After news of the FBI raid on former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home broke on Monday night, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy responded by openly threatening Attorney General Merrick Garland.
“The Department of Justice has reached an intolerable state of weaponized politicization,” he said in a statement. “Attorney General Garland, preserve your documents and clear your calendar.”
Think about this for a second. Here you have the likely next speaker of the House claiming without the tiniest shred of evidence that the Justice Department is persecuting a former president — and vowing to use his authority to punish them as a result. His response to his baseless claim of the politicization of investigative powers is to promise a politicized investigation of his own.
McCarthy was far from alone. Trump, who confirmed the raid in a lengthy statement, called it “an attack by the Radical Left Democrats who desperately don’t want me to run for President in 2024” — an allegation that set the tone for much of the party in the wake of the dramatic FBI operation.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the leading non-Trump candidate in the 2024 GOP primary race, called the raid “another escalation in the weaponization of federal agencies against the Regime’s political opponents.” Florida Sen. Rick Scott, head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, called it “3rd World country stuff.” New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, the third-ranking House Republican, called for “an immediate investigation and accountability into Joe Biden and his Administration’s weaponizing this [Justice] department against their political opponents.”
Some leading Republicans, like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, did not engage in such fevered speculation and kept their counsel. But the backlash from the party has been loud and broad, revealing the GOP as basically in lockstep with the Trumpian line that the Justice Department has been fully politicized and needs to be brought to heel.
There is no evidence to support the idea that the raid on Mar-a-Lago was politically motivated. FBI Director Christopher Wray is a Trump appointee and would almost certainly have personally signed off on the warrant; so too would the attorney general and a federal judge. The Biden White House, by contrast, says it was not informed of the search in advance. We also know the target was real — possibly classified documents Trump improperly brought back to his private residence — and that there are a number of serious crimes that Trump might well have committed in office. It’s possible that the raid turns out to be an overreach or a mistake — FBI history is certainly full of those — but, as of right now, there is no evidence of any kind of political misconduct on the part of the agency.
The Republican attacks on the Mar-a-Lago raid result not from reasonable skepticism of law enforcement, but something darker: a belief on the right that the government’s functions must necessarily be partisan, either wielded for Republicans’ benefit or against them.
It is an idea that has become increasingly dominant during the Trump years — and one that threatens the foundations of American democracy.
Republicans against the rule of law
Democratic governance depends on the idea that the rules are applied neutrally: that when a legislature passes a law, agents of the state enforce that law based on their best reading of its text, without regard to the identity of the people who are breaking it. This is the essence of “the rule of law,” one of liberal democracy’s foundational principles.
Reality, of course, does not match this lofty vision. But when government agents depart from it — systemic racial biases in policing, for example — it’s rightly considered a scandal, an injustice that ought to be corrected. Trying to address the gulf between principle and reality is one of the perennial struggles of democratic political life around the globe.
During the Trump era, however, Republicans began to embrace an increasingly radical critique, one that rejected the very notion of a neutral “rule of law” as illusory under current conditions.
In their view, Democrats and liberals have so thoroughly seized control of major American institutions — including the federal bureaucracy and law enforcement apparatus — that nonpartisan governance is functionally impossible. This belief, ironically reminiscent of some arguments made by critical race theorists, argues that the very idea of small-l liberal neutrality is a fiction — that politics is a no-holds-barred struggle for power, and the question is whether it is wielded for us or against us.
Michael Anton, the chief theorist of Trumpism as a political doctrine, laid out this argument plainly in a late July essay.
“The people who really run the United States of America have made it clear that they can’t, and won’t, if they can help it, allow Donald Trump to be president again,” Anton writes. “Plan A is to use the Jan. 6 show trials to make it impossible for Trump to run again. ... Plan B is for the Jan. 6 committee to lay the groundwork for an indictment of Trump.”
In his essay, Anton describes a hypothetical Trump prosecution as part of a “regime” plot against the former president and his supporters. Anton lays out “their” motivation — the conspiratorially unspecified “they” is a frequent feature in his prose — as a corrupt power play, a pretext for keeping Trump out of office and potentially even “unleashing the security state” against his supporters.
Think about what it would mean if Anton’s theory were true. The entire Justice Department and FBI would have to be staffed by “regime apparatchiks” who operate at the beck and call of “the people who really run the United States.” The government is occupied hostile territory, led by an anti-Trump and anti-Republican conspiracy, that will stop at nothing to entrench its own hold on power just to keep Trump and the people he represents out of power.
Anton is not a fringe figure: He was a high-ranking official in Trump’s National Security Council and an influential writer on the pro-Trump right. His rhetoric is directly echoed in the GOP responses to the Mar-a-Lago raid: Look at how DeSantis, for example, called it an attack on “the Regime’s political opponents.” The claim that the US government has been captured by a capital-R regime is a feature of radical right-wing rhetoric, popular among Anton-style Trumpists and the so-called “New Right” — but here it’s being echoed by one of the country’s most influential Republican politicians.
And such theories are informing actual policy. Last month, Axios’s Jonathan Swan reported on a large-scale GOP plan to reshape the federal bureaucracy in a second Trump presidency: reissuing a 2020 executive order called “Schedule F” with the intent of “purging potentially thousands of civil servants and filling career posts with loyalists to him and his ‘America First’ ideology.”
The premise of the plan, according to Swan, is that “Schedule F will finally end the ‘farce’ of a nonpartisan civil service that they say has been filled with activist liberals who have been undermining GOP presidents for decades.”
It is this specter, more than anything else, that explains the furious Republican reaction to the Mar-a-Lago raid. It confirms the hardcore Trumpist belief that the “deep state” is aligned against them, a conspiracy theory that the GOP’s leaders have adopted either out of sincere conviction or political expediency.
And the consequences of this belief’s spread could soon prove dire. On Monday night, popular conservative YouTube personality Steven Crowder tweeted out an ominous take:
Tomorrow is war. Sleep well.— Steven Crowder (@scrowder) August 9, 2022
Whether Crowder meant “war” literally is somewhat immaterial; after January 6, we know messages urging individuals to rise to the defense of Republicans against a vast liberal conspiracy can mobilize violent actors who are all too real. If you really believed that the US government were controlled by shadowy forces who hate you, wouldn’t you act to try and save your beloved president from their clutches?
The posters on Patriots.win, a radical pro-Trump web forum, are thinking along these lines. “They’re treating it as a hot civil war,” one poster writes in the thread on the Mar-a-Lago raid. “When this is all said and done, the people responsible for these tyrannical actions need to be hanged, and memorialized with statues of loafers and high heels cast in bronze in their home towns.”
The most popular response in the thread is much shorter, just three words long: “lock and load.”