In response to: Totalitarianism, American Style

Is This the Start of an American Stasi?

Editor’s Note: The first step in winning a war is to recognize the fact that you are in one. This means, first and foremost, to come to know your enemy and his goals. In a recent essay for this site, Glenn Ellmers and Ted Richards of the Claremont Institute make a compelling case that the present enemy—the “woke” or group quota regime—is a totalitarian threat, and that its aims are nothing short of revolutionary. While our own troubles may seem far removed from the hard totalitarianism of the twentieth century, Ellmers and Richards argue that the six traditionally accepted elements of totalitarianism are already present in woke America. What’s more, they identify three factors that are unique to the tyranny of the present day.

One of the most recognizable characteristics of a totalitarian regime is the harassment of dissidents by secret police. Mollie Hemingway, the editor-in-chief of The Federalist and a target of a Homeland Security suppression initiative, identifies our own “secret police” in the constellation of federal agencies that have relentlessly targeted regime opponents from the president of the United States all the way down to your local school board. This is the fifth in a series of nine contributions by leading experts on the nine defining elements of what Ellmers and Richards dub “Totalitarianism, American Style.”

In January, Glenn Ellmers and Ted Richards argued at length on this site that America was rapidly becoming a “soft totalitarian” state. Their essay was a response to former Mitt Romney advisor Gabriel Schoenfeld and others who have spent the last several years asserting that the right is simply paranoid about the “deep state,” and that concerns about abuses of power are overblown. 

If you were wondering where I come down on this debate, well, let’s start here: Last fall, a congressional report revealed that I was on a secret list of public figures compiled by agencies within the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security, in conjunction with Stanford University, that was used to pressure social media companies into suppressing and censoring my public statements. 

This was all part of an “Election Integrity Partnership” that was created in the summer of 2020. Ostensibly, the goal was to prevent the spread of so-called “disinformation,” which the Washington establishment considers a threat to “democracy”—words that in recent years have become political weapons divorced from any meaning. In reality, this project was nothing more than unelected bureaucrats engaging in extreme violations of the First Amendment in order to meddle in an election and oust an incumbent president. 

On a personal level, the idea that I was being surveilled and my public statements suppressed is disturbing. But what should be disturbing to all of us is that there are still so many people—even self-professed conservatives—heavily invested in denying that this is happening. This is the core of Schoenfeld’s argument: the laughable assertion that none of the major characteristics social scientists have traditionally used to define a totalitarian regime can be plausibly identified in contemporary America.

Specific to my case, Shoenfeld claims that in America “no secret police is hounding dissidents.” As someone who was inspired from an early age by the works of Solzhenitsyn and Havel, I know I have not earned the high honor of being called a dissident. But as one of the only journalists who debunked the Russia collusion lie put forth by Democrats and intelligence operatives, I’ve had some fights with the government I never dreamed possible in America. And as the author of a bestselling book highlighting some of the indefensible corruption of the 2020 election, I obviously haven’t earned any friends in the censorship industrial complex. 

But the specifics of what I have done or said are largely irrelevant. If Schoenfeld thinks that members of the State Department and Department of Homeland Security covertly monitoring journalists with the goal of suppressing their statements in the run-up to an election doesn’t carry a whiff of “secret police hounding dissidents,” I would suggest he’s delusional. It takes remarkable ignorance not to notice that the government is lying to us about what they are doing.

Harassment, Spying, Collusion, and Cover-ups

In 2022, a year before Congress revealed I was being monitored by the Department of Homeland Security, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told CNN, “We, the Department of Homeland Security, don’t monitor American citizens” even as he defended the Biden administration’s Orwellian new “Disinformation Governance Board.”

If covert actors in our government are spying on and suppressing public figures, you can only imagine how emboldened they are when it comes to targeting ordinary citizens. Of course, we don’t really have to imagine much. In recent years, we’ve seen attempts by the FBI to hound citizens for private beliefs that the current regime finds politically threatening.

