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Trump’s War on the CIA Has Deep, Right-Wing Roots

His anti-professionalism is part of a long populist tradition in America—and it could cripple his presidency.

Drew Angerer / Getty Images

Donald Trump’s biggest fight during his transition to the presidency is with an unusual foe, the Central Intelligence Agency. Responding to a CIA assessment that the Russian government interfered in the U.S. election, Trump’s transition team bluntly dismissed the agency as “the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.” Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser, has long seen the CIA as a biased political enemy. As The New York Times reports, “Mr. Flynn’s assessment that the C.I.A. is a political arm of the Obama administration is not widely shared by Republicans or Democrats in Washington. But it has appeared to have been internalized by the one person who matters most right now: Mr. Trump.” As a result, there has emerged “an extraordinary rift between the president-elect and the nation’s intelligence community that is unlikely to be bridged anytime soon.”

It’s true that the “rift” between the incoming administration and the intelligence community is astonishing, but as with so much else about Trump, it also has deep roots in the history of the American right. From the earliest days of the Cold War, right-wing populists have distrusted the CIA and the broader intelligence community, believing that its allegiance to professionalism covered up a liberal bias. This hostility has flared up time and again, starting with the controversies around McCarthyism in the early 1950s, resurfacing during assessments of Soviet military capabilities in the 1970s, and appearing again in disputes over whether Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. In each of these cases, the right organized to challenge the CIA’s claim of expertise and tried to replace the agency’s consensus with a much more politicized and ideological view of reality.

These conflicts over the professionalism of the intelligence community are part of a larger conflict between the right and expert knowledge—one that traces back to Willmoore Kendall, a mid-twentieth-century intellectual from Oklahoma who played a crucial role in creating right-wing populism. A liberal in his early adulthood, in the 1930s, he supported President Franklin D. Roosevelt and developed arguments against elite institutions like the Supreme Court, which was trying to thwart the New Deal. Kendall was also critical of academic economists who tried to use their professional expertise to fight popular reforms. In a 1939 essay for The Southern Review, he attacked the “typical modern intellectual” for wanting to “perpetuate the situation in which political discussion is a monopoly of the scientific elite.” Noting the class bias inherent in claims of expert knowledge, Kendall argued that “the claims of the majority principal cannot get a fair hearing from an educated minority whose real religion is Science.”

In casting the debate as a battle between an arrogant scientific elite fighting against democracy, Kendall laid the basis for a politics of anti-professionalism. He also steered it to the other side of the political spectrum. As a Yale professor and CIA consultant in the late 1940s, he broadened his attacks from then-conservative institutions like the Court to the academy, federal bureaucracy, and intelligence community, which he considered predominately liberal. A contrarian with a lifelong penchant for quarreling with whatever social circle he was in, Kendall became a gadfly within this East Coast milieu, and in assailing these new targets he moved increasingly to the right.

Much of Kendall’s criticism of liberalism grew out of his work in the intelligence field. He felt that the CIA was dominated by liberals who focused on the minute problems of each individual country or region they studied, had no broader sense of geo-politics, and were too inclined to fight communism by pushing American allies to adopt social democratic reforms. He thought these Ivy League blue bloods lacked ideological imagination and had too empiricist an understanding of the world. They failed to see the danger posed by Soviet communism and its international spy network. To Kendall, it was crucial that policymakers recognize that America’s adversaries were Kremlin-directed ideologues conspiring to destroy democracy on a global scale.

The CIA needed to know who the real enemy was, which meant that it needed an ideological and conspiratorial imagination. But the liberals in charge of intelligence-gathering, Kendall thought, seemed blind to this and thus played into the hands of the enemy. In Kendall’s view, the intelligence community was dominated by “a state of mind characterized by a crassly empirical conception of the research process in the social sciences.”

The conventional view of intelligence, set forth in Sherman Kent’s 1949 book Strategic Intelligence, which became the handbook for a new generation of analysts, was that data-gathering shouldn’t be tainted by policy concerns. Kendall, who reviewed the book for the journal World Politics, countered that without the guidance provided by political theory, the CIA would be condemned to mindless fact-grubbing. In the 1950s, Kendall went farther. As his friend and fellow political theorist George W. Carey recalls, Kendall suggested to students that an intelligence agency could be justified in massaging the facts if necessary to get policymakers to accept a necessary course of action.

Kendall’s critique of the CIA would echo for decades to come, as conservatives have repeatedly argued that the agency lacks a sufficient awareness of the true cunning of America’s enemies. These same conservatives have shared Kendall’s belief that it is okay to manipulate intelligence to achieve the desired outcome.

