Friday, August 12, 2022

The Search Warrant Freakout is Bad for Everyone, Including Republicans

by Neil H. Buchanan
Republican leaders continue to rally around Donald Trump and his absurd claims that the FBI's actions pursuant to a valid search warrant are somehow evidence of a conspiracy against the Florida Man.  His state's junior senator has described law enforcement officers' actions as Gestapo-like, and his state's governor is making noises about "the weaponization of federal agencies against the Regime’s political opponents," adding that the US is now a "banana republic."

In my Dorf on Law column two days ago, I described such reactions by Republicans as the on-the-ground manifestation of the end of constitutional democracy.  The rule of law is all about guaranteeing acceptable outcomes by providing due process and neutral adjudication, but Republicans have now made it abundantly clear that this is all about giving their friends free passes and their opponents the shaft.

In particular, I noted that some of the most widely accepted tropes in politics are at best half-truths.  For instance, despite their decades of tireless anti-tax rhetoric, Republicans are not in fact against taxes.  They are only against taxing rich people.  Notably, Republicans' hyperventilation about the Mar-a-Lago search included claims that the new Inflation Reduction Act's restoration of some funding to the IRS will result in hiring 87,000 agents to harass typical Americans, when in fact the IRS will soon be able to replace retiring employees and reverse some staffing shortfalls that have made it possible for the richest Americans to get away with the tax equivalent of murder.  The problem, again, is not the taxes but who is paying them.

My question in this short column, however, is why the Republicans are bothering with any of this.  What is the point of making a stink about a non-issue and acting as if the country has been taken over by jack-booted thugs?  Yes, the short answer is that they must think that there is some political advantage to be had in doing so, but as so often happens, I think they are missing an opportunity.  They are often good at being bad, but surprisingly often they are bad at being bad.  Why do this?

It is worth noting that Republican leaders' reaction to the FBI's search in Florida was so immediate that its near-unanimity can almost certainly not be the result of their having had a strategy session followed by the issuance of talking points for everyone to slavishly follow (which is their usual modus operandi).  This was a gut-level, instinctual reaction that flowed from something that they have all come to agree upon, which is that any time Donald Trump is in any way discomfited, they must come shrieking to his defense.

Yet none of these people have any use for Trump.  Several of the people who are shouting the loudest want to be the next president, and having him still in the picture is bad for them.  Why are they all so sure that there is no other way to respond to this than to engage in projection by saying that it is the Democrats who have no respect for the rule of law?  It would at least seem possible to say, as Mitch McConnell did in rationalizing his "not guilty" vote in Trump's second impeachment trial, that "we have a criminal justice system" that can sort things out.

My puzzlement here echoes my confusion throughout Trump's presidency regarding Republicans' failure to recognize that they were being given a golden opportunity to get everything that they could possibly want.  When the Supreme Court overruled Roe, a right-wing pundit described that outcome as "Trump's legacy," but of course it was nothing of the kind.  Had Trump been expeditiously impeached, convicted, and removed from office after he fired James Comey in 2017, Mike Pence would have had almost a full term in the Oval Office, during which time he would have nominated the same judges and justices that the Federalist Society told Trump to appoint.
In terms of outcomes that Republicans view as positive, Trump was at most a functionary who did what any Republican would have done.  Without him, Republicans would almost certainly not have lost the House in 2018 or the Senate in 2020, and President Pence would currently be in the thick of his full term in office.

Now, Republicans are making Trump a cause celebre, even though they have already put in place everything necessary to make the US a one-party autocracy, no matter who is their titular leader.  They know, or ought to know, that a non-Trump nominee would be treated as "normal" by the press, and the 2024 election would be about blaming the Democrats for everything under the sun.  And again, that is only relevant if we believe (as I do not) that what happens at the polls will even matter in 2024.

Is the idea that they can only keep this locked down so long as they keep the Trump-obsessed base voters in full froth?  Maybe the worry is that they have not yet fully rigged the system and that it might not be possible to pass the smell test if they claim that their candidates are winning when tens of millions of Trump voters sit home in protest.  Maybe, but that is a rather outlandish scenario, given how much of the energy on the right is about "owning the libs" and generally being against Democrats rather than for anything (other than lauding Viktor Orban).

When I argued that the Republicans' supposed commitments are situational, I pointed to their stance on taxes.  It goes well beyond that, however, as the formerly anti-Russia party went soft on Putin, and as the party of law and order and Blue Lives Matter suddenly decided that law enforcement officers are evil incarnate.  What they want, it would seem, is the ability to use the government to do what they falsely claim Democrats are doing -- inflict pain on their opponents while lavishing benefits on themselves.

To do that, however, they will need people to respect the government, its laws, and the agencies that make it all work.  When they shift the tax burden onto middle-class and poor people, they will want those taxes to be paid in full.  When they use FBI agents to raid ob/gyn practices to look for evidence of miscarriages, they will want people to say that "they're just following the law."

It cannot be good for Republicans that their overreaction to the Mar-a-Lago search induced a Trump supporter to try to attack an FBI field office.  And I do not mean that as a matter of saying that is "looks bad" or will hurt them at the polls.  It is bad for them because they will be in a much better position if Americans believe that the government (which Republicans are planning to control in perpetuity) is fair and competent.  Instead, Republicans continue to turn the dial beyond 11 in their efforts to undermine the legitimacy of everything.

Again, they do not need to do any of this in order to close the deal on their bid to end American democracy.  Continuing to do what they are doing will only make their post-constitutional world more difficult to rule.  In the simplest terms, there are (from their standpoint) no benefits and seriously large costs to this strategy.  As I wrote above, however, this reaction was not the result of a considered plan.  They have become so enveloped in their own reality that an unthinking, self-reinforcing freakout spontaneously ensues from a perceived attack on the person that many of them detest.  None of them can stop it, so they try to outdo each other in an increasingly vicious cycle of craziness.

Post-democratic America was going to be bad enough, but now we see that Republicans cannot even stop themselves from harming their own interests, much less everyone else's.  Creating chaos for the purpose of gaining power is only the first step; a party that thinks that stoking antisocial chaos is a permanent strategy is not thinking straight.  But how is that a surprise?