. 6 unfold on my phone. The rioters stormed up the steps of the Capitol with the same vigor any U.S. trained officer might have displayed while overturning a Cold War-era election in some foreign country. America’s support for anti-democratic violence has finally come home. I think of Paul Henze as the rioters breach the Capitol doors. The boys have indeed done it.

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