The Care and Feeding of a Politically Useful Non-Scandal

by Neil H. Buchanan

How does a false story become the basis of a political hit job, serving an ideological agenda while refusing to go away, no matter how many times it is debunked?  Why do some tall tales of political perfidy last far beyond their expiration dates?

At this point, anyone familiar with the U.S. political conversation cannot possibly know which of several "genuinely fake" scandals I might have in my sights.  The claim that climate change is a conspiracy among scientists?  Benghazi?  Vaccines?  The Clinton emails?  There is an extensive menu of false-but-persistent stories from which to choose.

As it happens, I am returning once again to the non-scandal that has enveloped the Internal Revenue Service for more than four years.  The Republican Party has been obsessed with the completely fantasy-based claim that the Obama Administration directed the IRS to "target" right-wing political groups that had applied for tax-exempt status.

I recently wrote a column in which I described a new report that should finally "remove the head or destroy the brain" of this zombie.  Should have, but won't.  Today, I am here to explain why nothing will stop Republicans from acting as if there really was a scandal all along.

The details of this non-scandal are tedious, and I described the background story in my recent column.  Here is an even shorter version:

One type of tax-exempt status, which makes an organization's operations non-taxable (but does not make donations tax deductible), is called 501(c)(4) status, or "c4" for short.  Groups must submit applications to become c4's, demonstrating (among other things) that no more than half of their expenditures are political, as opposed to "social welfare" expenditures.

In 2013, a government report said that the IRS had screened some applications for c4 status by using political search terms such as "patriot" and "tea party."  Republicans immediately screamed bloody murder and, based on no evidence at all, claimed that this had been ordered by IRS higher-ups who were doing Barack Obama's bidding.

As I have written over and over again, this would be the most comically ineffective dirty trick in the history of politics.  Large groups like Crossroads GPS, created by Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie (the latter of whom is now running for governor of Virginia on a culture war platform) received c4 status, but a smattering of tiny groups of angry Obama-haters were being targeted by Democrats as part of a grand political strategy?  Brilliant.

As implausible as it all was, the news that spurred me to return to this non-scandal was the report earlier this month that the premise of the story had been wrong all along.  It turns out that the IRS had screened not just for conservative sounding names among applicants but for left-leaning ones as well ("occupy," "progressive").  Not only had the IRS not done what it was accused of doing for partisan reasons, but it had not done what it was accused of doing at all.

Even that revelation was not truly news, because we had known this since very shortly after the non-scandal broke.  Yet this official report ought to have been enough to put this all finally to rest.

It is important to remember that the stakes of this non-scandal are quite high.  Republicans, who have long targeted the IRS for abuse (mostly because the IRS angers some rich people who try to cheat on their taxes, and those angry people tend to vote for -- and donate to -- Republicans), have explicitly stated that their cuts in the IRS's budget are punishment for this supposed "targeting" of right-wing groups.

Anyone who cares about the law being enforced should be alarmed at the Republicans' not-all-that-stealthy demolition of the IRS.  When the IRS is crippled by budget cuts (and retirements and attrition due to low morale), we all are harmed.  Wage-and salary-earning Americans are not the ones who benefit when the IRS cannot do its job.

Again, however, my point today is that it is highly unlikely that Republicans will let this go.  Why would they?  They have learned that creating an atmosphere of scandal is politically advantageous.  Indeed, their Javert-like obsession with the Benghazi tragedy led directly to the Hillary Clinton email story, which itself was a non-scandal but was incredibly useful to Republicans in 2016.

Even so, there has to be some limit to what Republicans can get away with saying.  Otherwise, they could just wake up every day and say that Chuck Schumer is a wiccan or that Elizabeth Warren once owned a brothel.  Although the IRS non-scandal is just as false as those lies, how will Republicans get away with pretending that this story has not died?

One strategy is simply to deny reality, which in this case will involve attacking the source.  Because "everyone knows that the IRS targeted conservatives," anyone who says that it did no such thing must be a liar.

