The Fringe At The Wheel: Inside The Cernovich/McMaster Derp War

Mike Cernovich, left, a right-wing author and attorney who has promoted a conspiracy theory about Democrats running a child-sex slavery ring from a Washington pizza restaurant's basement, speaks during a rally outsid... Mike Cernovich, left, a right-wing author and attorney who has promoted a conspiracy theory about Democrats running a child-sex slavery ring from a Washington pizza restaurant's basement, speaks during a rally outside the White House in Washington, Sunday, June 25, 2017. Cernovich was one of many speakers at the "Rally Against Political Violence," that was to condemn the attack on Republican congressmen during their June 14 baseball practice in Virginia and the "depictions of gruesome displays of brutality against sitting U.S. national leaders." (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) MORE LESS
Start your day with TPM.
Sign up for the Morning Memo newsletter

Earlier this month, The Atlantic reported on a memo written by a since-fired NSC staffer named Rich Higgins. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster fired Higgins in July over the memo. But Higgins’ dismissal was part of McMaster’s broader effort to assert control over an NSC which still has or had numerous staffers brought in by Mike Flynn. Yesterday Foreign Policy published the memo in its entirety along with new reporting about the context of the memo, its discovery and Higgins’ dismissal.

The memo itself is fairly described as nuts. But I want to get into more detail about just what it contains because the details are important on several fronts. But before that I want to mention a key element of FP’s reporting, which I at least think is new in its specifics. If you don’t waste your time on Twitter or haven’t closely followed the so-called alt-right, you may not know the name Mike Cernovich. His Wikipedia page describes him as “an American alt-right social media personality, writer, and conspiracy theorist”, which is not a bad description. He was a big promoter of the ‘pizzagate’ conspiracy theory which ended up almost getting people killed in DC last year. Before that he was a ‘men’s empowerment’ activist who took a more clearly political turn in 2016 race. He’s provocative and goofy in as much as a white supremacist and Nazi-sympathizer can be goofy.

In any case, since Trump’s inauguration Cernovich has been carrying on a sort of rearguard action against the Trump White House, notionally supporting ‘Trump’ while waging online battles against the mix of ‘globalists’, sell-outs and ‘deep state’ forces trying to undo the Trump revolution. Through all this Cernovich has claimed he has sources deep and high up in the Trump White House and that he’s sitting on all manner of stories that could change everything. It has always been clear that Cernovich does have some ‘sources’ or at least people leaking him stuff or access to some information ahead of the conventional media because more than once he’s reported things on his website or Twitter which did turn out to be true. But one of my biggest takeaways from the FP piece is that this is apparently far more true than at least I realized. Indeed, H.R. McMaster, in this telling at least, is obsessed with rooting out the NSC staffers who are leaking to Cernovich and it was that leak hunt that led to the discovery of the memo we were discussing above.

This all sounds quite far-fetched and difficult to believe. But FP is a very legit publication. And the nitty-gritty of the professional foreign policy and national security world is very much its turf. So I have no real reason to doubt it.

Here’s a key passage

The controversy over the memo has its origins in a hunt for staffers believed to be providing information to right-wing blogger Mike Cernovich, who seemed to have uncanny insight into the inner workings of the NSC. Cernovich in the past few months has been conducting a wide-ranging campaign against the national security advisor.

“McMaster was just very, very obsessed with this, with Cernovich,” a senior administration official told FP. “He had become this incredible specter.”

In July, the memo was discovered in Higgins’s email during what two sources described to Foreign Policy as a “routine security” audit of NSC staffers’ communications. Another source, however, characterized it as a McCarthy-type leak investigation targeting staffers suspected of communicating with Cernovich.

Higgins, who had worked on the Trump campaign and transition before coming to the NSC, drafted the memo in late May and then circulated the memo to friends from the transition, a number of whom are now in the White House.

After the memo was discovered, McMaster’s deputy, Ricky Waddell, summoned Higgins, who was told he could resign — or be fired, and risk losing his security clearance, according to two sources.