During the 1940s, Kendall was politically homeless: increasingly hostile to the left, but uncomfortable with traditional conservatives who disdained modern democracy. Consulting for the CIA and the Office of Strategic Services only strengthened his anti-communism and convinced him that domestic subversion was a danger to the republic. At Yale, where Kendall started teaching in 1947, many colleagues regarding him as a curiosity: a hyper-learned defender of anti-intellectual causes. But Kendall also acquired a circle of young admirers there who turned his majority-rule theories into a political movement: L. Brent Bozell, Stanley Parry, and William F. Buckley, Jr.

Buckley and Kendall were very tight throughout the 1950s. Aside from recruiting Buckley to join the CIA, Kendall was also the editor and intellectual inspiration for such early Buckley tomes as God and Man at Yale and McCarthy and His Enemies (Kendall heavily edited the last book, which Buckley co-wrote with Bozell). Kendall’s critique of the CIA, along with his outspoken support for Joseph McCarthy, put him increasingly at odds with the agency. By the early 1950s, he and the wider circle of conservatives who shared his worldview (including Buckley and the political theorist James Burnham) were regarded as kooks by the mainstream CIA and no longer welcomed as advisors.

National Review, which Buckley started in 1955, was stocked with editors who had worked as CIA agents or consultants but were now opposed to the agency’s dominant politics: Buckley, Buckley’s sister Priscilla Buckley, Burnham, and Kendall. In his 1979 book Confessions of a Conservative, the historian Garry Wills persuasively argued that part of the purpose of National Review was as a house organ for hardline anti-communists to challenge the CIA’s dominant consensus: “Burnham, the student of power, saw National Review as a particular pressure point meant to have some real impact on the overall strategic stance of America. The CIA had to work in secret with liberal ‘softies’; but a bright voice for the hard line could make even softies shift a decisive inch or two in the right direction.”

Kendall and his cohort laid the groundwork for future right-wing attacks on the CIA’s claims to competence. In the 1970s, conservatives were furious over CIA claims, made in the context of debates about detente with the USSR, about the limited extent of Soviet nuclear capabilities. The CIA’s findings were rooted in an accurate view that the Soviet economy was in deep trouble, which would limit any future arms build-up. In 1975, William Casey, a foreign policy outlier who become CIA director under Ronald Reagan, convinced the Ford administration to create a counter-committee called Team B to review the CIA’s finding. Heavily staffed with hardline foreign policy outsiders, Team B not only came up with an alarmist and ill-informed report, but strategically leaked it in the fall of 1976 in a failed attempt to thwart the election of Jimmy Carter.

As White House chief of staff under Gerald Ford, Dick Cheney played a key role in greenlighting Team B, which also served as a model for the manipulation of intelligence under President George W. Bush. Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had worked in the Ford administration and clearly learned from Team B how to set up counter-organizations, notably the Office of Special Plans, to browbeat the intelligence community to follow a political agenda. Seymour Hersh reported in the New Yorker in 2003 that the members of the Office of Special Plans operated from a distrust of the CIA’s claims to professionalism. Its director, Abram Shulsky, was (like Kendall) a follower of the political philosopher Leo Strauss. In 1999, Shulsky co-wrote an article which, in Hersh’s words, criticized “America’s intelligence community for its failure to appreciate the duplicitous nature of the regimes it deals with, its susceptibility to social-science notions of proof, and its inability to cope with deliberate concealment.” Shulsky’s broad critique echoed Kendall’s original Cold War critique of the CIA in the late 1940s.

Whether or not Donald Trump is knowingly situating himself within this tradition—and it’s fair to assume he’s not—there’s little doubt that he shares his predecessors’ philosophy that professionalism is not the path to truth, but an enemy of reality. The right-wing populist believes what his or her gut tells them, while the professional analyst tries to root their findings in information and knowledge. Thus, Trump allows his uninformed instincts on Russia to overrule the CIA’s intelligence-based conclusions. He denies that climate change is real, or blames it on China. He is skeptical of vaccines. More broadly, he’s appointing cabinet members who will be hostile to environmentalism, the theory of evolution, and drug testing.

Trump’s hostility toward science and professionalism has a long genealogy on the right, including at least one Republican president, George W. Bush. But there’s no question he’s taken this political tradition to a new level. A leaking campaign by the CIA is one consequence, and presages a potentially crippling problem for the Trump administration: Even a president, with all of his executive power, can be hamstrung by a hostile bureaucracy. To govern effectively, Trump needs cooperative professionals. If he goes on the war path not just against the intelligence community, but also the larger federal workforce, he may see his presidency sabotaged from within.