The news that the Trump administration has directed the Defense Department to appoint the once-dismissed conspiracy theorist, Rich Higgins, to a major Pentagon job has so far received little coverage in the major press. In 2017, Higgins was a staffer in the strategic planning office of the National Security Council (NSC) when he wrote a seven-page memo titled “POTUS & Political Warfare.” A paranoid pastiche of far-right conspiracy theories about the president’s “adversaries,” the memo resulted in the dismissal of Higgins and several others from the NSC staff.
Now, three years later, the president wants Higgins to serve as the chief of staff to the incoming undersecretary of defense for policy. (The president’s nominee for that undersecretary position is, as a recent Bulwark article explained, ill suited for the job.) The selection of Higgins and the rush to have him take office is an ominous turn by the Trump administration. The culture war fight he recommended in his 2017 memo is now being put into practice by the president, as the nation has seen in his July 3 address at Mount Rushmore and his July 4 address from the White House.
Indeed, the acceptance of Higgins’s playbook by Donald Trump and his acolytes is far more dangerous than what Senator Joe McCarthy did in the 1950s. McCarthy had managed to gain significant support for his witch hunt to root Communists out of the government, until his overreach led a bipartisan group to turn away from him. The Senate finally condemned him on Dec. 2, 1954 by a vote of 67 for and 22 against. McCarthy had created fear and suspicion, but his pleas for a massive purge of “Reds” in the government failed to materialize.
Now, it is President Donald Trump who is calling for a purge of supposed traitors and fifth columnists. With both the bully pulpit and the powers given to the president by the Constitution, Trump’s seeming adaptation of Higgins’s McCarthyite playbook cannot be ignored or pushed to the side.
It is worth taking a moment to look at the history of Higgins’s memo and how it led to his firing. Soon after Michael Flynn’s departure in 2017 after less than a month on the job, President Trump appointed H.R. McMaster his new national security advisor. Several people inside the administration (including Steve Bannon and some Flynn holdovers on the National Security Council, such as Higgins) started a smear campaign against McMaster, joining forces with figures outside of the administration: major Trump supporters on the fringe of American politics, such as Mike Cernovich, a perpetrator of conspiracy theories such as “Pizzagate”; radio conspiracymonger Alex Jones; and the editors and writers of Breitbart News and David Horowitz’s website, Frontpagemag.
It was in this context that Higgins wrote and circulated his memo, which accused McMaster in all but name of working for America’s enemies. This left McMaster no choice but to ask Higgins to resign, or if he did not, be fired. (Higgins resigned.) McMaster served until March 2018.
Higgins has never repudiated, and in fact seems to stand by, what he wrote in the 2017 memo. Rereading it makes one shudder. Higgins painted a picture of how conspiratorial members of the “deep state” were subverting the administration, and even worse were conscious adherents of “cultural Marxist memes.” This secret cabal of government Marxists supposedly schooled in the doctrine of Weimar-era Germany’s Frankfurt School were composed of “‘deep state’ actors, globalists, bankers, Islamists, and establishment Republicans.”
It is hard to imagine establishment Republicans studying or even knowing about the work of Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, Franz Neumann, Max Horkheimer, or their intellectual descendants today. Nevertheless, as I noted in a 2017 Daily Beast article, Higgins believes that Trump’s opposition, including Republicans, operates according to “cultural Marxist drivers” and consciously uses a “Maoist insurgency model” to take power away from President Trump. Their strategy, Higgins believes, is to create false narratives: Along with the Democrats, he writes, “the Republican Establishment accepts and enforces cultural Marxist memes within its own sphere of operations.” And along with the globalists and Islamists, they think that America, “both as an ideal and as a national and political identity, must be destroyed.”
Certainly, many of the ’60s-era members of the New Left read the Frankfurt School writers and some were highly influenced by this group—but I can’t think of any of them who became establishment Republicans or Trumpists, with the exception perhaps of Larry Kudlow when he was a student radical and SDS president at the University of Rochester.
Writer Bill Berkowitz summed up the belief that cultural Marxism has become the one-stop explanation of the threat facing our nation, noting that the attack on the Frankfurt School contains more than a hint of anti-Semitism:
In a nutshell, the theory posits that a tiny group of Jewish philosophers who fled Germany in the 1930s and set up shop at Columbia University in New York City devised an unorthodox form of “Marxism” that took aim at American society’s culture, rather than its economic system. The theory holds that these self-interested Jews—the so-called “Frankfurt School” of philosophers—planned to try to convince mainstream Americans that white ethnic pride is bad, that sexual liberation is good, and that supposedly traditional American values—Christianity, “family values,” and so on—are reactionary and bigoted. With their core values thus subverted, the theory goes, Americans would be quick to sign on to the ideas of the far left.
