What a difference a few weeks can make. Inspired by the FBI’s violation of Donald Trump’s safe space, the loudest MAGA warriors have gone very public with something that looks for all the world like a sudden, keen interest in criminal justice reform. “DEFUND THE FBI” Marjorie Taylor Greene squawked shortly after agents raided Mar-a-Lago in search of classified documents. It was a sentiment echoed by other newly-minted SJWs such as Candace Owens, Paul Gosar, and Dinesh D’Souza. Trump himself complained about the agency profusely, harkening back to the days of J. Edgar Hoover before making an abrupt right turn into his own list of personal grievances. Aren’t these the same people who demanded we Back the Blue?
The answer, of course, is yes, but don’t confuse “The Blue” with the FBI or the Department of Justice: conservatives certainly don’t. While cops have attained a crucial place as heroes in the conservative imagination, FBI leadership has, over the last few years, become the villains.
This sentiment predates the raid on Mar-a-Lago last week, though the raid definitely made the right-wing fury more acute. Just days before agents arrived at the former president’s resort, the ire toward the agency was on full display at CPAC Dallas, which I attended. Speaker after speaker cast the FBI as one of the primary forces standing in the way of patriots and the success of the conservative agenda. “The Department of Justice needs to be gutted, the FBI needs to be gutted, and senior officials need to be replaced,” Fox News contributor Sara Carter stated on the opening day, a proclamation greeted with enthusiastic applause.
“It occurs to me that the Biden FBI believes this is a room of dangerous radicals,” Senator Ted Cruz told his audience by way of introduction. “And you know what? They’re right!””
Reminder: This was all in the days immediately before the raid on Mar-a-Lago.
Over the duration of the Trump administration, the DOJ and especially the FBI — never known as a bastion of liberalism — took on an identity for right-wing activists somewhat akin to IRS employees during the Obama years: Villains lording their power over Americans. Faceless bureaucrats oppressing true patriots. The leading tip of the deep state’s spear.
And so, as right-wing thinkers and elected officials plot their return to power, gutting the FBI has taken a high place on the priority list.
“What you do [after retaking the House] is you start defunding some of these bad agencies. The FBI. The DOJ,” congressman Andy Biggs declared, speaking on a panel called “You’re Next: The Rise Of The Democratic Gulag.” Pennsylvania representative Scott Perry — who had his own brush with the FBI last week — also has the DOJ on his after-midterm to-do list. “There’s no reason Jim Jordan shouldn’t be peeling open the DOJ,” he said during a panel outlining “The Freedom Caucus Agenda.”
Trump and his followers’ grievances with the agency date back years and Trump, like his party’s mascot, never forgets. The trouble began way back in 2016 when the FBI quietly launched an investigation into his campaign and its ties to Russia — Crossfire Hurricane — a thread that ultimately led to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. For Trumpworld, it was the genesis of many interlocking conspiracy theories and prosecution narratives, referred to as Russiagate and, later, Spygate. And while Trump supporters still wait faithfully for the three year old Durham counter-investigation to uncover evidence of political motivations for Crossfire Hurricane, new would-be scandals involving the FBI have seized their attention, including Hunter Biden’s laptop, the October Surprise that wasn’t, and the false idea that Merrick Garland had flagged rowdy parents at school board meetings as “domestic terrorists.” (The Department of Justice later tried to clarify that while it was reviewing how it handles threats against school board members, it had never adopted the perspective expressed by a nation school board group — and seized on by conservatives — that these activists were domestic terrorists.)
The FBI’s most acute set of sins, however, revolve around Jan. 6th. Conservatives fume over the FBI’s role in prosecuting those who participated in the Capitol breach. FBI agents are the ones investigating participants, knocking on their doors, and ultimately detaining them. The conspiracy theory that the FBI caused Jan. 6, either directly through agent provocateurs or indirectly through inaction in order to make conservatives look bad, regularly surfaces among right-wing activists, and even among members of Congress.
For certain conservative power brokers, however, the base’s fear and loathing toward the FBI and DOJ presents something of an opportunity. “They are totally, absolutely corrupt,” Steve Bannon roared to his audience at CPAC Dallas. “They’re absolutely power mad. And they’re lawless. They will use anything.”
