What does it mean when President Biden declares an event in which four people died, all of them Trump supporters and only one by violence, the “worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War,” and The New York Times marks the anniversary by proclaiming that “Every Day Is Jan. 6 Now”? The implication is politics as permanent crisis, which sounds strikingly like a definition of war.
This obvious threat inflation, which should be familiar after September 11, is used by governments and private corporations alike to award themselves more unaccountable power. To work, it relies on the public being cowed by the expertise and authority of institutions that operate in secret. These methods have proved to be highly effective for defending the power of America’s bureaucracies.
The problem with bureaucratised secrecy is what it does to the rest of society. As illusions come to seem real and formal mechanisms of truth-seeking appear blocked off, conspiracies offer themselves as a virtuous alternative. To encourage this in a country that already has a deep, native strain of paranoia and wild truth-seeking is a dangerous gamble.
The elements of fantasy and stagecraft present on January 6, from the costumed pageantry at the storming of the Capitol to the Broadway kitsch at its anniversary commemoration, point to the event’s dual origins in the US security state and the paranoid imagination that is a byproduct of government secrecy run amok.
“Secrecy is an institution of the administrative state that developed during the great conflicts of the twentieth century. It is distinctive primarily in that it is all but unexamined,” the scholar and American statesman Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote toward the end of his long career in public life, when he turned his attention to the power in the shadows.
Moynihan, a Democratic Senator from New York, was known for his polarising work on race, poverty and the breakdown of the American family. But in his final published book, the liberal Cold Warrior delivered a revisionist account of the US conflict with the Soviet Union. Though he never wavered on the righteousness of the anti-Communist cause, Moynihan argued that the effort had been weakened and warped by the growth of a bureaucratic culture of secrecy. He delivered a measured but devastating attack on the underworld of administrative institutions better known today as “the deep state”.
In Secrecy: The American Experience, published in 1999, Moynihan argued that US policy had been systematically distorted by intelligence agency assessments that exaggerated the economic and military power of the Soviet Union. Because the agencies operated in secret, the exaggerations were not only shielded from scrutiny but had the perverse effect of fuelling their own growth. Over time, this process fundamentally transformed the American political system. “Secrecy is a form of regulation,” Moynihan wrote in the book’s opening line. This new form of regulation supervened democratic procedures and transferred power to bureaucracies operating in the shadows of the elected government.
Despite his criticisms, Moynihan maintained that secrecy was “at times legitimate and necessary”. But he observed a typology of secrets in which there were two critical distinctions. The first was between secrets applied to foreign affairs in the interest of national security, and those used domestically to regulate the activities of American citizens. The second, related division was between functional and symbolic secrets.
Influenced by the sociologist Edward Shils’s 1956 book The Torment of American Secrecy, Moynihan elaborated a theory of secrets as social agents in bureaucratic societies. In his introduction to Secrecy, the historian Richard Gid Powers describes the contours of that approach: “Drawing on Max Weber and Emile Durkheim, [Moynihan] saw how he could discuss secrecy as a form of regulation (Weber) that could often take a ritualistic form (Durkheim) in order to stigmatize outsiders and critics (as distinguished from the functional secrecy that seeks simply to keep critical information from the enemy).”
As secrecy expands into a basis of governing power, what is human — to fear the unknown — metastasises into a culture of consuming paranoia and conspiracy. Moynihan was not alone in foreseeing this outcome. The American diplomat George Kennan, another stalwart of the Cold War, expressed his own reservations about the normalisation of espionage as an instrument of policy. “We easily become ourselves the sufferers from these methods of deception,” Kennan warned. “For they inculcate in their authors, as well as their intended victims, unlimited cynicism, causing them to lose all realistic understanding of the relationship, in what they are doing, of ends and means.”
Unlimited cynicism occluding cause and effect for perpetrator as well as victim — who may not be so easy to tell apart — is an apt framework with which to approach the inept fantasy of insurrection that took place on January 6, 2021, in Washington D.C.
