A “cabal” is a group of people involved in a secret plot or conspiracy. Cabal can also refer to the plot itself, or to the secret organization of the plotters.
Cabal originally is derived from the Hebrew word Kabbalah, which refers to a mystical Jewish tradition centered around the “direct receipt” of scriptural knowledge. During the 16th and 17th centuries, Christians in Europe were becoming more aware of the Jewish tradition of Kabbalah. Still, it was little understood and was associated with a sense of mystery and with secret, jealously-guarded knowledge.
Cabals can operate on a small or a massive scale. There are, of course, true plots and cabals, some that might be hatched in “smoke-filled rooms.” But more often, cabals exist in the realm of paranoia. They’re often the subject of conspiracy theories, with people imagining that a secret cabal is plotting to take over the world. The BBC has noted, for example, that the Bilderberg Group, an organization of businessmen and politicians, has spawned any number of conspiracy theories. So has the Freemasons organization.
In modern times, conspiracy theories spread more quickly than ever. QAnon, for example, is a pro-Trump conspiracy theory which claims that a cabal of “Deep State” activists are plotting against the president. The left has its own theories about the Trump administration’s involvement in secret cabals.
In 2018 Ben Rhodes, who served as a national security adviser to President Obama, published an op-ed in the New York Times. It was titled “We Are Not a ‘Cabal,’ Just Critics of Trump.” Rhodes was responding to a National Security memo obtained by The New Yorker, in which members of the Trump administration claimed that a “network” of former Obama officials was working together to “undermine President Trump’s foreign policy.” Rhodes wrote that
“the memo is a glimpse into a world in which dissent is viewed as dangerous. A group of aides to a president from a different party must be part of some cabal, manipulating the media and working against America’s interests. This goes hand-in-glove with the “deep state” conspiracy, which has led President Trump to disparage the intelligence and law enforcement community, purge the State Department of expertise, urge investigations into political enemies and strip security clearances from former officials.”
Of course, the Trump administration is not the first administration to imagine that its enemies are conspiring against it. Back in the 1990s, the Clinton White House put together a 332 page report about an ongoing “conspiracy commerce” against the president. The memo claimed that there was a “vast right wing conspiracy” against the Clinton White House and that the media was being used to spread false information about Whitewater and about the suicide of White House aide Vincent Foster.
The memo, obtained by the Wall Street Journal, confirmed what many reporters already believed about the state of mind at the White House.
The Washington Post wrote:
The conclusion has long been a favorite of Clinton loyalists: that a cabal of right-wing extremists had figured out how “fantasy can become fact” by advancing rumors about Whitewater and Clinton’s personal life through a “media food chain” that starts in ideological journals and ultimately finds its way onto the front pages of mainstream U.S. newspapers.