Space the Nation: Looking at the "Deep State" and the hazy history of shadow governments

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Mar 20, 2018

The headlines: 

Rep. Matt Gaetz claims evidence of a ‘palace coup’ in FBI against Trump
A new warning about the ‘Deep State’
Trump asks why 'deep state authorities' aren't investigating Clinton emails
Trump to hire lawyer who pushed theory DOJ framed Trump

The trope: The Republican Party controls the House and Senate, the White House, and a majority of the Supreme Court — in other words, they control the federal government. Yet the Trump Administration is plagued by investigations undertaken by that government! If one believes in the righteousness of the Trump Administration, then those investigations must be illegitimate — how can one both trust the government you elected, but reject the rule of law? It’s a logic problem for loyal conservatives that can only be solved by the existence of a Shadow Government. These days, they’re calling it the “Deep State.”

Where you can find it: It’s tempting to date this trope back to then-emergence of religion — it is, after all, rooted in the same human impulse to find patterns where they may or may not exist. Even if we rein in our example-finding to the last few centuries or so, the notion that those who rule us are themselves controlled by an even more powerful — and secret — cabal haunts both Hamlet and Othello. But there’s no question that advances in technology, and the increasing literal and psychic distance between citizens and their government, made the latter half of the 20th century the true dawn of Shadow Government narratives — both in fiction and in real-life… if you can tell them apart. Richard Hofstadter wasn’t writing about novels when he described modern American politics as “the paranoid style.”

Indeed, many genre favorites have spun out of the original imaginings of those who think they’re reporting and not inventing; the idea that the government is hiding aliens in Roswell has worked its way into more books and movies than one can count. Mysterious agents who go around “fixing” incidents that might otherwise disrupt the prevailing narrative? Well, of course, they’re “Men in Black” but also in yellow coats, dodging detection and moving pieces in King’s Dark Tower universe. The Charles Stross’ Laundry Files envisions them as kind of nerdy bureaucrats, and they are stylishly accessorized with blue gloves in Firefly

Maybe the shadow government is more than a handful of masterminds in a cabal. Maybe it’s a whole group of people, linked by membership to an organization that might even have a legitimate front (like the Trump administration’s contentions regarding the FBI). It could be the Bilderberg Group (indie mockumentary The Conspiracy has a particularly witty take), or the Illuminati (see, well, The Illuminatus Trilogy, Angels & DemonsTomb Raider). The Knights Templar are a cottage industry as well, showing up high-minded novels such as Foucalt’s Pendulum and shlocky fun like National Treasure. Want some racism with your paranoia? There’s always the Elders of Zion (a tract that began its tortured life as parody and fiction, oh, and hi, again, Umberto Eco!) — or, as Trump kept putting it during his campaign: “international bankers” and “global elite.” 

Episodic television is especially good at spinning out the tendrils of conspiracy theories: note not just The X-Files but Millennium, Fringe, Person of Interest, and multiple episodes of any given latter-day Star Trek, especially Babylon 5 (when the President actually works with "The Shadows" as an alien race). The Expanse has individuals within governments working together on plans that different than what the public knows. A "shadow government" conspiracy is probably the most interesting way to describe Star Wars' foundational senate skirmishes. 

More recently, I’m not sure what’s going on with Hydra in Captain America, but that probably counts, too. Phillip Pullman just invented a British spy group called “Oakley Street,” and one could argue that The Foundation series is about the biggest shadow government of them all — unless you think Iain Banks' The Culture is even more vast.

Shadow governments seem to lend themselves especially well to video game worlds, where their existence can justify the presence of a fully kitted-out first-person shooter in otherwise pedestrian settings. Assassin’s Creed’s meta narrative is a battle between two shadow organizations: the Assassins and (yup) the Templars. Metal Gear’s elaborate re-telling of American history has it that we’re all the pawns of The Philosophers (and then The Patriots). And I’ll have you know that the in the first page of Google results for “shadow government video games,” I turned up a Fox News video clip.

And while the origins of the term “Deep State” are real enough — it described the machinations of the Turkish military to brutally stifle dissent — the term has been eagerly adopted by fabulists outside the White House as well. It’ll be a Fox series soon, and it’s the name of the most recent X-Files game. Have I mentioned that 74 percent of Americans think it’s a threat to them, too?

Really, this trope is incredibly elastic and often necessary if the author’s world isn’t exactly factual but isn’t magical, either. As a device, it propels plots and papers over necessary fictions. In real life, it only disguises uncomfortable truths.