The 5 Levels of Russiagate and Deep State

Photo by Jørgen Håland on Unsplash

Since the 2016 election much of the US has rallied around 2 different narratives, which I term “Russiagate” and “the Deep State.” Both schools of thought attempt to explain current events by invoking the influence of particular actors or organizations in US government affairs. Russiagate concerns the influence of the Russian government, under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin. The Deep State, on the other hand, accuses elements connected to the US government itself of acting against the wishes of the people. The villains of both narratives are alleged to engage in a variety of efforts to sway US affairs, including (but not limited to) political advocacy, interference in elections, sowing division, and in their more extreme forms they both claim that these nefarious forces are controlling government officials and are actively trying to damage or destroy the United States of America.

This pair of beliefs have each coalesced around the two presumptive major party candidates running for the presidency in 2020. Joe Biden supporters, encouraged by Democratic leaders and Democrat-aligned media for 4 years, are almost universally under the spell of Russiagate. Donald Trump and many his supporters, on the other hand, have embraced the Deep State and taken it to new extremes. I really don’t know if Americans, and the political leaders who have been stoking the rise of more extreme versions of Russiagate and the Deep State, realize how dangerous it is…as passions flare inside these two alternate realities, the outcomes could be tragic. This is not a game. The bifurcation between the Russiagate and Deep State camps has become so severe that we see stunning degrees of ossification and hostility between adherents of these dueling paradigms.

I believe that this presents a clear and present danger to the stability of the USA as a nation. As a US expatriate, I have followed these developments with growing alarm, and increasingly fear for the health of my home country, and for the world upon which it exerts enormous influence.

Before we go any further, it is important to define exactly what is meant by Russiagate and the Deep State. However, we immediately run into a problem: both are dynamic and evolving, moving targets that are not easy to capture. There is additionally a surprising amount of diversity in the adherents and perspectives attached to each narrative. In fact, there is a large spectrum of beliefs people hold regarding the extent, manifestation, motive, activity, effectiveness, etc., of both Russia and the Deep State within these storylines.

There is a huge problem here, since these conceptions are so flexible and ill-defined that it is difficult to have a meaningful dialogue about either one. For example, someone might say “Russiagate was debunked” or “the Deep State is nutty,” but it isn’t clear what they mean when they say that, because there are so many different levels and manifestations of these narratives floating around in peoples’ heads. This renders discussions about these ecosystems of thought imprecise, and vulnerable to rhetorical devices such as straw man attacks on over-simplified (or extreme) versions of each tale. It seems clear to me that these are large families of thought, each of which has some nuggets of truth embedded into them. If they didn’t contain some compelling elements, then these storylines wouldn’t be very effective at drawing people into these spheres. On the flip side of this coin, ideas that are better characterized by “Russiagate Lite” or “Deep State Lite” should also not be conflated with their more extreme cousins.

Therefore, I thought it would be better to try and encapsulate this spectrum of beliefs by setting out to define different levels of both the Russiagate and the Deep State hypotheses, with the lowest level representing basic beliefs that could seem reasonable to just about everyone, and higher levels representing increasingly more extreme propositions and ascendance into conspiracy theory.

I know that adherents of one or the other of these narratives will take offense at my examination of both the Russiagate and Deep State schools of thought on an equal basis. I am sure that deeply passionate followers of one or the other might think “how dare you try to conflate my theory with that other nonsense.” But one of my intentions is to show that both of these spring from reasonable assumptions about the world, and then begin to move into more dubious territory, in very similar ways. I’m not going to judge which is true and which is not. I simply want to put it out there as I see it, because I suspect that it might have a slim chance of restoring some semblance of sanity to the discussion.

Let’s begin by proposing that both Russiagate and the Deep State are rooted in basic observations that almost everyone might agree upon.

For example, just about everyone might be able to agree that Vladimir Putin prefers having Donald Trump as president, as opposed to Hillary Clinton, even if everyone doesn’t agree on the precise reason why Putin has this preference. We can readily assess that Putin and Clinton have a well-documented history of clashes, and her policy positions are at odds with a number of Russian strategic interests. Trump, on the other hand, has worked to build a closer and more amicable relationship with Russia, especially when contrasted with the tone used by Hillary Clinton. It is therefore reasonable to believe that Putin has a preference for Trump over Clinton. I will call this “RG1” for “Russiagate level 1.”

