Thursday is the first hearing of House Republicans’ most pointless of endeavors, a subcommittee devoted to exposing “the weaponization of the federal government.” Nestled under the Judiciary Committee, the clunkily-named panel will be the foundry for some of the most inane viral moments to hit conservative media in the next two years.
While the setting may be different, the story that Republicans are using the subcommittee to try to sell is the same one they’ve been trying to sell since the Obama administration. To wit: America’s conservatives are the subject of a vast and unyielding harassment campaign, forced to either muzzle their beliefs or face outsized retribution. Thursday’s testimony in particular will focus on the supposed “politicization” Republicans say has gone on at the Federal Bureau of Investigation in recent years.
Their outrage includes a tinge of jealousy. The (mostly white) conservatives that Republicans are cynically championing believe the government is giving preferential treatment to LGBTQ people and racial minorities and leaving them excluded and prone to abuse. From where they’re sitting, conservatives have become a minority group in America, and they demand the same sort of protections from oppression that have been granted to every other protected class.
Committee Chair Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, who is also chairing the subcommittee, would probably never put it that way. But I don’t know how else to process the narrative that the GOP has cobbled together, as evidenced by the two panels of witnesses they’ve convened for Thursday’s hearing.
Their outrage includes a tinge of jealousy.
The first consists entirely of politicians, who are, of course, known for their unbiased and nonpartisan analysis. The GOP’s three witnesses — Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa; Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin and former Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, a nominal Democrat who left the party — have all accused the Justice Department of attacking conservatives, coddling liberals, or both. (House Oversight Committee Ranking Member Jamie Raskin, D-Md., rounds out the first set of witnesses.)
Grassley, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s ranking member, thinks Attorney General Merrick Garland’s 2021 memo about threats against school officials during the great “critical race theory” astroturfing is a sign of a DOJ crackdown on innocent parents. Johnson meanwhile is obsessed with the FBI’s supposed willingness to “downplay derogatory information on Hunter Biden for the purpose of shutting down investigative activity.” Gabbard has claimed that the FBI’s search of former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate “changed the country that we grew up in“ and has warned of a looming dictatorship that will “target the political opponents of the uni-party, the permanent Washington and the Biden regime.”
As “proof” of these claims, the second panel will include two former FBI special agents, neither of whom seems particularly situated to expose the kind of liberal malfeasance that the subcommittee is investigating. Nicole Parker was short on details in the Fox News op-ed she wrote last month about her decision to resign from the bureau. The only concrete example she cited to support her argument that there’s been a change inside the agency was a small group of FBI officials kneeling during the George Floyd protests in 2020 and not being reprimanded as a result. The rest of the piece about how the FBI has gained a liberal bias can be best summarized as “the vibes were off.”
The other former agent, Thomas Baker, published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in 2018 arguing that the FBI’s post 9/11 shift to become more of an intelligence agency than a law enforcement agency was a cause for its fall from glory. (He also wrote a book to similar effect.) And while there’s truth to that complaint, I don’t recall Republicans forming a committee to investigate the infringement of Muslim-Americans’ civil liberties after 9/11. Both Baker and Parker in their respective op-eds saw this anti-conservative bias as causing a plunge in public support for the FBI.
Stepping back, the subcommittee itself can easily be viewed as the latest offshoot of a branch of conservatism that swathes itself in victimhood even as it longs to regain its status as unchallenged oppressor. A similar outgrowth supports the ideological battles over “religious freedom” that the Supreme Court’s conservative justices have embraced. In case after case, right-wing lawyers position conservatives as the aggrieved party, providing cover to winnow away protections for LGBTQ groups in particular under the guise of safeguarding the rights of a group that remains solidly in the majority.
More directly, the 2013 IRS targeting scandal saw Republicans hammer the agency for singling out tea party-affiliated groups and blocking them from being granted non-profit status. Years later, the Treasury Department’s inspector general revealed that the same scrutiny was applied to political groups on the left and right, but the damage had already been done.
The IRS has never been a favorite of Republicans. Nor has the federal government as a whole, given the paleoconservative desire for a government small enough to be drowned in a bathtub. But law enforcement has almost always been an exception. Police forces are a reactionary institution as a default, with the right-wing’s “law and order” mentality bolstering their political power. Any attempts to soften the police’s historical rigidity toward past targets of oppression has been seen as a challenge to the natural order.
The subcommittee itself can easily be viewed as the latest offshoot of a branch of conservatism that swathes itself in victimhood even as it longs to regain its status as unchallenged oppressor.
Accordingly, when you look at polling from Gallup, the shift in attitudes toward the FBI that former agents Baker and Parker lament isn’t necessarily among Americans — it’s among Republicans specifically. That’s unsurprising when you consider the constant barrage of attacks the institution has been under since Trump took office under the shadow of the Russia investigation, which the FBI opened during the 2016 campaign. Likewise, the shift from a Republican administration to a Democratic led one has exacerbated that trend.
House Democrats have loaded the panel with some of their best and brightest, with Del. Stacey Plaskett, D-U.S. Virgin Islands, serving as ranking member. They’ll have their work cut out for them in Thursday’s hearing and in the hearings to come over the next two years. In the end, though, I don’t see what sort of legislative fix the panel could possibly recommend that doesn’t itself feel like a vast overreach of federal power — if political beliefs are a protected class, what is it about conservative beliefs that demand special treatment under the law?
Luckily for the Republicans on the panel, that’s not the goal of their efforts. Instead, it's to produce as many soundbites as possible, confirming GOP voters that their beliefs are under assault in a world gone mad under liberals’ cultural tyranny. I can’t imagine how freeing it must be to maintain the conviction that you’re being been held down and downtrodden without having to face any actual social or political oppression. Seriously, it must be nice.