Higgins, however, explains his view of what the Frankfurt School stands for in this way: “Cultural Marxism relates to programs and activities that arise out of Gramsci Marxism, Fabian Socialism and most directly from the Frankfurt School. The Frankfurt strategy deconstructs societies through attacks on culture by imposing a dialectic that forces unresolvable contradictions under the rubric of critical theory. The result is induced nihilism, a belief in everything that is actually the belief in nothing.” At this point, Higgins most likely lost his readers, since it seems he has himself adopted the largely incomprehensible sentences often found in contemporary pseudo-Marxist and postmodernist writing, an irony that obviously escaped him.
Others have argued more cogently that the Frankfurt School’s ideas in fact do a lot to explain the phenomenon of both Donald Trump and the new populist-nationalism. Writing in the New Yorker, Alex Ross points out that what adherents of the school provide is great insight to why and how someone like Donald Trump was able to become president. Ross notes that, in the 1950 book The Authoritarian Personality, Adorno and his coauthors discuss the type of personality that set the stage for a “potentially fascistic individual”—and, implies Ross, by drawing on this theory, someone who held an “accumulation of racist, antidemocratic, paranoid, and irrational sentiments” could gain a great following in America. This is not what the Trumpists expect you to learn from the Frankfurt School.
In the conspiratorial view of Higgins, the evil cabal running America includes the mainstream media, the deep state, globalists, corporatists, the bankers, the Democratic leadership, the Republican establishment whose politicos echo Frankfurt School Marxist memes, and finally Islamists and all those who support these evil forces—virtually the entire liberal-left in America.
Arguing as if he alone knows what Trump stands for, Higgins uses Gramscian theories about forging a historic bloc that could gain hegemony over society. Higgins writes:
Candidate Trump’s rhetoric in the campaign not only cut through the Marxist narrative, he did so in ways that were viscerally comprehensible to a voting bloc that then made candidate Trump the President; making that bloc self-aware in the process. President Trump is either the candidate he ran as, or he is nothing.
Therefore, Higgins asserts that Trump had become “an existential threat to cultural Marxist memes that dominate the prevailing cultural narrative, those that benefit recognize the threat he poses and seek his destruction. For this cabal, Trump must be destroyed.” They wage, he believes, “a political warfare effort that seeks the destruction of a sitting President.” To stop them, that president must go to war against them before he is destroyed.
Higgins’s dismissal from the NSC by McMaster therefore became for Higgins more proof that the deep state conspiracy to overthrow Trump by preparing a Marxist-Islamist coup exists. As he wrote in his memo, Trump’s enemies seek “the forced urbanization of the populace, thereby necessitating a larger, more powerful government.” In summary, this is a “form of population control by certain business cartels in league with cultural Marxists/corporatists/Islamists who will leverage Islamic terrorism threats to justify the creation of a police state.”
Defending himself in the pages of the Wall Street Journal this past February, Higgins actually compared his dismissal from the NSC staff to that of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman after he testified before Congress in the lead-up to the Trump’s impeachment. “In contrast to Col. Vindman,” Higgins wrote, “I lost my job because I was loyal to the president.” Higgins’s op-ed stresses the one thing Trump values more than anything: loyalty to himself. Knowing this, Higgins’s job application—which is what his memo really is—worked. Just a few months after writing the op-ed, and three years after his ouster from the NSC staff, Higgins was rewarded by Trump with his pending Pentagon appointment. Trump is now following Higgins’s arguments to a T, and having Trump appoint him to a major Pentagon job makes a good deal of sense.
In his Wall Street Journal op-ed, Higgins acknowledges that his May 2017 memo was intended to by “read by people with the power to take action—perhaps even by the president himself.” Higgins is still fuming that Congress did not ask him to testify about his firing and that “editorialists and pundits didn’t express outrage” about it. It is Col. Vindman, he suggests, who was being “dishonorable” by practicing “resistance while in uniform.”