Likewise, just about everyone might agree that the US government seems to operate in a way that is often not in accord with the wishes of the people. A famous Princeton study has frequently been cited to demonstrate the disconnect between what the government does, and what people want the government to do. Of course, most people do not need a scientific study to tell them that this is true, and it is a commonly held belief that parts of the government have (for example) been “hijacked by special interests.” However, the specific examples that people would cite in order to demonstrate this government-people mismatch may vary a lot from person-to-person (particularly for those of different political persuasions), and there is a wide spectrum of beliefs regarding the cause of this disconnect, and how it should be characterized. Still, I think that almost everyone would agree that the modern US government is not very democratic in the sense that it does not appear to closely follow the will of the people. I will call this “DS1” for “Deep State level 1.”

Both of the above beliefs, RG1 and DS1, which I postulate to be palatable truths to most Americans, form a launching pad for the Russiagate and the Deep State narratives. Both of them begin from a reasonable starting point, but then move up into less secure territory when going further. Let’s climb these strata…

The 5 Levels of Russiagate:

RG1: Vladimir Putin holds a favorable view of Donald Trump in comparison to Hillary Clinton.
RG2: The Mueller Report is true. Specifically, that Russia hacked into the Democratic National Committee (DNC) servers and stole damaging communications that were passed to Wikileaks for publication, and additionally orchestrated a disinformation campaign on social media.
RG3: There was a secret conspiracy between Putin and Trump (aka “collusion”), and they worked together in order to swing the 2016 election in Trump’s favor.
RG4: Vladimir Putin holds damaging information (blackmail, such as “pee tapes”) or other influence over Donald Trump, and is using that in order to directly control the Trump administration.
RG5: Putin coordinates a pervasive influence campaign in US affairs with the aim of “sowing discord” and damaging the USA. He does this controlling/manipulating officials and other public figures, wittingly (aka “Russian assets”) or unwittingly (aka “useful idiots”).

The 5 Levels of the Deep State:

DS1: The US government does not follow the wishes of its citizenry, and seems to exert a distinctly different will from that preferred by “the people.”
DS2: A Deep State operates within the US government, rooted in domains having the least oversight by elected leaders. This Deep State influences affairs, but not in a coordinated way. It is not a secret organization with a command-and-control structure that directly conspires to control the government. Any coherency that manifests is the result of groupthink and protection of similar vested interests.
DS3: The Deep State is a secret organization that operates in a coordinated way. Decisions are made by its leadership, and communicated to its members in order to carry out a coherent policy strategy.
DS4: Shadowy elite groups cultivated and presently control the Deep State organization as an extension of their ambition to secretly maintain global dominance. (This belief may connect withclassic conspiracies like those regarding the “Bilderberg Group” or an “Illuminati.”)

DS5: The Deep State is actively seeking to overthrow the US government, and is engaged in a variety of immoral and/or illegal activities.

I have not made any mention of the particular people and political factions that have rallied around these different narratives in these definitions of the levels, I wanted to strip away these aspects as much as possible and allow the propositions to stand alone, outside of the political context. I’ve also attempted to construct the levels in a way that combines similar aspects and/or leaps of credulity across both narratives, as follows:

RG1 and DS1 are both palatable to the majority of Americans, as I already mentioned.
RG2 and DS2 are backed only by anecdotal or communicative evidence, however, a reasonable person would admit that these are at least plausible (even if not proven to the satisfaction of skeptics).
RG3 and DS3 rise to allegations of a conspiracy (“collusion”) among the actors involved, even though such coordinated activity is not supported by publicly available evidence. For these reasons, this is the level at which each family enters the realm of “conspiracy theory.”
RG4 and DS4 both allege that secretive organizations control various parts of the US government. The villains of each have become virtual puppet masters.
RG5 and DS5 both see their narrative’s villain(s) as nefarious forces that are intent on damaging or overthrowing the US government. These are enemies, and a clear and present danger to the USA.

Note: Few people are likely to be defined at any single level, as everyone is capable of holding multiple beliefs having different degrees of certainty. For example, a person might accept a lower level as a factually accurate reflection of reality, but then they could speculate that higher levels might be true as well, even if they’re not entirely sure about it. This is a logically safer stance, especially since “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” Still, a person might also have an upper limit to what they might be willing to consider plausible.

