Nunes memo as political MacGuffin: One more excuse to undermine democracy

Nobody takes the memo seriously: But the paranoia and conspiracy theory it's being used to feed are not funny

By Chauncey DeVega

Published February 6, 2018 4:59AM (EST)

Devin Nunes (Getty/Win McNamee)
Devin Nunes (Getty/Win McNamee)

Last Friday, Rep. Devin Nunes, who was once an obscure California Republican, released a much-anticipated memo which he promised was a "bombshell" full of "unbelievable revelations" about a "conspiracy" hatched by the FBI, the Department of Justice and other elements of the "deep state" against Donald Trump.

Nunes' memo contained no such information. Instead it highlighted how a onetime Trump's adviser, Carter Page, had been under federal surveillance for being a foreign agent (i.e., possibly a spy) on behalf of Russia and other countries. In fact, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies continued to monitor Page after he formally left Trump's orbit. (It's not clear, in fact, that Page actually knew Trump, or that they ever had a face-to-face conversation.)

The Nunes memo also misrepresents the role of the notorious "Steele dossier" in a FISA court's decision to monitor Carter Page. The memo does nothing to absolve Trump -- despite his public pronouncements to the contrary -- of suspicion that he colluded or conspired with the Russian government or its agents. Nor does the information contained within (and also selectively omitted from) the Nunes memo link special counsel Robert Mueller to any inappropriate surveillance of Page or Donald Trump personally or anyone else.

In many ways, the Nunes memo does more to incriminate Donald Trump than it does to exonerate him. Why would Trump and his campaign accept help and guidance from Carter Page, a man who was a known foreign asset? Why do so many individuals with connections to the Russian government, its intelligence agencies and its oligarchic elite gravitate toward  Trump and his inner circle? What is the quid pro quo involved and whose interests -- Trump's, Russia's or the American people's -- are actually being served? Why would Republicans in the Department of Justice and FBI (such as Mueller or James Comey or Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein) continue to authorize surveillance of Trump's associates if the Russia scandal was all just a "deep state" witch hunt ginned up by the Democrats?

Ultimately, the Nunes memo is a distraction consisting of lies written up by a Republican hack working with other right-wing provocateurs and Republican sycophants to protect their handler and leader. Rather than vindicating the president, the Nunes memo has been widely mocked on social media, made into the focus of witticisms by pundits and commentators, and become a punchline for late-night TV hosts.

But guess what? For Republicans and other conservatives, none of that will matter. The Nunes memo is best understood as a political MacGuffin, meaning the object in a film that drives the plot forward but whose specific details of are either suggested, left vague or never explained. (The "Maltese Falcon" in John Huston's classic film of that name would be a classic example.)

For the right-wing conspiratorial political imagination, the Nunes memo serves this function perfectly.

Why? The political personalities of conservative-authoritarians -- and their brain structures as well, according to some scientific research -- make them especially vulnerable to disinformation and other types of propaganda.

Since at least the 1950s, the right-wing movement in America has been attracted to what Richard Hofstadter famously called the "paranoid style." During the Cold War, these ideas were prominently circulated by newsletters and magazines from organizations such as the John Birch Society. In the 1980s and 1990s, the right-wing conspiratorial media machine went mainstream with talk radio and Fox News. The next iteration with the rise of the internet and websites such as Breitbart and Alex Jones' Infowars would complete the conspiratorial brainwashing of America's conservatives.

The influence of Fox News on American conservatives and the right cannot be underestimated: For several decades, the channel founded by Roger Ailes has created an alternate reality, systematically conditioning its viewers to believe things that are not true.

In total, conspiracy theories reflect larger social and political fissures in a society. For example, they can signal to a lack of faith in political institutions or a sense of powerlessness among some segment of the public.

Conspiracy theories can also be used by the powerful as a pretext for actions designed to cement their power by creating scapegoats and or a manufactured crisis. The Nazis were masters of this tactic.

In the ailing and dysfunctional democracy that elected Donald Trump, conspiracy theories such as the Nunes memo are a way to further erode longstanding political and cultural conventions so a political leader can expand his power.

Trump is a master of political showmanship, mendacity and bullying, and wields right-wing political MacGuffins such as the Nunes memo to great effect. The Washington Post's Michael Gerson explains how Trump has "built his scandal strategy on a foundation of conspiracy theories, targeted by partisan media to the most receptive":

“We have a coup on our hands in America,” says Fox News host Jesse Watters.

Does Trump believe this? Who knows? In this matter, sincerity is downright scary. It means we have a conspiracy-minded, 71-year-old Fox viewer engaged in a strange feedback loop with conservative cable television — each encouraging the delusions of the other. In the process, Trump is further alienating an already-alienated segment of the population, making them more open to suggestions that he is the victim — not of his own ineptness and corruption — but of sedition.

Why is this a danger to democracy? People who believe conspiracy theories cease to believe in the possibility of discourse and deliberation. When the whole game is rigged, debates can only be decided by power. At stake in our political moment is respect for the rule of law itself. A president who doesn’t like being subject to the rules is attempting to discredit the enforcers of the rules. This has been tried before, but seldom with a heavier hand.

At the Atlantic, Jonathan Rauch and Benjamin Wittes are even more direct in their warning about how the Republican Party, Donald Trump, and his allies are a threat to American democracy. Here too, the right-wing embrace of conspiracy theories and the malignant reality created by Trump and his subservient media looms over Rauch's and Wittes' warning:

The Republican Party, as an institution, has become a danger to the rule of law and the integrity of our democracy. The problem is not just Donald Trump; it’s the larger political apparatus that made a conscious decision to enable him. In a two-party system, nonpartisanship works only if both parties are consistent democratic actors. If one of them is not predictably so, the space for nonpartisans evaporates. We’re thus driven to believe that the best hope of defending the country from Trump’s Republican enablers, and of saving the Republican Party from itself, is to do as Toren Beasley did: vote mindlessly and mechanically against Republicans at every opportunity, until the party either rights itself or implodes (very preferably the former) ... .

Rauch and Wittes write that they have arrived at a "syllogism," that being that since the GOP "has become the party of Trumpism," and since they believe that "Trumpism is a threat to democratic values and the rule of law," the Republican Party has by definition become such a threat too. The most important tasks in American politics, they conclude, "are to change the Republicans' trajectory and to deprive them of power in the meantime," in hopes of forcing the party "back into the democratic fold."

The Nunes memo and other political MacGuffins in the service of Trump's conspiratorial imagination and political agenda are not the stuff of petty or routine partisanship and bickering. As we have repeatedly seen in the United States and elsewhere -- from the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building by Timothy McVeigh to the plan by a Trump supporter to kill reporters at CNN to the many murders connected to the white supremacist movement now known as the "alt-right" -- this is potentially lethal business.

There will be blood. When it flows, Devin Nunes, Donald Trump, Fox News and other leading voices in the right-wing echo chamber will plead innocence. They will protest that the mayhem and violence was unpredictable, and in no way caused by their conspiracy theories or their determined efforts to undermine American democracy.

Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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