An extraordinary memo by a former national security official contains a list of Donald Trump’s perceived enemies within, offering an insight into paranoia gripping the White House.
The author, Rich Higgins, was ousted last month by the national security adviser, HR McMaster. But the president reportedly saw the memo when it was passed to him by his son, Donald Trump Jr, and was said to be “furious” at Higgins’s forced departure.
Entitled POTUS & Political Warfare and written in florid pseudo-intellectual language, the memo illustrates the siege mentality that fuels Trump, his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, and the “alt-right” in their endless running battles with the media, the so-called “deep state” and others.
The seven-page document – leaked to Foreign Policy magazine – claims the Trump administration is suffering under “withering information campaigns designed to first undermine, then delegitimize and ultimately remove the president”.
It continues: “Recognizing in candidate Trump 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.”
Writing in May this year, Higgins, who was in the strategic planning office at the National Security Council, goes on to identify seven groups that he claims are part of a huge conspiracy to bring the president down.
First is the mainstream media, which he describes as “the principle [sic] mechanism for implementing narratives”. Trump frequently attacks CNN, the New York Times and Washington Post and has described the media as the “enemy of the American people”, while Bannon has called it the “opposition party”. White House press briefings have frequently involved acrimonious clashes with the CNN reporter Jim Acosta, among others. Yet Trump evidently continues to crave media attention.
Second, there is “the academy”, which Higgins argues is “a key conduit for creating future adherents to cultural Marxist narratives”. Perceived foes here would presumably range from climate scientists to liberal academics to university campuses that ban offensive speech.
Third on the list is the “deep state”. With his flair for pretentious verbosity, Higgins claims that with no considerations other than furthering its own power, “the deep state truly becomes, as Hegel advocated, god [sic] bestriding the earth”. Pro-Trump media such as Breitbart have frequently railed against intelligence agencies for leaking against the president. On Thursday, the president said he did not have confidence in the former CIA director John Brennan, adding: “I shouldn’t maybe say that, but I will say it.”
Fourth are the “global corporatists and bankers”, who, according to the memo, indulge in “exploitation of populations, unfettered by national protections and notions of personal morality and piety”. Trump has pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, criticised trade deals such as Nafta and threatened a trade war with China. The likes of Michael Bloomberg, Jamie Dimon, George Soros and even Trump’s national economic adviser, Gary Cohn, have been demonised by the nationalist wing. In some quarters, the narrative has invited accusations of anti-semitism.
Fifth, and perhaps more predictably, is the leadership of the Democratic party, referred to as “a counter-state enabler that executes, sustains, and protects cultural Marxist programs of action and facilitates the relentless expansion of the deep state”. Trump recently blamed Democrats for pushing the investigation into his election campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia. He has found little common ground with the Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, or the House minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, both of whom would reject the Marxist label as laughable. Even nine months after the election, the president continues to take swipes at Democrat Hillary Clinton and appears obsessed with undoing Barack Obama’s legacy.
Sixth is the Republican leadership, “more afraid of being accused of being called a racist, sexist, homophobe or Islamophobe than of failing to enforce their oaths to ‘support and defend the Constitution’” and “increasingly indistinguishable from their Democratic counterparts”. This squares with Trump’s insurgent election campaign and his continued attacks on the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, and other establishment Republicans.
Seventh and last on the list is “Islamists” whose strategy “seeks to divide American society against itself with the forced imposition of Islamist objectives on one half of American society by the other half”. Trump began his presidency by seeking to ban travellers from seven Muslim-majority countries and delivered a speech in Poland that implied a clash of civilisations – a view known to resonate with Bannon’s thinking.
Higgins’s memo, full of academic jargon and numerous references to Marxism, concludes that the “defense of President Trump is the defense of America” and compares him to Abraham Lincoln, although the hyper-suspicious Richard Nixon might be more accurate.
The memo produced a combination of amusement and fear among analysts. Ken Gude, a senior fellow on the national security team at the Center for American Progress thinktank in Washington, said: “It’s the craziest thing I’ve seen come out of the National Security Council staff, that’s for sure. It’s the bizarre ramblings of a conspiracy theorist. It’s unhinged.”
Gude noted that the list of Trump’s foes “could be read to describe just about everybody except for loyalists. It’s quite alarming to think this is how people close to the president view the world and view the country.”
He added: “It’s in some ways reassuring that this individual was removed but it’s deeply troubling he got there in the first place and it seems to be a reflection of some individuals close to the president. Steve Bannon doesn’t descend into the depths of lunacy this memo expresses but it is a similar worldview that links globalists and Islamists in a world conspiracy.”
Higgins’s removal has been taken as a sign that McMaster, currently under fire from Breitbart, has gained the upper hand in the White House power struggle. The national security adviser has been with Trump at his golf club in Bedminister, New Jersey, this week, whereas Bannon has not. But the so-called Breitbart wing has shown before it should not be counted out.
Gude added: “This faction is losing but as long as they have the ear of the president, and they appear to and he may be one of them, they won’t be talking without influence, so it’s something to be concerned about.”
The overwrought language of the memo – “political warfare as understood by the Maoist Insurgency model” – suggests an author who was trying too hard to impress Bannon and potentially Trump himself. But the broad outline of its ideas are in keeping with the “alt-right” echo chamber.
Joshua Green, author of the new bestseller Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency, said: “The memo itself is so overheated and batty that it doesn’t sound like Bannon. Or it sounds like Bannon if Bannon took a bong before writing it. I’ve never heard him use phrases like ‘cultural Marxist memes’ that Higgins does.”
But he added: “I’m not sure I entirely understand what the point of the memo is or who it’s meant to be read by, but the general paranoia that Trump is under assault by enemies including people in the administration is certainly something in the thinking of people around Bannon.”
White House veterans were also aghast. Bill Galston, a former policy adviser to Bill Clinton, said: “It’s a classic example of a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you begin by treating people as implacable enemies who can’t be conciliated, you’re bound to harden their opposition.
“What I’m really trying to figure out is what someone on the National Security Council is doing writing such a memo. I can’t imagine that expelling Mr Higgins from Eden is going to get rid of the snake. It is hard to believe that Mr Higgins is the only one in the upper echelons to hold such views.”