Stephen Miller mentioned the ‘deep state’ conspiracy theory. Here’s what you need to know

The basics of Trump’s Ukraine whistle-blower scandal — so far
Video: Mark Gartsbeyn, Globe Correspondent, Photo: Anna Moneymaker / The New York Times (File)

The “deep state” is back — and you may be hearing that phrase more in the future as President Donald Trump scrambles to defend the actions exposed by a whistleblower that have sparked impeachment proceedings.

In the latest high-profile mention of the conspiracy theory, Senior White House policy adviser Stephen Miller said Sunday that the whistleblower was connected to the deep state.

‘‘I know the difference between whistleblower and a deep state operative,’’ Miller said. ‘‘This is a deep state operative, pure and simple.’’

Trump himself tweeted on Sept. 15 that he was “fighting the Fake (Corrupt) News, the Deep State, the Democrats, and the few remaining Republicans In Name Only (RINOS, who are on mouth to mouth resuscitation), with the help of some truly great Republicans, and others.”


He tweeted on Sept. 21 that the country was seeing economic success “despite a Crooked and Demented Deep State, and a probably illegal Democrat/Fake News Media Partnership the likes of which the world has never seen.”

Raising the deep state theory was suggested in talking points that the White House accidentally e-mailed to Democrats. “This case just shows another example of the ‘Deep State,’ the media, and Democrats in Congress damaging our national security by leaking confidential information in an attempt to seek political gain,” said the talking points, which were meant to guide Republicans in their defense of Trump in the burgeoning scandal.

Republican lawmakers and party officials, as well as conservative media have also been raising the deep state theory again in recent days.

The deep state theory, as defined by Merriam-Webster, envisions “an alleged secret network of especially nonelected government officials and sometimes private entities (as in the financial services and defense industries) operating extralegally to influence and enact government policy.”

The theory goes back years among conservative websites such as Infowars and Breitbart. Trump courted right-wing conspiracy theorists on his way to the White House and installed Steve Bannon, chief executive of Breitbart, as his chief strategist once he took office, Newsweek reported in 2017. (Bannon has since left the White House). Trump has blamed a deep state conspiracy for trying to both block his election and thwart his agenda.


Paul Musgrave, an associate professor of political science who teaches foreign policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said the idea of the deep state was once applied to countries like Turkey and Egypt, where the military and national security apparatus played a big role in the actions of the civilian governments.

“It was part of the analytical toolkit that scholars and observers had developed” to understand such countries, he said.

The idea has, however, been “ported over to the United States in a very weird way,” he said, with the controversial, divisive Trump using it to defend himself from allegations like the whistleblower’s.

“It’s a really useful bogeyman, but there’s no evidence for it,” he said.

“There are a lot of people who work for the federal government who probably did not vote for Donald Trump, but that’s something every president faces. The mark of the American civil service is a willingness to work for whoever the president is, setting aside your political beliefs and links,” Musgrave said.

“Conspiracy theories are endemic in American history. There’s always a substantial number of folks who believe and traffic in these theories. What’s different right now is we have a president who’s pretty openly engaging with these. ... It is uncharted territory for the mass media era of American politics,” Musgrave said.


Musgrave said he felt that the deep state theory was surfacing again after a lull. Google Trends indicated that interest in the term spiked in 2017 and 2018 but quieted down somewhat last fall.

Joseph Uscinski, an associate professor of political science at University of Miami who has co-authored the book “American Conspiracy Theories,” said, “There is an entrenched part of government. There is a bureaucracy. They are unelected. ... Whether they are pulling the strings of government is a different issue. Whether there is a coordinated operation to take Trump out of office is another issue.”

He said versions of the deep state theory have played out in the past in American history, noting the idea floated during the Red Scare that Communists controlled the goverment and theories that the military and the CIA killed President John F. Kennedy.

The deep state theory is “one of the core tenets of Trumpism,” he said, noting that during the campaign Trump promised to “drain the swamp” of corruption in Washington.

Both professors said it wasn’t clear to them whether Trump actually believes in the deep state or whether it is simply a tactic to gull his supporters. “It’s really hard to speculate on what President Trump truly believes,” Musgrave said. He noted recent reporting that suggests Trump, in his phone call with the Ukrainian president, appeared to be looking into some farfetched theories.


At the same time, he may “also be concocting a story to discredit these charges,” Musgrave said.

Both experts agreed that, even though Trump is playing the deep state card yet again, he is likely to keep on doing what he is doing.

“I’m sure he will continue,” Uscinski said. “This has been his MO, to call into question anyone who calls him into question.”

Many of his supporters will “buy it because he says it,” Uscinski said. “It will not wear off. They’ll hold on to their pro-Trump deep state beliefs.”

That could change if more evidence is brought forward, but it will take more than a whistleblower from the CIA to change minds, Uscinski said.

“He’s been going back to this well for years,” Musgrave said. “I’m not sure this is as much of an innovation and departure as we might think.”

How long will he keep raising the deep state theory to fire up his supporters?

“Until it stops working,” Musgrave said.