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Hasty Reversals

The GOP Belatedly Embraces “Defund the Police”

Republicans only care about law enforcement when it targets their political enemies.

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
Former President Donald Trump

Over the course of the summer, a House Committee investigating Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election has, using documents and testimony from many administration officials, laid out an overwhelming case that the former president attempted to use every option at his disposal—from the legal system to a violent mob—to hold on to power. On Tuesday, the FBI raided Donald Trump’s compound at Mar-a-Lago. There is a possibility that their search warrant was executed as part of a related criminal investigation. At the very least, it seems highly likely that the former president—whose penchant for flushing confidential documents down the toilet was seemingly confirmed the same day—had illegally taken classified information with him when he left office last year.

Given recent revelations about Trump’s substantial efforts to overturn the 2020 election, it would hardly be surprising to learn that he had held on to plans for his failed coup or, for that matter, a host of other classified documents relating to national security. For anyone who has paid even the slightest bit of attention to Donald Trump over the last, say, forty years, evidence of crimes—perhaps quite serious ones!—would not exactly trigger a heart attack. At the very least, the large number of unknowns (the scope of the Department of Justice’s investigation and its appetite for indicting a former president) and knowns (said former president’s general criminality) would both argue against overzealous reactions to the raid on the part of the president’s allies—especially since very little is known about where the investigation will lead.

Unsurprisingly, this level of circumspection and caution has been in short supply on the right. You would be a fool to expect Republicans to break with Trump at this juncture. And yet, the GOP’s response has nonetheless been extremely revealing. They have, at seemingly every turn, argued that their standard-bearer is above the law. Moreover, the right has consistently illuminated a specific vision of law enforcement: It only exists as a tool for doing its own political bidding and punishing its political enemies. That the FBI sees things differently makes them a de facto illegitimate institution. Look who’s the “defund the police” party, now.

It should come as no shock that these arguments were spawned by Trump himself. On Monday evening, the former president sent out a histrionic press release. “My beautiful home, Mar-A-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, is currently under siege, raided, and occupied by a large group of FBI agents,” Trump said, noting that they “even broke into my safe.” It was a familiar narrative—Trump as victim of a larger, politically motivated witch hunt—but one that quickly took hold on the right.

“I’ve seen enough,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said in a statement shortly after news of the raid broke. “The Department of Justice has reached an intolerable state of weaponized politicization.” He then threatened payback: “Attorney General Garland, preserve your documents and clear your calendar,” the statement concluded. It’s a short statement but one dripping with irony: McCarthy pledges to start his own witch hunt—and then orders the attorney general to not mishandle pertinent information, the very thing for which Donald Trump is under scrutiny.

The larger message on the right, and in every facet of the Republican Party, was that investigating Donald Trump was akin to the way a banana republic operates, a clear abuse of power aimed at clipping the feathers of a political rival. It goes without saying that the tinpot dictators who run banana republics don’t actually obtain search warrants from judges, but forget it, these guys are rolling: “I’m telling you, you’re playing with fire,” Marco Rubio tweeted. “This is dangerous, because someone else will be in power one day, and now you have created the precedent for them to do this back to you.” Rand Paul called it “outrageous and unjust.” Mike Pence, who was nearly killed as a part of Trump’s effort to overturn the election, demanded a “full accounting” for the DOJ’s actions. Lindsey Graham, meanwhile, complained that “launching such an investigation of a former President this close to an election is beyond problematic,” despite the fact that the next presidential election is more than two years away. (Trump didn’t seem to agree; within hours he released a video that used the FBI’s raid to boost his presidential bid.)

The overall tenor of the Republican response was clear: An investigation into Trump was inherently authoritarian—and would only invite the GOP from doing even more authoritarian stuff when it took power again. The idea that Trump could have committed crimes was never considered by any of these figures, despite the incredible wealth of evidence to suggest that he has. Instead, again and again, Republicans inverted the investigation: It was Democrats who were weaponizing law enforcement; it was Democrats who were acting like fascists; it was Democrats who were trampling on the law to advance their own political project.

Mishandling privileged information was, if you are capable of remembering the halcyon final years of the Obama administration, once the cause célèbre of the Republican Party, who characterized Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server as a high crime worth swapping her white pantsuit for an orange jumpsuit. More recently, the GOP has used law enforcement as a political cudgel, arguing that the Democrats were turning the country over to criminals, bent on defunding the police, and refusing to “back the blue” at every opportunity. As usual, Marjorie Taylor Greene took the Republican Party’s message to its logical conclusion:

The GOP’s cynical deployment of pro-police messages has long been a mainstay of conservative rhetoric. But along with the reaction to the Mar-A-Lago raid, their response to the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act, which included billions in funding for the IRS, has rivetingly exposed their insincerity. The money the bill provides will, by and large, go to boosting the agency’s ability to prosecute wealthy tax cheats—something that is both popular and fiscally responsible. According to The Washington Post, the Congressional Budget Office found that the funding infusion would net $200 billion in revenue.

But Republicans have attempted to characterize this funding boost as the creation of an American Stasi, arguing that 87,000 new IRS investigators—a hugely inflated number—were soon to start digging through the tax forms of Joe Lunchpail. Immediately after the raid was reported, Republicans began to tie the two completely unrelated things together.

“What Nixon tried to do, Biden has now implemented: The Biden Admin has fully weaponized DOJ & FBI to target their political enemies,” tweeted Ted Cruz. “And with 87K new IRS agents, they’re coming for YOU too.” Former Acting Director of the National Security Council Richard Grenell concurred, writing that, “The FBI raids Trump’s house and the Democrats vote to add 87,000 new IRS agents to go after Americans.”

There is an element to this that boils down to the mischiefs of partisanship flaring up at a time when the news for the GOP was mostly bad. The Biden administration had just notched an unexpected legislative win; Republicans are trying to make one of its more popular features—Americans like when rich people pay taxes, and when tax avoiders are brought to heel—sound like a sinister political ploy. The IRA, in their telling, isn’t a bill that provides green energy funding and goes after tax cheats; it’s the creation of a private army controlled by Joe Biden.

But we should mark what function in society Republicans believe law enforcement should perform. Republicans don’t want IRS agents to investigate the wealthy because the wealthy, by virtue of being rich, shouldn’t have to pay taxes at all. Donald Trump shouldn’t be under investigation because, well, he’s Donald Trump—someone who simply exists above the law. The GOP only wants law enforcement agencies that will compliantly do their bidding—that is to say, permit their authoritarianism and corruption. Their message is clear: Defund the IRS. Defund the FBI. The only legitimate law enforcement agencies are the ones that march in lockstep with our priorities; brownshirts for me, but not for thee.