Left-wing commentator Briahna Joy Gray recently argued that the call from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., to “defund the FBI” over its search of Mar-a-Lago could end up being fruitful for America. In a monologue addressed to conservatives on The Hill’s “Rising,” an internet show that has explored how populism can bridge gaps between the left and the right, Gray contends that this is a moment in which the right is awakening to how problematic the FBI is, something leftists and civil libertarians have tried to sound the alarm about for decades. And so she sees an opening for conservatives to become sustained critics of the FBI, which, theoretically, makes them potential allies for the left on the issue.
There is no evidence that the right is opposed to the idea of a repressive FBI.
I’m no fan of the FBI, but count me skeptical of this analysis. There is no evidence that the right is opposed to the idea of a repressive FBI; right-wing calls to do away with the FBI are in reality an unserious and ad hoc attempt to buttress the untenable theory that there is a conspiracy to destroy Trump within the organs of the state. What the right actually wants is an FBI that does more of what it has done historically — repress the left.
I am in agreement with Gray on the FBI’s dark and shameful history, which she discusses in her segment at length. The nation’s premier federal law enforcement agency was at the forefront of some of the federal government’s most reactionary interventions in domestic politics in the 20th century, surveilling and attempting to neutralize many left-wing social movements, from the civil rights movement to activism against the Vietnam War to socialist and communist organizing. (The FBI’s mission also involved keeping files on fearsome communist-sympathizers like Groucho Marx and Charlie Chaplin.) During the 9/11 era, it played a critical role in unconstitutional mass surveillance and unfairly targeting immigrants, racial and religious minorities, and dissidents for investigation, abusive detainment and interrogation. The FBI is in need of massive reform and aggressive oversight, and Gray’s hopes of building momentum for a more robust critique and radical reform effort is one I'm sympathetic to.
The question is: Does the right actually understand and care about this? According to Gray, conservatives are “kind of right about the FBI” because their “concerns that state police agencies could be weaponized against a vulnerable party for political reasons” are “well-founded.” But it’s critical to note that this is in fact not the critique that the right is bringing to bear on their calls to abolish the FBI (and Justice Department). As a former president, Trump is not a vulnerable party, but a uniquely powerful one. In recent days, legal experts and former Justice Department officials have emphasized that the bar to execute a search warrant in Mar-a-Lago was exceptionally high precisely because of Trump’s background as a president. What the GOP and Trump diehards are furious about is that he’s able to be subject to the law at all.
Gray says that she does not believe that Greene is operating in “good faith” and does not expect her to uphold her FBI criticism when “a candidate of her liking is in control of the deep state” — but that she still thinks that “conservative voters” can rise above Greene’s convenient posturing. But I see no reason to be so sanguine about winning over the right on this issue. The foremost reason for this is that the American right, which has coalesced in massive numbers around a white nationalist authoritarian, has no actual ideological interest in fighting repression that comes from overzealous law enforcement. They just want to make it completely subordinate to the authoritarian political project.
If the right was concerned about abuse of law enforcement power and taking advantage of the vulnerable, then there would be conservative advocates for police reform. But the right has fought substantive police reform tooth and nail, and Trump-aligned police movements like “constitutional sheriffs” are in favor of making the police even more powerful and lawless than they already are. In reality, the right’s criticism of the FBI is part of a broader argument that a “deep state” conspiracy wants to muzzle Trump and keep him out of power. Their critique is not of the FBI’s abuse of its own power, but that its purview can interfere with the authoritarian project because it has some commitments to lawful liberal democracy and operates semi-independently of executive power. The FBI is capable of doing inconvenient things for them, like searching for classified records that the president may have stolen from the White House, or investigating the president for potential cooperation with adversarial foreign governments.
And that has bearing on why a left-right alliance on “defund the FBI” wouldn't work. If the left developed a program under a defund banner, it might entail less funding, more robust oversight, and limiting FBI powers to surveil and intervene in political life. But the right’s project would involve doubling down on the Trumpian ethos of trying to use radical political appointees in the Justice Department and FBI to push the agency in a direction that conforms to its ideology and its goal of amassing more personal power for the president. To the extent that they succeeded at this, it would involve the FBI reviving focus on what it has done very effectively at many points in its history: suppressing the left and minorities.
There are issues where the anti-war left and nationalist right can find tangible common ground, like withdrawing troops from occupying foreign countries. But there is no obvious prospect of shared goals on a reformed FBI because this is a space where left-wing and nationalist right goals clash directly. That’s because the entire Trumpian movement — the most powerful political force on the right — finds brutally repressive law enforcement desirable as long as it answers to the right's political directives.
“Defund the FBI” isn’t about reining in police power, but making law enforcement a personal police force for the president. Remember, the leader of this movement explicitly complained that top military officials failed to be loyal to him the way he believed Nazi generals were to Adolf Hitler and rankled at their refusal to shoot peaceful protestors. It's important to be vigilant about rhetorical traps and illusions from this movement about taking on establishment power.