For four years, while Donald Trump was President, US intelligence agencies colluded with members of Congress and the media to foment a conspiracy about collusion between Trump and Russia. The claims relied on secret smoking gun evidence that was supposedly in the possession of the proper authorities and would, any day, result in the President and his associates being tried for treason. Of course, this never happened, because what the secrecy concealed was not damning evidence, nor merely the lack of it, but the record showing how Clinton lawyers, ex spies, and current federal agents had, together, manufactured the false collusion narrative. Predictably, the official state-sanctioned conspiracy produced as its mutant offspring the counter-conspiracies of the Right, of which the most notorious was QAnon, a group that would play a leading role in the Capitol riot.
Feeding on the cynicism of his supporters and the brazen interventions of the deep state into the 2020 election — most notably the suppression of reporting on Hunter Biden’s business ties on transparently spurious national security grounds — Trump spent weeks after the vote stoking the fury of his supporters with a manic “stop the steal” campaign that made no distinctions between reasonable questions of electoral interference and ridiculous ones, and showed little concern for the line between protest and mob violence. The day after the riot, the president, realising that he had gone too far, denounced his supporters who had attacked security officers and breached the Capitol building as having “defiled the seat of American democracy”. Not long after, he was back to defending them. At no point did he accept any responsibility for the national humiliation.
While Trump has continued his stop the steal campaign, in terms of both cynicism and impact, it is dwarfed by what his opponents have carried out in the government and press. There is considerable evidence that US security and intelligence agencies had prior knowledge of a planned march on January 6 and were present in some capacity among the groups that breached the Capitol. We know, for instance, that a leader of the Proud Boys, a group that the Wall Street Journal called “key instigators” of the Capitol Riot, spent the past decade as a “prolific” FBI informant.
An investigation by the New York Times based on confidential records and sources found that “federal law enforcement had a far greater visibility into the assault on the Capitol, even as it was taking place, than was previously known”. The Times’ efforts pick up on reporting on the FBI’s role in the riot by the Right-wing news site Revolver, which has focused on Ray Epps, the former president of the Oath Keepers militia movement. Epps, who unlike some 700 other people involved in the riot has never been arrested or charged with a crime, can be seen on video taken at the riot telling people to “go into the Capitol”.
The FBI has a record of hyping up threats and encouraging terrorists plots that it can then bust to justify its mission. Consider an ongoing case involving the plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan. For months the plot was marshalled as evidence of the existential danger posed by Right-wing extremist groups, but those claims have unraveled as it turned out that the FBI had 12 informants inside the organisation accused of planning the crime. The informants “had a hand in nearly every aspect of the alleged plot, starting with its inception”, reported Buzzfeed. “The extent of their involvement raises questions as to whether there would have even been a conspiracy without them.”
And yet these dubious pseudo-events, which never posed any immediate threat to America’s democracy or its security establishment, are compared to the worst attacks in American history. At the January 6 commemoration last week, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi brought out liberal godhead Lin-Manuel Miranda along with the cast of Hamilton to perform a virtual performance. This moment of supreme kitsch was only scarcely more ridiculous than Vice President Kamala Harris, in her commemorative remarks, comparing the largely symbolic riot to Pearl Harbor and 9/11.
The purpose of these gross exaggerations is to demand that Americans forfeit their rights in the name of security and convince the public, or some electorally significant fraction of it, that it is wise and just for the US government to prosecute a counterterrorism campaign against Trump supporters. The project uses the full power of the American security establishment as a get-out-the-vote arm for the Democratic party.
Secrecy, like conspiracy, dulls the impact of reality. Long after they have been exposed, the afterlife of secrets continue to debase the currency of truth. It is notable, for instance, that contrary to the inflamed rhetoric from the White House and prominent Democrats, no charges related to insurrection have been brought against any of the more than 700 defendants charged with participating in the Capitol riot. Instead, the government has mostly pursued a strategy of seeking the harshest sentences possible for trespassing. To one side, this is evidence that no insurrection took place; that even the government doesn’t believe the threat it’s selling. But to the other side it has roughly the opposite meaning, signalling that the US government is soft on Right-wing extremism and that power is working behind the scenes to protect the coup-plotters.
It remains necessary to counter lies with truth, but not sufficient. Until the rule of secrecy itself is ended and power in democracies again becomes visible and accountable, the arms race of paranoia and conspiracy will continue. That way lies ruin.