Bannon, though, is talking about more than just the FBI. He, and others on the far right, have long advocated for the dissolution of the civil service — a body many think of as a stolid bureaucracy but which Bannon would like you to see as a malign deep state tearing at the fabric of the American way of life. Particularly objectionable, for Bannon and those who think like him, is that the civil service enjoys job protections that insulate its members from pressure to bend or break the rules to benefit political leaders. As early as 2017, Bannon began advocating for the “deconstruction of the administrative state”; neoreactionaries have pushed the idea of “RAGE” (“Retire All Government Employees”) for significantly longer.
Trump’s presidency, culminating in his ultimately foiled effort to subvert the 2020 election, provided hard lessons about the roadblocks an independent civil service can offer and the attendees of CPAC seemed to have taken them to heart. Onstage, a mere 36 hours before the now-infamous FBI raid, Trump stated that a major priority for the next president would be “to remove rogue bureaucrats and root out the deep state. Congress should pass groundbreaking reform, empowering the president to ensure that any federal employee who is corrupt, incompetent or unnecessary for the job can be told, ‘You’re fired.’ You ever hear that? You’re fired? ‘You’re fired.’”
The policy plank echoed Bannon’s fiery speech the night before. “This is more than a bureaucracy,” he thundered. “This is an organic thing that’s grown. It has its own courts. It puts its own legislation out in the federal register. It has its own enforcement capability. It’s an absolute government that must be taken apart. Brick by brick. And Kash gave us — Kash showed us how. Axios has been reporting it.”
Bannon here refers to “Schedule F,” an executive order quietly signed into law by President Trump in October of 2020 and just as quietly repealed by Biden in 2021, and to Kash Patel, Devin Nunes’ former congressional aide who in four short years climbed spider-like into Trump’s inner circle and — very nearly — into the deputy directorship of the CIA during Trump’s last desperate efforts to remain in power. (He wound up as chief of staff to the acting secretary of defense instead.)
The climber is still climbing. Axios reports that Patel is driving efforts to revive Schedule F come 2025. The order as signed during the Trump administration sought to remove job protections for any civil service job that influences public policy in any way — an estimated 50,000 positions — and allowed the executive branch to fill those positions with loyalists and lackeys loyal not to the country but to the President. It represents the culmination of a certain strain of thinking on the right — a policy with a hint of RAGE built in — but the Trump administration did not manage to act on it before its time ran out.
Next time will be different, various CPAC attendees promised. “We’re gonna have a well-trained cadre of people that will hit the beach day one,” Bannon continued. “And their number one thing is to start taking apart the federal bureaucracy brick by brick.”
There are good reasons why someone from either side of the political spectrum might want to dismantle the FBI. This is the same institution that, from the 1950s through 1971, worked to destroy the civil rights movement through illegal surveillance and infiltration. Its aggressive tactics at Ruby Ridge and WACO ended in disaster. More recently, it surveilled Occupy Wall Street ahead of a violent police crackdown on the movement, and used its power to conduct surveillance on Portland protesters during the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020.
But the conservative desire to gut the FBI does not stem from abstract libertarian ideals or principled opposition to militarized state suppression of dissent. It is of a piece with the desire to dismantle any other civil branch of government that might stand in the way of a total takeover. Trump and his allies have no desire to dismantle the police state; they would simply like to control it.
“FBI officials mid-level, they know there’s a problem. They want to solve it. They are good people,” Richard Grenell, the former (wildly-underqualified) acting Director of National Intelligence, asserted. “It’s the leadership at the FBI, it’s the leadership at DOJ.”
“The next Congress should spearhead the largest increase in the hiring of police officers in American history,” Donald Trump asserted to uproarious applause at CPAC Dallas. “We’ll also need a record increase in the number of new ICE officers and border patrol officers to resume the enforcement of our immigration laws and to deport the illegal aliens.”
Trump and his allies do not categorize the FBI, ICE, and the police force as different agencies of American law enforcement. They view them as either for Trump (ICE and the police) or against him (the FBI). The seeming contradiction of supporting only some of these agencies disappears when you view these efforts for what they are: consolidation of power and the elimination of opposing forces in 2024.
“In the next 24 months, starting on November 8th through the ‘24 elections, we have the opportunity that will never come again,” Bannon told his audience as he finished outlining his plan to deconstruct the administrative state. “We have the ability to shatter — shatter — the Democratic Party as a national political institution.”
Any criminal justice reform advocates hoodwinked by the ostensible wave of fellow feeling among the MAGA set might want to put away the champagne. The only thing worse than the FBI as it currently exists might be the FBI after Bannon and Trump remake it in their own image.
Laura Jedeed is a freelance journalist based in New York City who concentrates primarily on politics and the far right. Follow her on Twitter: @LauraJedeed.