Where are you on the RG and DS scales? If you have a moment, post your response in the comments section below, and tell us why you think this way.

Some of the adherent of either of these families might take offense at my characterizations, particularly when combined with all of the intense passions attached to these schools of thought in the present era. “Wait a minute” they might say, “the claims in the Mueller Report are A FACT!” or “the Deep State is obvious!” I’ve actually had conversations with people that exactly followed this script. (In fact, I’ve even been accused of being a conspiracy theorist myself, just for expressing skepticism about their conspiracy theories.)

I don’t expect everyone to be capable of releasing their angers, fears, and other passions, and stepping back to examine these head trips in a more dispassionate way. But maybe the distillation into levels will open the doors for some people to think more rationally about these topics, or at least to see them in a new light…If so, I will have achieved my goal, even if they don’t agree with my categorizations or approach to the subject (the end is more important than the means).

As I mentioned above, RG2 and DS2 are supported only by anecdotal or communicative evidence. This doesn’t mean that they are not true, it only means that we do not have any indisputable tangible evidence that proves them correct. In the case of RG2, we have a kind of pre-indictment in the Mueller report, but the reality is that no convictions have been obtained related to these accusations, and they have never been applied to a criminal prosecution in a court of law. (In fact, the when defendants showed up in court to answer an indictment, the government dropped the case, citing national security concerns.) In the case of DS2, we effectively have behavioral analyses of the government that seek to “connect the dots” and make sense of how the government appears to act as a rogue entity decoupled from accountability to the people. However, regardless of whether or not you are persuaded by this hypothesis, in this case we also have to admit (if we are being honest with ourselves) that there is no “smoking gun.”

All of the evidence that has been offered for both RG2 and DS2 requires interpretation, which must be supplied by their proponents. However, a skeptic can easily raise the objection that those whose testimony has been offered to back up the story may be biased or deliberately misleading. For example, detractors of RG2 might note that allegations of Russian hacking of the DNC server are based on the testimony of a DNC-paid contractor Crowdstrike, who were caught pushing false or exaggerated stories regarding Russian hackers taking control of (and destroying) Ukrainian artillery guns, or who admitted in closed door congressional testimony that they had no evidence that data was taken from DNC servers by Russians. Those who adopt RG2 and DS2 must, therefore, make the additional assumption that the support that has been offered for is both trustworthy and factual. Testimonial evidence is only as strong as the persons who offer the testimony.

The RG and DS theories and their levels are not necessarily fixed, and have evolved in many ways since they entered the public dialogue. They have also become fiercely partisan with time, although neither was necessarily partisan at the outset. However, I’ve tried to define the levels in a manner that is not dependent on these time variations, while still capturing the varying degrees of belief in each one.

On the RG side, the Mueller report that elucidates RG2 did not exist before spring 2019, but the accusations had existed since before the exposure of the Steele Dossier in late 2016. RG3 and RG4 were dealt a blow when they were not supported by the Mueller report, although many still believed the accusations were true even if Trump managed to escape being caught. Many additional claims have been added to the RG family at all levels, often asserted by Democrat-aligned media citing anonymous sources (usually “intelligence officials” or contractors). For example, at the RG2 level, we saw news stories that Putin was meddling in the Democratic primary to support Bernie Sanders. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi continues to push the RG4 narrative that Trump is beholden to Putin, an accusation aired by Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential debates. Recently there is a RG5 level story in the Democrat-aligned NY Times about Russia paying bounties to the Taliban in order to kill US soldiers in Afghanistan. At the RG5 level we’ve also seen Hillary Clinton attack congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard as a “Russian Asset.” Partisan newspapers like the Washington Post have published a steady stream of RG conspiracy theory allegations, including a story backed by the shadowy source “PropOrNot” who allege that numerous US media venues are secretly controlled by the Russian government. Fears surrounding RG have caused many political leaders to call for censorship, and have put a great deal of pressure on social media platforms.

On the DS side, we see an even greater evolution and deformity of the original underlying concepts (RG is relatively consistent). Former congressional staffer and author Mike Lofgren is one of the well-known proponents of the Deep State hypothesis, extensively detailed in his 2016 book The Deep State: The Fall Of The Constitution And The Rise Of A Shadow Government. Lofgren’s proposal is strictly DS2 in nature, and he explicitly disavows DS3. Furthermore, his analysis applies equally to both major political parties, for Lofgren the Deep State is not a partisan phenomenon. However, invocations of the Deep State have been made by many prior to Lofgren, and each one varies considerable (though many fall in the DS2 category).