Higgins, who agreed to resign, was escorted out of the building. He later learned from his colleagues still at the NSC that his association to this now-infamous memo was the reason he was removed.

Needless to say, if McMaster is surveilling his own staff to find out who is talking to Cernovich, then Cernovich is playing a big, big role in the unfolding Trump administration drama. That’s a big deal and a highly disturbing one, which we will come back to.

Now let’s discuss the memo itself. As I said, it’s nuts on many levels. But the details of what it contains are important. I have a series of observations. Let me lay them out seriatim.

1: First, an overview. The gist of Higgins memo is that President Trump is under a sustained, illegitimate and conspiracy driven attack by the forces of “cultural Marxism” which aims to drive him from office. These forces include basically everyone from the far left to establishment Republicans, either as conspirators or dupes and fellow travelers. Key elements of the drama are that the American left is in league with ‘radical Islam’, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, to destroy America from the within. Both sides – the forces of the ‘cultural Marxism’ and the supporters of President Trump – are in what amounts to a final, all-or-nothing battle. Indeed, Higgins argues that the country is now in the midst of a pitched battle for the future existence of America in which the person of President Trump is a proxy for the future of America itself. It is a Manichean, verging on political eschatological vision of contemporary America. This is the concluding paragraph of the memo, emphasis added …

The recent turn of events give rise to the observation that the defense of President Trump is the defense of America. In the same way President Lincoln was surrounded by political opposition both inside and outside of his wire, in both overt and covert forms, so too is President Trump. Had Lincoln failed, so too would have the Republic. The administration has been maneuvered into a constant backpedal by relentless political warfare attacks structured to force him to assume a reactive posture that assures inadequate responses. The president can either drive or be driven by events; it’s time for him to drive them.

2: Trump Era Politics is Really War. It is far down the list of problems with this memo and this situation. But it is to put it mildly highly irregular and problematic for a former Pentagon official who is now an NSC staffer to be circulating memos on domestic ‘political warfare’. But the memo is replete with the imagery, terminology and conceptual framework of war, even down to high-drama, often manic descriptions of the ‘battlespace’ on which President Trump is fighting the forces of ‘cultural Marxism’. The memo views opposition politics in the Trump era as illegitimate and a form of violent resistance against the state.

Again from the memo …

This is not politics as usual but rather political warfare at an unprecedented level that is openly engaged in the direct targeting of a seated president through manipulation of the news cycle. It must be recognized on its own terms so that immediate action can be taken. At its core, these campaigns run on multiple lines of effort, serve as the non-violent line of effort of a wider movement, and execute political warfare agendas that reflect cultural Marxist outcomes. The campaigns operate through narratives. Because the hard left is aligned with lslamist organizations at local (ANTI FA working with Muslim Brotherhood doing business as MSA and CAIR), national (ACLU and BLM working with CAIR and MPAC) and international levels (OIC working with OSCEand the UN), recognition must given to the fact that they seamlessly interoperate at the narrative level as well. In candidate Trump, the opposition saw a threat to the “politically correct” enforcement narratives they’ve meticulously laid in over the past few decades. In President Trump, they see a latent threat to continue that effort to ruinous effect and their retaliatory response reflects this fear.

As you can see, a persistent theme of the memo is that what most of us would recognize as an embattled and unpopular President fighting widespread opposition is actually more like a domestic rebellion and needs to be addressed as such.

Again from the memo …

Culturally conditioned to limit responses to such attacks as yet another round in the on-going drone from diversity and multicultural malcontents, these broadsides are discounted as political correctness run amuck. However, political correctness is a weapon against reason and critical thinking. This weapon functions as the enforcement mechanism of diversity narratives that seek to implement cultural Marxism. 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.

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. For this cabal, Trump must be destroyed. Far from politics as usual, this is a political warfare effort that seeks the destruction of a sitting president. Since Trump took office, the situation has intensified to crisis level proportions. For those engaged in the effort, especially those from within the “deep state” or permanent government apparatus, this raises clear Title 18 (legal) concerns.

