Polemics and Exchanges: November 2022

The Bureau Gone Bad

Dear Editor, I enjoyed reading Pedro Gonzalez’s article “A Conspiracy Against the People” (October 2022 Chronicles). However, it almost seems that a lot of talent went into writing something that could only possibly be informative to future historians.

Mr. Gonzalez’s fundamental claim, that “the institutions that form the pillars of America’s established political order” have been “delegitimized,” is true. But he seems to imply that it wasn’t until “the raid on Donald Trump’s residence in Mar-a-Lago” that this delegitimization happened. I’m pretty sure that no one’s mind was changed because of this particular raid.

Mr. Gonzalez writes, “Whatever the reason [for the raid], it is beside the point now.” A lot of people on the right are making this very claim, that it doesn’t really matter why the FBI did it—it just delegitimizes them oh-so-much!

On the contrary, I think that this may be wishful thinking. The reason why the FBI raided Trump may be very important to know, though we may never know, and we’ll almost certainly not know soon enough. (More on this in a second.)

Consider this: Everyone who pays attention to politics already has a position. They’re either on Trump’s side or they’re against him.

If they’re on his side, then the FBI and other organs of the Deep State have been delegitimized in their minds for a long time now.

If they’re against him, then they don’t really care that he’s being targeted illegitimately. In fact, it’s not that they don’t care —it’s that they’re happy. Most politics-conscious people in America these days are vindictive: They hate their political opponents so much that they derive more pleasure from seeing their political opponents suffer than from knowing that there is equal treatment under the law in the United States of America.

If, however, Trump had a smoking gun and could have exposed it, then maybe— just maybe—sensible, everyday Democrats would have been forced to reckon with the fact that they belong to an authoritarian party. Such a reckoning could have been the thing that the Deep State was trying to avoid. Thus, the reason for the raid could be of utmost importance. The increased level of delegitimization that occurred in the eyes of “Middle America” as a direct result of this raid has got to be negligible.

But to be honest, I don’t think that Trump actually had a smoking gun. It seems much more likely and much more consistent with Occam’s razor that the FBI was just messing with him because they hate him.

—Riley Matheson
Memphis, Tenn.

Mr. Gonzalez replies:

I thank the author of this letter for his brief but kind words at the outset. But after that, unfortunately, it seems he put an army of straw men to the sword and declared himself the victor.

I do not believe the raid on Mar-a-Lago was the first thing the incumbent regime has done to remind us that it operates beyond the boundaries of accepted standards or rules and that it is, therefore, illegitimate. But what would have sufficed? Should I have listed a delegitimizing “long train of abuses and usurpations” dating back 200 years for the reader’s satisfaction? We would need a much bigger magazine for that.

The author also doubts anyone’s mind was changed or eyes were opened due to this particular raid. That is highly unlikely.

A Rasmussen poll released in August showed that 46 percent of likely U.S. voters now view the FBI unfavorably. This is a marked decline from a 60-percent favorability rating for the Bureau measured by the same poll in May 2020. In the more recent poll, Rasmussen found that 44 percent said that “the FBI raid on Trump’s Florida home made them trust the FBI less,” compared to 29 percent who said that “it made them trust the bureau more.”

This shift has also been reflected in two waves of the American Institutional Confidence Poll, a nationally representative survey of adults. As reported in The Washington Post,

Republicans in both waves held the FBI in much lower esteem than either local police or the military, considering the bureau closer to the reviled “press” and President Biden’s executive branch than to the other “law-and-order” institutions.

More than half of Republican voters no longer believe the FBI is politically neutral.

It is worth noting, moreover, that independents tend to share Republican distrust of the agency. Gallup surveys show that among independents, approval for the FBI dropped from 58 percent in 2019 to 41 percent in 2021.

These trends are remarkable, considering the Republican Party’s historically friendly relationship with the institutions of law and order. Further still, Andrew Cuff, a contributor to Chronicles Online, spoke with someone working for the Bureau who said that “the FBI made itself the sworn enemy of the average patriotic American,” adding that he “can no longer work for an organization that hates and persecutes my friends and family for their political leanings.” This person told Cuff he plans to resign and said that many other agents are quietly leaving.

There is little doubt the raid on Mar-a-Lago fueled this trend.

It is true that there are people whose minds can’t be changed and who, indeed, derive great pleasure from the persecution of their enemies, especially when those enemies are Donald Trump and his allies and supporters. The raid on Mar-a-Lago won’t grant them an epiphany about the political corruption of the FBI, and I do not suggest that it would, because that it is ridiculous. However, there is, again, no doubt that this event has moved attitudes on the right in a more radical direction. Talk of dismantling the FBI is now utterly mainstream among prominent conservative pundits. It was a major theme recently at the National Conservatism conference, in Miami. This turn against the FBI on the right is simply without precedent; pretending otherwise is absurd.

The rest of Mr. Matheson’s letter is the author arguing with himself and claiming that it is a rejoinder to me. He disagrees with my point that, regardless of motive, the undermining of confidence in the FBI as an impartial institution is the same in the end. He then suggests Trump perhaps had a “smoking gun” that triggered the home invasion but concludes “with Occam’s razor that the FBI was just messing with him because they hate him.”

Thus, Mr. Matheson arrives at my original point, that it doesn’t matter why they did it; what matters is that they did do it. And, that it looks to many like an entirely partisan attack, and it is therefore damaging to the legitimacy of the FBI specifically and of the political establishment broadly.

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