It is telling that in his attack on Col. Vindman and in his explanation of his own rationale for being the good guy, Higgins leaves readers unaware of the conspiratorial nature of his original memo, which even one of his supporters in the administration admitted “reads a little crazy, but it’s not wrong.” And crazy it is. In my Daily Beast article, I compared Higgins to Joe McCarthy, noting the latter’s infamous Senate speech of June 14, 1951, in which he argued that Gen. George C. Marshall—an American leader beloved by the entire nation—had as secretary of state handed China over to Mao Zedong and the Communists. Communism’s strength, McCarthy said, “must be the product of a . . . great conspiracy, a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.” Two months earlier, in debating another controversy on the Senate floor, a McCarthy ally had declared that America was in the hands of a “secret inner coterie which is directed by agents of the Soviet Union.” The country would not know their names unless President Harry S. Truman were impeached, and only then would Americans find out “who is the secret invisible government which has so cleverly led our country down the road to destruction.”
Replace the phrase “secret invisible government” with “deep state” and you’ve more or less got the paranoid rhetoric of today’s Trumpists.
Back then it was Secretary of State Dean Acheson, McCarthy said, whose “primary loyalty” was to the British Labour government, and his “secondary allegiance [was] to the Kremlin.” To Higgins, the NSC under McMaster was loyal to America’s current enemies as Higgins defined them.
McCarthy said that under Truman and Eisenhower, America had lived under “twenty years of treason.” Today it is our president himself who is branding his opponents with words like those used by McCarthy. Trump recently claimed that Barack Obama had spied on him and his campaign and secretly taped them. He told the evangelical TV station CBN in July that what Obama did was “treason.” He is also fond of bandying about that accusation on Twitter.
That is why Higgins’s new appointment means two things. First, it is yet another example of how Trump is appointing—in various departments—loyalists who agree with his agenda to clean out the “Marxists,” thugs, destroyers of our entire way of life, and their leftist supporters. An ardent Trump supporter puts it this way, referring to Trump’s two speeches on July 3 and 4: “He spoke out unapologetically in defense of America’s unique heritage even as mobs of evil anarchists and violent Communists rabidly tear down monuments and statues to some of America’s greatest heroes.”
Higgins isn’t the only NSC staffer McMaster fired whom Trump has hired back. Higgins’s NSC colleague and fellow Trumpist Ezra Cohen-Watnick, whom McMaster also dismissed, is now at the Pentagon as the deputy director of defense for counter-narcotics and global defense.
Another concerning recent hire: Michael Pack, who now runs America’s global news media institutions, and whom Trump appointed because he publicly said that Pack would “clean up” the radio networks like Voice of America, which the president accused of running Chinese government propaganda. Immediately upon taking office, Pack removed the chiefs of the news agencies under his control, a move that critics allege was intended to clear jobs for pro-Trump executives.
As Jeffrey Gedmin, the former CEO of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, recently noted here at The Bulwark, it is not clear whether Pack will follow the course laid out for him by Donald Trump. Pack defended himself in a recent interview, claiming that the dismissals were simply part of “a very fair, let’s-start-over process.” But Gedmin is right to wonder whether Pack’s acts were “part of the wider Trump war on the ‘deep state.’”
The second thing we can read into Higgins’s appointment involves the president’s acceptance of Higgins’s argument. Trump’s recent claims that the left will destroy America if his Democratic opponent is elected echo Higgins’s argument that if the left wins, “America is at risk” and that the “Globalists and Islamists recognize that for their visions to succeed, America, both as an ideal and as a national and political entity, must be destroyed.” It is the 2016 “Flight 93” argument all over again—i.e., should the Democrats win, America will come to an end. Higgins says this claim has been proved by the left’s attacks on group and personal identity; “hence the sexism, racism and xenophobia memes.”
Higgins’s problem, and that of all Trump supporters today, is that he believes the media “relentlessly characterize Trump as unfit” when they say the president is “illegitimate,” “corrupt,” and “dishonest.” Unfortunately for Higgins, it is clearer than ever that Trump is in fact corrupt and dishonest, if not illegitimate. The realization of this by so many Americans accounts for his daily collapsing poll numbers.
Higgins concluded his memo writing that the left seeks to destroy “the vision of America that lead [sic] to his election” (his emphasis). Thus, “the defense of President Trump is the defense of America.” That would mean, if we follow Higgins’s logic, that Americans who do not defend him for a myriad of reasons are in fact un-American. He ends by telling Trump that it is “time for him to drive” events, and not be driven by them. Trump seems daily to be making the very points Higgins argued in 2017 and putting them up front.
That is why Higgins will likely once again have an important government position, as will others who agree with him and constantly reiterate the conspiratorial points in his memo in their own manner. With these appointments, the country will move further down the path to authoritarianism.