If you happened to have been a Twitter user in 2013, you might have seen a particularly mind-boggling bumper sticker popping up in your timeline. The slogan on the sticker combined two of the GOP’s best wedge issues, abortion and gun control, into a chimera of demagogic horrendousness. The sticker read: “If babies had guns, they wouldn’t be aborted.”
Obviously, the sticker suggested that fetuses would shoot abortion doctors if they could -- a not-so-subtle message to the militant anti-choice crowd who think it’s part of their mission to terrorize, often violently, both health care professionals and pregnant women who seek abortion services. The call to action, we’re to infer, is for anti-choice crusaders to serve as proxy defenders of fetuses who, if they weren’t too tiny to hold a real-life pistol, would otherwise defend themselves. (On a side note: Babies, post-birth, sometimes get their hands on firearms, and often with tragic consequences, thanks in part to the for-profit firearm industry which, in recent years, has even stooped to marketing guns to children.)
The ex-legislator responsible for the bumper sticker is a man named Steve Stockman, formerly of Texas' 36th congressional district, also once represented by libertarian hero Ron Paul. Stockman was also notable for having contests on his website in which the prizes were brand new AR-15 rifles. What made these contests particularly awful was that the AR15 was the weapon used by the Sandy Hook shooter, and Stockman held the contests in the months after the massacre. Trolling the Sandy Hook parents just five months after their children were murdered in school -- so appropriate for a sitting member of Congress, isn't it?
But if you’ve been experiencing a sense of Schadenfreude recently, it might be because Stockman was arrested for basically pulling a George Costanza “Human Fund” scam. He has been accused by federal prosecutors of raising money for an apparently nonexistent organization then pocketing the money himself. At the time of his arrest, Salon reported:
The Texas Republican was jailed on Thursday and accused in federal court on Friday of conspiring with two former employees to violate federal election laws. Prosecutors allege that Stockman created a non-profit in Las Vegas called Life Without Limits in 2011 and then planned to funnel thousands in donations made by his employees to himself for personal use. During his second term in office, Stockman accepted one such donation for $350,000.
Last week, Stockman said that he had been framed by the “deep state.” It’s a commonly overheard conspiracy theory these days, one peddled by InfoWars radio host Alex Jones and quietly picked up by the Trump White House in response to the series of leaks from intelligence officials pertaining to Trump’s alleged collusion with Russian intelligence to stymie the 2016 campaign cycle with disinformation and hacked Democratic Party documents.
The deep state claim is potentially explosive, at least when marketed by Trump and his supporters. While the president hasn’t used that term in public, he’s certainly alluded to it when complaining about the “intelligence” community (his scare-quotes) and how it’s behaving like “Nazi Germany,” or when he’s whining about “fake news.” Combined, this is Trump playing the deep state card, insisting that his presidency is being undermined by operatives within the intelligence community who are actively passing national security documents to the press in pursuit of the "Russiagate" scandal.
The signal we’re intended to receive here is that Trump won’t go quietly. And if he goes down, it’s possible he’ll try to trigger as much chaos in Washington as possible. Worse, the damage could easily spread beyond the Beltway. First, as Trump feels more surrounded and suffocated by the endless conga line of overlapping scandals, he might engage a witch hunt of his own to target what he’ll surely describe as rotten, crooked chunks of the intelligence community, either by exposing dirty FBI, CIA or NSA secrets or by calling for mass firings that make his recent firings of U.S. attorneys seem pragmatic. In the process, he might foment a constitutional crisis and, potentially, try to undermine an investigation that seeks to expose dangerous interference in our elections and our political sovereignty by Vladimir Putin's increasingly hostile regime.
Beyond Washington, though, the deep state conspiracy theory is plausible enough in the age of light-speed social media memes -- thoughtlessly circulated, irrespective of any linkage to verifiable, factual information -- that it manufactures an easy out for Trump supporters who, like their leader, feel increasingly cornered by the slow drip of the Russia story. Consequently, there will never be a consensus on Russiagate.
Most Trumpers will almost certainly consider the investigation into Russiagate to be the real coup d’état, even in the face of an actual attempted coup by the Kremlin. On top of that, public outcry about an alleged deep-state coup could spark unrest and violence by Trump supporters who feel as if the White House is being usurped by sinister or even criminal elements inside the government. As the evidence for collusion between Russia and the White House grows, the outcry against the deep-state conspiracy will also grow.
Making matters worse for the long run is the rapid disintegration of public trust in institutions: If we can’t trust our own intelligence agencies, and if we can’t trust the news media, who can we trust? We’re already at a point where “random anonymous people online” are considered less mendacious than legitimate news outlets. Imagine another year or two or four of the president and his feckless media goons screeching about fake news and, concurrently, screeching about a so-called coup by intelligence operatives -- the latter, I’m sure, mysteriously linked to the Obamas and the Clintons. Imagine another several years of accusations similar to Trump’s ludicrous “Obama wiretapped Trump Tower” claim.
There’s ultimately a breaking point at which we won’t be able to repair the damage. That breaking point might likely coincide with Trump trying to go full autocrat in the style of Putin or Turkey’s President Erdogan, and attempting to order the disappearance of journalists, political opponents and other dissidents.
This is all to say that paranoia about the deep state is yet another profoundly destabilizing feature of the Trump era. The repercussions could be devastating for America’s future as a democracy, especially on top of Russia’s all too easy interference in our last election.