The Trump administration (backed by outlets such as “Breitbart News”) were quick to co-opt the Deep State narrative and utilize it as a political tool on behalf of Trump. For Trump and many of his backers, the Deep State resembles a DS3-like partisan organ, dominantly comprised of Democratic party elites who are engaged in a “witch hunt” to remove a democratically elected president. In 2019, former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon was quoted in a book “Deep State: Trump, the FBI, and the Rule of Law” (by James B. Stewart) as being critical of Deep State conspiracy theories, rejecting DS3–5 ideas (but apparently accepting DS1–2). Since 2018, right-wing social media has seen the growth of a “QAnon” movement at the DS4-DS5 levels, stoked by a shadowy user who goes by the name “Q” on platforms such as 8chan, Endchan, and 8kun. QAnon alleges that the Deep State engages in a variety of immoral and criminal activities, and is actively trying to overthrow a “democratically elected President” and the country as a whole. As described in this video, they imagine that Trump was recruited to become president in order to challenge the Deep State. Some of the more extreme QAnon believers have pushed bizarre conspiracies that elite Democrats were involved in cannibalism, child sex trafficking (including #Pizzagate), and even Satanic rituals.

The above discussion gives some examples of mainly partisan RG and DS manifestations, however, to allow these to be entirely co-opted by the dominant partisan camps would be a mistake. There are some who have different interpretations or who arrive at RG or DS from entirely different political angles. For example, modern progressives on the left often criticize what they call “establishment Democrats” for catering to Wall Street, involvement in wars and conflicts around the world, and failure to deliver health care, wage, food, housing, job security, a social safety net, and quality education to the majority of Americans. There is only a slight difference in terminology between their views of the government and the DS spectrum. Many of them fall into DS2-4-like categories in expressing ideas such as the US being closer to a plutocracy than a democracy.

It is also important to note that RG and DS are not mutually incompatible. Indeed, an infinite number of hybrid interpretations that combine both streams of through are possible. For example, consider a scenario in which the Deep State is controlled by rogue intelligence agencies who use their psy-ops tools of the trade to manipulate the US public and government, engaging in foreign adventures abroad that are aimed at protecting or advancing the interests of wealthy US investors, and as a result of these activities they have run into feuds with Vladimir Putin in some regions. In such a storyline, Putin’s efforts to interfere in US affairs can be viewed as a counter-attack that seeks to land blows directly on the Deep State, rather than the US as a whole. In this case, Putin might even be spun as a savior of the US if his actions manage to defeat the Deep State and free the country from its dangerous grasp. This is just one example of potential hybrid theories, surely there are as many of these potential stories as there are people to imagine them.

Where will matters go from here? I fear that the more extreme versions of RG and DS have entered dangerous territory, inciting passions and hostilities that could lead to terrible consequences. As the frenzy becomes more volatile, we have seen calls for more sanctions and increased tensions with Russia, or preparations (including record gun sales) for a massive civil conflict in the US. And all of this is happening in the context of a global pandemic that is raging out of control in the US like no other place on Earth. We’ve seen massive demonstrations against police brutality following the public lynching of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, which have already been invoked by Trump as a sign that a left-wing fascist conspiracy is preparing to overthrow the US. A swarm of QAnon followers have taken to Twitter posting videos of themselves “swearing in” for duty and “taking the oath,” as if they were soldiers. And tensions between the US and Russia are at their worst point since at least the Cuban missile crisis.

These are dangerous times, and I hope that we might be able to step back from our alternate realities and conspiracy theories so that we can see these threats more clearly, and prevent the worst from happening. The Doomsday Clock, produced by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists since 1947, is at 100 seconds to midnight…closer than ever before. This assessment was made in January 2020, before the novel coronavirus became a global pandemic…matters have not improved since that time.

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Expat American father, husband, scientist, professor, philosopher, and artist. Non-partisan gadfly speaking truth to power.

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John Hernlund

John Hernlund

Expat American father, husband, scientist, professor, philosopher, and artist. Non-partisan gadfly speaking truth to power.

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