Two years after the January 6 attack on the US Capitol building, the conspiracy theories about a malign group controlling the country have not gone away. This continues to corrode US democracy, fuelling stark polarisation that is deepening distrust and political violence.
Many in the mob on January 6 2021 believed that there was a “deep state” in control of their country, which had taken over powerful positions and were making decisions.
Some used this term to describe the people and institutions who they claimed had stopped their “rightful” president, Donald Trump, being re-elected and thwarted what they considered to be their righteous path, something Trump himself claims to believe. Other people have since argued that the attack was a hoax created by similar deep state actors.
Some of the elements of what is described as the deep state definitely exist, such as agencies acting covertly, and sometimes without direct oversight from accountable politicians. Running well placed and therefore vulnerable informants could be an example where direct political oversight is inappropriate.
Some people remain convinced these activities represent a take-over by unelected officials and reason enough to take up arms, while others see them as a function of a modern state.
For those who travelled to Washington DC on January 6 and proceeded to break in to the building and put the lives of elected representatives at risk, an alleged deep state had orchestrated the “theft” of the presidential election.
But belief in a deep state working against Trump isn’t confined to a fringe minority. A poll conducted by NPR/Ipsos after the 2020 election found 39% of Americans believe the deep state worked to undermine Trump. Some also believe the deep state has used or even started or faked the pandemic to curtail their rights.
Some on the left of US politics also have their own version of a deep state, driven by military and economic leadership, which generates wars and crises to perpetuate their interests. This force – they say – has persecuted and even assassinated those who stand in their way.
Much of what some describe as the deep state has legitimate government function. The intelligence services, law enforcement and the media are all underpinned by laws, regulations, courts or other forms of oversight.
But the now-popular concept of a deep state gets dangerously close to conspiracy theory precisely because it is founded on kernels of truth. There are intelligence agencies operating covertly. The media is a values-and-opinions-led industry run by billionaire owners. Business and lobby groups do influence politics to shape laws and regulations in their favour. That all of these things are true does not mean there is a deep state in the way those using the term mean.
Why did this take hold?
A key problem in US politics is that all sides are fatigued by polarisation and do not trust their political opponents. They assume their opponents have co-opted a section of government, and media and use this influence to brief aggressively against them.
The former academic and now filmmaker Adam Curtis is among those who argue that many powerful people deliberately sow confusion to undermine trust in political institutions (“hypernormalisation)”, and that this can destabilise the public’s understanding of what is real and what is fiction.
In the US (and increasingly in other countries too) people on all sides have come to believe that money, and particularly foreign money, is skewing politics away from the interests of the people. These beliefs have a radicalising effect on some people.
There are similar emerging narratives and movements in the UK, Germany and other parts of Europe, particularly in Scandinavia. In the UK, those who advocated for the campaign to leave the EU still refer to a mythical pro-European deep state preventing the benefits of Brexit being realised.
The QAnon movement, originally based on a conspiracy theory that Donald Trump was fighting paedophilic, Satan-worshipping elites trying to control politics, has grown to include conspiracy theories about COVID and even 5G telephone masts. The QAnon phenomenon’s extension to Germany is poorly understood but has driven the advance of far-right groups.
While the US has always been curiously susceptible to conspiracy theories, (think the Kennedy assassination or the moon landings), the more recent conspiracies and QAnon activism has been enabled by the ubiquity of the internet. Real world threats – such as those of those of January 6 in the US and the so called Reichsbürger coup plot in Germany in December 2022 – have been encouraged by narratives that begin on the dark web (part of the internet used for completely anonymous communication).
What is the Reichsbürger movement accused of trying to overthrow the German government?
Another contributor is the distribution of self-published ebooks through mainstream platforms like Amazon and Scribd. Before the internet era finding such a large audience would have been expensive and logistically difficult for purveyors of these conspiracy theories.
One of the great ironies of those evoking the idea of the deep state is that they have themselves have behaved like a deep or parallel state. They have acted in secret, with their own command-and-control structures, message management and military-style coordination of their actions.
What can be done to mitigate the harm of uninformed beliefs, and conspiracies? This movement has parallels with the debates around the deradicalisation of jihadists in the 2000s. As was found then the more involvement there is from government officials and agencies, the greater the push-back and reinforcement of the radicalising narratives.
The conclusion from the experiences around jihadist radicalisation is that prevention is more effective than cure. But the work on prevention and disruption needs to be well funded and is politically and socially difficult.
The continued prevalence of narratives around the deep state mean that the January 2021 attack are unlikely to be the last attempted. A prosecution of Trump for incitement of the January 6 mob action might satisfy the needs of those who were victims of the attack but may also stoke the conspiracy theories that just aren’t going away.
Robert M. Dover does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.