Consider this passage about the “battlespace”.

Battlespace. These attack narratives are pervasive, full spectrum and institutionalized at all levels. They operate in social media, television, the 24-hour news cycle in all media, and are entrenched at the upper levels of the bureaucracies and within the foreign policy establishment. They inform the entertainment industry from late night monologues, to situation comedies, to television series memes, to movie themes. The effort required to direct this capacity at President Trump is little more than a programming decision to do so. The cultural Marxist narrative is fully deployed, pervasive, full spectrum and ongoing. Regarding the president, attacks have become a relentless 24/7 effort.

This mix of observations and feelings might be more simply summed up as “Wow, we seem to be super unpopular. And we’re being attacked constantly!”

Many White Houses have had this feeling. It’s a tough job. But Higgins sees it quite differently, as an integrated, conspiratorial effort to drive the President from office and destroy the America he represents. Indeed, Higgins explicitly cites the doctrine’s of Maoist ‘people’s war’ as the conceptual framework and the plan Trump’s enemies are following. I’m not kidding about this. From the memo: “As used here, ‘political warfare’ does not concern activities associated with the American political process but rather exclusively refers to political warfare as understood by the Maoist Insurgency model. Political warfare is one of the five components of a Maoist insurgency. Maoist methodologies employ synchronized violent and non-violent actions that focus on mobilization of individuals and groups to action. This approach envisions the direct use of non-violent operational arts and tactics as elements of combat power.”

Again, my description isn’t semantic or hyperbolic. Higgins views a vast array of disparate domestic political movements, institutions and cultural voices as together executing an organized plan to drive Trump from office and that the instigators of this effort are the far left and Islamic radicals trying to perpetuate ‘cultural Marxism’.

3: The Domestic War is a Meme War: A week ago, the above-mentioned Cernovich tweeted this much-derided message.

What is “memetic warfare”? It is essentially fighting people on social media with photoshopped images, propagating ‘memes’ – nugget sized images or blocks of text which inject messages and ideas into the conversations of a broader public. It also involves digital vigilantism, organized intimidation campaigns, threats and a lot more. There’s something to this. And Cernovich is demonstrably an able practitioner of it. He’s built up a huge following based on pretty much just that. At the end of the day though, McMaster is a master of war wars. And ‘memetic warfare’ is really just spending the day mouthing off on Twitter. So it’s a bit of a comical boast. But if you read the Higgins memo it is replete with the vocabulary and mental world of ‘memetic warfare’. These two men are in contact with each other and share the same mental and ideational world. Which seems to be why McMaster fired Higgins. To a degree, it’s a slightly higher-brow version of what you can listen to on Hannity every night. That’s not surprising since – unlikely the imagined conspiracies of Higgins memo – Hannity, the Cernovich crew at the NSC, Trump, Don Jr. and the rest do seem to be in regular contact with each other.

4: What is ‘Cultural Marxism’? Higgins is not the only person to use this phrase. But as he uses it ‘cultural Marxism’ is essentially the entirety of social movements, cultural change, growing internationalization of public life in America that distinguishes the American of the early 21st century from the idealized public version of America as presented in media and mainstream TV and cinema in the 1950s. There is arguably such a thing as ‘cultural Marxism’ – radical critiques of American society, and its culture and economic underpinnings, which exist but don’t have a great deal of traction outside the academy and some radical political circles. There is also the range of critiques of American gender and racial norms and power structures that critique ‘patriarchy’ and ‘white supremacy’. These are obviously much more pervasive debates within contemporary American society, ones which are disproportionately (though by no means exclusively) rooted in the ideas of the younger generation of Americans. They are real, deeply contested and genuinely threatening to a large segment of the US population. They’re not ‘cultural Marxism’ in any sense other than as swear words and trash talk in domestic political debates. But even this isn’t really what Higgins is talking about. It is a far more expansive and watered-down definition and set of ideas which are taken more or less as givens in corporate America under the blandified catchwords of ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’. That’s all ‘cultural Marxism’ for Higgins and all driven by an alliance of ‘the left’ and Islamist radicals.