And in this case, the source of the new, inconvenient report is part of the federal government, with the sinister-sounding name Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA).  The Deep State!!  What a great story for Republicans to tell each other: TIGTA is part of the Treasury Department, so of course it is simply covering up for fellow public servants (leeches!) who did the Democrats' dirty work.

We might hope that there would be some embarrassment about such a claim, because it was TIGTA that issued the original report in 2013 that set off the whole frenzy in the first place  Essentially, the same source that said, "The IRS screened for some conservative-sounding names when reviewing c4 applications," has now said, "We've gone back and checked more exhaustively, and we now can report that the IRS was an equal-opportunity screener."  Oh, and by the way, the IRS stopped all of this before the first report was issued in 2013.

For obsessed Republicans, however, the irony of ignoring and denigrating the same source of information that provided the original report is not the least bit embarrassing.  It simply does not matter that the facts on the ground now completely undermine the whole story.  The Republicans know what they know, and even though there is nothing here (even less than in Republicans' other imaginary stories, like the "war on coal"), the politically convenient route is to deny reality.

In addition to Republicans' cynical use of the non-scandal as a way to whip up the anger of their base, it must be said that there has been some serious professional misjudgment by journalists who cover the story.

As I noted in my column last week, the mainstream press's commitment to the two-sides-to-every-story requirement causes reporters to understate the importance of blockbuster news like the TIGTA report, which The Washington Post drily noted "could undermine claims that conservatives were unfairly targeted under President Barack Obama."

That is not burying the lead.  It is pretending that there is no lead.

Beyond the simple denial of reality and the reliance on credulous reporting, Republicans have also fallen back on an old favorite: "Anyone who takes the Fifth must be guilty."  Allow me to explain.

One of the key players in this drama is Lois Lerner, a now-former IRS employee who had tried to get ahead of the story before the release of the first TIGTA report in 2013 by apologizing publicly for what was about to appear in the report.  Lerner then became Suspect #1 in the eyes of Republicans as Obama's supposed hatchet woman.

House Republicans demanded hearings, and their Speaker announced publicly that Lerner should be criminally prosecuted.  Sensibly, Lerner invoked the Fifth Amendment.  This, of course, enraged Republicans even more, because even though their heroes (including Donald Trump) take the Fifth all the time, it is easy to say that only guilty people refuse to testify.  What does she have to hide?!
As I noted at the time, however, a blogger who was absolutely convinced that there was a real scandal had offered Republicans a simple solution: If Republicans granted immunity to Lerner, she could testify under oath as to what she knew.
Republicans never took up that idea, instead declaring that Lerner was in contempt and referring her for criminal charges to a federal prosecutor.  That prosecutor refused to bring charges, and even the Trump Administration subsequently declined to do so.

But that will not stop some people from going to their graves convinced that Lerner was hiding something big.  Similarly, because any years-long investigation like this one will inevitably turn up some bits of evidence that can be spun in conspiratorial ways, some paranoid theories will always provide a refuge for the scandal-obsessed.

If people can think that the moon landing was a hoax, after all, how difficult could it be for an IRS-hating person to say, "Well, what about that piece of evidence?" -- no matter how many times every part of the story has been debunked?

Similarly, the self-reinforcing nature of conspiracy theories is on full display in the IRS non-scandal.  The pattern is simple, with the Republicans convinced that there is a scandal, which must mean that everyone who says that there is not a scandal is part of the coverup.

Lerner was actually there at the time, but the Republicans have even talked about impeaching the current IRS commissioner, who was not even at the IRS when all of this broke.  Why impeach him?  Because he was not "cooperative" enough with Congress.  He has not told them what they want to hear, so of course they conclude that he is guilty, too.

The bottom line is that this non-scandal took off and has lingered largely because of bad reporting, but it was propagated and sustained by Republicans' ability to invent conspiracy theories.

That means that no one who wishes to believe that there was a scandal at the IRS will ever have their day of reckoning.  They can deny facts, attack sources, and claim that everyone who disagrees with them is guilty.  The non-scandal is too useful to Republicans for them to let it rest.