Last year, a whistleblower exposed an FBI memorandum that proposed infiltrating churches to deal with “radical traditional Catholics,” who were characterized as a domestic terror threat. The bureau interviewed clergy as part of the effort, and at least one undercover agent was involved. When this was exposed, FBI director Christopher Wray initially claimed that the investigation was the product of one rogue FBI field office before a Congressional committee reported that several field offices across the country were involved in the effort—suggesting the director’s statements were intentionally misleading. 

Further, no serious attempt was made to establish that a threat existed before launching an investigation into the private religious beliefs of American citizens. The FBI didn’t even have a working definition of the “Radical-Traditionalist Catholic Ideology” that was at the core of their investigation. “FBI employees could not define the meaning of an RTC when preparing, editing, or reviewing the memorandum,” according to the House Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government. 

The FBI’s anti-Catholic investigation was also cooked up with the help of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a genuinely radical leftist group that has in recent years been forced to pay out a multimillion dollar defamation settlement and helped inspire a would be mass shooter who attacked the offices the Family Research Council, after the SPLC unfairly labeled the Christian organization a “hate group.” It’s astonishing that a law enforcement arm of the federal government would work with an organization that is so nakedly partisan and lacking credibility. 

This isn’t the only time the Biden administration turned federal law enforcement on ordinary Americans. In 2021, Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a memo announcing that Biden’s Department of Justice would be investigating parents who were speaking out at their local school board meetings. These parents were angry at school leadership for several reasons: draconian COVID policies, the importation of radical ideas such as Critical Race Theory into curricula, and some prominent national scandals involving trans students—including a case where a Virginia school board covered up the sexual assault of a girl by a biological male in the school’s girl’s bathroom. The father of the violated student was even arrested when he spoke out at a public school board meeting. 

While such public intimidation is not exactly indicative of a “secret police,” the federal government was brazenly inserting itself into matters of local governance and stifling grassroots parental opposition to some of the Democratic party’s biggest funders: teachers’ unions and other parts of the left-wing educational establishment. When we evaluate weaponization of federal law enforcement, it’s what we don’t know that should scare us most. The fact the Department of Justice is willing to threaten parents fighting to protect their children—and do it so publicly—suggests a massive iceberg of covert harassment and political intimidation may be lurking just under the surface. 

So far, these are just some of the more egregious examples that have occurred during Joe Biden’s presidency. If we look back further, it’s hard to deny that this sub-rosa political harassment has been a prominent feature of American politics for years. In 2012, the IRS actually held a press conference admitting they had spent years specifically targeting and harassing hundreds of right-leaning political groups, denying or postponing their request for tax-exempt status. These groups emerged as a grassroots opposition to President Obama as part of the Tea Party movement, and the IRS hamstrung them heading into the 2012 election, when these new advocacy groups may well have had an impact on the result. Treasury Department inspectors general later concluded that the IRS deliberately destroyed internal communications that they were ordered to preserve for a congressional investigation. The head of the IRS, Lois Lerner, escaped any consequences even though her previous tenure as head of enforcement for the Federal Election Commission was marked by complaints about her harassment of conservative and religious groups.

And while the default setting for federal law enforcement and the administrative state seems to prioritize harassing the American right, it’s worth noting that the totalitarian impulse does not always proceed cleanly along partisan lines. America’s corporate press has effectively become regime media; but on the few occasions these establishment publications step outside that box, even they find themselves targeted. In 2013, it was revealed that the Justice Department obtained phone records from the Associated Press that were used by as many as a hundred journalists.

Even the people’s elected representatives are not immune from being spied on. In 2014, an inspector general report revealed that the CIA broke into Senate staff computer files when the intelligence committee was investigating allegations of CIA misconduct. And these revelations came after CIA director John Brennan brazenly lied about this, telling NBC news “Let me assure you the CIA was in no way spying on [the committee] or the Senate.” 

Lying about spying seems to be a pattern with top intel officials. Brennan’s dishonesty came just a year after former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper gave a blunt denial in response to Democratic senator Ron Wyden’s question about whether the National Security Agency collects “any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans.” This denial was very quickly proven to be a lie.

Donald Trump: The Regime’s Biggest Target

No episode in our recent history illustrates the power of our regime’s “secret police” so clearly as the presidency of Donald Trump. Let’s examine the neutral facts of the Russiagate investigation.

The Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign hired Fusion GPS, an opposition firm with a checkered reputation, to spread dirt on Trump. Fusion GPS in turn hired the services of former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele, who began compiling evidence of Trump’s supposed connection to Russian sources. According to the Justice Department’s final report on the origins of the Russiagate investigation compiled by John Durham, a single person, Igor Danchenko, claimed he “was responsible for 80% of the ‘intel’ and 50% of the analysis contained in the Steele Dossier.”

Danchenko, who was a Russian citizen employed by a left-leaning D.C. think tank, had previously been investigated by the FBI. According to the Durham Report, “In late 2008, while Danchenko was employed by the Brookings Institution, he engaged two fellow employees about whether one of the employees might be willing or able in the future to provide classified information in exchange for money.” Despite this, the FBI counterintelligence investigation into Danchenko ended as inconclusive. The FBI would later go on to repeatedly cite the Steele dossier as evidence to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to get warrants to spy on Donald Trump as he ran for the presidency.

It gets worse. Danchenko also “maintained a relationship with Charles Dolan, a Virginia-based public relations professional,” and it was Dolan who supplied Danchenko with much of the information he gave to Steele. Notably, Dolan was the source of the Steele dossier’s outrageous claim that Putin had surreptitiously recorded Trump being micturated on by Russian hookers. Oh, and in addition to working with the Russian government, Dolan “previously held multiple positions and roles in the Democratic National Committee (‘DNC’) and the Democratic Party,” according to Durham. In sum, the two major sources of the Steele dossier were a possible Russian spy and a credulous partisan employee of Trump’s political rivals. 

In March of 2017, a few months after Trump was inaugurated as the democratically elected president of the United States, the FBI hired Danchenko as a “confidential human source” and paid him $220,000 over the next three and a half years. With Danchenko on the FBI payroll, policies preserving the secrecy of FBI investigation “sources and methods” meant he could not be subject to congressional oversight that might expose the FBI’s corrupt investigation. 

Instead, the FBI continued to leak to the press and allowed Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation to drag on for years—knowing full well that, if the sources of their investigation were exposed, the whole Russiagate narrative would collapse instantly. Instead, Trump-Russia collusion conspiracy theories dominated news coverage and subsumed his presidency. 

Of course, there are many other appalling aspects to the Trump-Russia investigation: the top FBI agent sending texts promising “we’ll stop” Trump from becoming president, the FBI lawyer who forged evidence on a warrant application to spy on Trump, the existence of other serially mendacious Russiagate informants to whom the FBI paid hundreds of thousands of taxpayers’ dollars. To date, no one in the FBI has faced any criminal charges for any of this; the FBI lawyer who got caught making up evidence wasn’t even disbarred.

Again, we have to ask: What does it say that our federal law enforcement agencies can conduct secret political operations against the president of the United States, and he’s powerless to stop it? What does it say that these agencies and their operatives face no consequences even after their wrongdoing is exposed? It cannot inspire much hope in ordinary citizens’ prospects if they’re subjected to the same Gestapo tactics that were used on Trump. And as Trump himself has noted, “They’re not after me, they’re after you, and I just happen to be standing in the way.”

While I understand why some have trouble believing that in crucial respects America has devolved into an unaccountable police state, it doesn’t do anyone any favors to pretend that this isn’t happening. Indeed, choosing to remain in denial about injustice is itself a hallmark of totalitarianism. In The Lives of Others, the classic film about the East German surveillance state, a Stasi interrogator tells a prisoner, “So you think we just arrest innocent citizens on a whim? … If you think our humane system is capable of something like that, that would be a reason enough to arrest you.”

Mollie Hemingway is the Editor-in-Chief of The Federalist and the author of Rigged: How the Media, Big Tech, and the Democrats Seized Our Elections.