5: The Trumpite Milieu: Where does this stuff come from? Higgins is a former soldier and later a Pentagon staffer. Some of his writing is simply taking fairly conventional military planning jargon and applying it to domestic politics. But reading Higgins I hear the voices of two other men loud and clear: Frank Gaffney and David Horowitz.

Frank Gaffney

Gaffney was a mid-tier Reagan Pentagon appointee who has been a constant presence in Washington for the last three decades and has in the years since 9/11 become the preeminent author and propagator of various Islamophobic conspiracy theories. To set expectations properly, I’m not talking about counter-terrorism hawks who say the US needs to surveil Muslim immigrant populations or limit immigration by Muslims. Gaffney says the Muslim Brotherhood has infiltrated the US government at all levels with sleeper agents and fellow travelers. There’s crazy and there’s crazy. Gaffney is in the latter category.

As Peter Beinart noted earlier this year, most mainstream Republicans have treated Gaffney like a crank for years. (Indeed, he’s for years fought a nitwit battle to expel Grover Norquist from the conservative movement because Gaffney claims Norquist is a Muslim Brotherhood agent or fellow traveler.) But he’s viewed as a major thinker and adviser in the Trump White House. And Mike Flynn was deeply under his influence. Indeed, in 2016 Flynn co-authored a book with Michael Ledeen, a comparable though somewhat more obscure figure. Ledeen is a different, with his own distinct though no less crazy conspiracy theories largely tied to radical Islamist, terrorist and simply anti-American groups. The upshot is that Flynn was totally down with and in the Frank Gaffney nutbag and he staffed the Trump world with people of the same mindset. A lot of them are still there.

Political activist David Horowitz addresses attendees of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation’s Defending the American Dream Summit in Orlando, Fla., Friday, Aug. 30, 2013.(AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

David Horowitz is a one-time member of the New Left who’s made his living for decades as a self-styled Whittaker Chambers of the nutball right. I can tell you from personal experience that he is simply one of the worst people in American public life. Think Roger Stone is terrible? Me too. But I’ve met Roger and he’s kind of a blast to spend a bit of time with if you can bracket out the politics. I’ve met Horowitz too. He’s an awful person. Higgins obsession with ‘cultural Marxism’, ‘political warfare’, Maoist insurgency tactics and all manner of other sub-Marxist claptrap is pure Horowitz. It is both how he thinks and also his schtick within the conservative movement: the guy who knows all the dark truths about ‘the left’ and is sharing them with the embattled right. Horowitz too is tight with the Trump world and the various extremists and conspiracy theorists who cluster around it. I don’t know whether Higgins got this stuff directly from Horowitz or just atmospherically because his influence is so pervasive in today’s right. But the influence is unmistakable.

For our present purposes, the important point is that even though mainstream conservatives – not to mention everyone to their left – have long regarded both men as no more than activist bilge water, they are both highly influential in the Trump White House. Just as importantly, while they’ve generally been regarded as jokes by mainstream political reporters, they’ve actually spent years propagating their ideas among the people we now call the Trump base. So their ideas are as important as they are nonsensical and hyperbolic because they are at the center of power and draw on a mass base of support.

Higgins himself may be out. But the FP piece reports that Don Jr. got hold of his memo during the firestorm of controversy over his June 2016 Trump Tower meeting and loved it. He shared it with his father, President Trump, who loved it too. He got angry when Sean Hannity told him that Higgins had been fired over it. So even though Higgins is out, these ideas are still pervasive in the Trump White House and get an enthusiastic thumbs up from Trump himself. Even though McMaster won the battle, to put it in Higginsian terms, the war continues. And it seems as likely as not, on the FP’s reporting, that McMaster will eventually lose.

Latest Editors' Blog
Masthead Masthead
Founder & Editor-in-Chief:
Executive Editor:
Managing Editor:
Associate Editor:
Editor at Large:
General Counsel:
Head of Product:
Director of Technology:
Associate Publisher:
Front End Developer:
Senior Designer: