Barruel believed that although the conspiracy was devious enough to clandestinely overthrow the French crown, its puppet masters were destined to split into feuding factions and self-immolate. “The tyrants are divided and devour each other; the revolution itself has its revolutions,” he wrote. Although Barruel’s work didn’t impress his less paranoid contemporaries (Thomas Jefferson referred to it as the “ravings of a bedlamite”), it does have an important place in the history of conspiracy theories.
Driven by a hatred of what the revolution did to his country, Barruel laid out a comprehensive monomyth of baseless conspiracy theories. Above all else, Barruelian conspirators are defined by contradiction and illusion. In his reckoning, those who scheme in the shadows are at once superhumanly cunning and incompetent, powerful enough to topple nations yet self-destructive.
Where Jefferson once scoffed at such ideas, the most influential inheritor of the Barruelian tradition is none other than the current U.S. president, Donald Trump. In the years since his inauguration, Trump has fixated on the idea that he, and the country he represents, are beset by domestic enemies who are simultaneously all powerful and impotent. Once, his target was the nefarious deep state, an army of entrenched bureaucrats who supposedly seek to undermine the president at every turn, but are, apparently, no more able to stop him than they were to prevent his ascension. Today, a new enemy — one just as poorly defined, but almost identical in character — has taken the deep state’s place in his imagination: antifa, the protest movement rooted in militant left-wing politics and anarchism.
As Barruel must have known, the obvious challenge of fighting such an enemy is that it’s impossible to set victory conditions, which is, of course, exactly the point. If the enemy can’t be seen, then it must simply be hidden, and that invisibility only enhances intimidation. If any one alleged conspirator is exposed, it’s assumed to be merely a pawn in a much larger conspiracy. The entire monster never appears, and therefore can never be killed. But conspiratorial enemies aren’t meant to be beaten — they’re meant to be eternally fought, or at least feared, which makes them perfectly suited for a lover of public performance like Trump.
When your enemy doesn’t manifest clearly (perhaps because it never existed as you conceive of it), you can characterize it however you wish. At various points in his presidency, Trump has portrayed the “deep state” as flailing and on the ropes. “Look how things have turned around on the Criminal Deep State,” he boasted in 2018. However, the absence of fully exposed conspirators is supposed to mean that they’re still at work and that their exposure is forthcoming. Despite Trump’s professed love of winning, he brushed aside claims that he “out mastered” the deep state in 2020. “I disagree,” he wrote in March. “We have a long way to go.” Trump hasn’t mentioned the deep state on Twitter since then.
Since losing interest in tweeting about the deep state, Trump has instead fixated on another conspiratorial enemy: antifa. In keeping with his condemnation of the deep state, it’s difficult to say which specific people are implicated by the label “antifa.” This vagueness, not coincidentally, enables him to cast a wide net without worrying that the movement’s nonexistent leaders will speak up to contradict him.
Although it’s true that there have been ideologically motivated violent attacks by antifa, the way Trump condemns the left-wing movement is more consistent with a political strategy than a genuine concern about national security. This is evidenced in the fact that Trump condemned antifa more forcefully than domestic extremist movements with large body counts. After the Tree of Life synagogue shooting left 11 people dead, for example, Trump decried the attack as an “anti Semitic crime” rather than an act of white nationalist terrorism. Although Trump seemed to believe the synagogue shooter was motivated by personal hatred rather than ideology, he saw extremist organization behind the nationwide protests that arose after George Floyd, an unarmed black man, was killed in police custody in Minneapolis. “It’s ANTIFA and the Radical Left,” he plainly declared on Twitter. “Don’t lay the blame on others!”
Trump has claimed that antifa are “leading instigators” of violence connected to the protests, but that assessment is not shared by his own intelligence agencies. An internal memo from the FBI’s Washington Field Office says that the agency “has no intelligence indicating antifa involvement/presence” in the violence that occurred on May 31 during the D.C.-area protests. A federal intelligence bulletin states that the “greatest threat of lethal violence” from the protests does not emanate from antifa but rather “lone offenders with racially or ethnically motivated violent extremist ideologies.” The basis for this warning was made clear when an adherent of the “Boogaloo” movement used the protests to ambush two officers in Oakland, Calif., killing one and critically injuring the other. Despite the lethality of “Boogaloo boys,” they have notably not received the same denunciations from Trump.
But the degree to which antifa is responsible for violence in protests will have no bearing on how threatening antifa is in Trump’s rhetoric. Trump’s version of “antifa” is merely a shadowy formless group that, like the Bavarian Illuminati and the deep state before it, is both threateningly strong and pathetically weak, everywhere and nowhere. In one tweet, Trump depicts antifa as so fearsome that “riot gear or military control” is necessary to confront them and maintain order. Yet he has also claimed that antifa is so cowardly that they “prefer people who don’t fight back.” This is incoherent, but merely highlighting the unintelligibility of the Trumpian conception of “antifa” misses the rhetorical sleight of hand. By painting an enemy as both domineering and vulnerable, he conjures a vexing problem as well as its guaranteed solution. This is an extension of the “I alone can fix it” ethos that started during the campaign.
Trump has claimed that he will officially designate antifa as a terrorist organization, despite lacking the ability to do so. But he doesn’t need to. After all, the only person Trump has specifically accused of being antifa is a 75-year-old man who was badly injured after being shoved to the ground by police in Buffalo during a protest. Here, we have the classic Barruelian scapegoat, a figure who supposedly represents a serious, pervasive threat but is personally nonthreatening.
All conspiratorial enemies are depicted this way because their true purpose is to give semi-concrete form to abstract fears. Thus, Trump will never claim that he has neutralized antifa in the same way he has claimed (falsely) that he defeated “100% of ISIS.” In fact, after announcing that National Guard troops would withdraw from Washington, D.C., even as the protests grew, Trump left open the possibility of their swift return. “They will be going home, but can quickly return, if needed,” he wrote.
For those who aren’t inclined to believe that the commander in chief has an easier time establishing peace in Syria than his own block, his unwillingness to declare victory on the home front might be confusing. But it makes more sense when you remember that it’s not necessary to defeat a phantom that is summoned only when fighting it positively affects internal campaign polling.