IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

No, FBI's Trump search doesn't mean 'civil war' — but that's not stopping the MAGA mob

In the populist imagination of Trump’s die-hard supporters, government is an instrument that will be wielded, if not by you, then against you.

UPDATE: (Aug. 12, 2022, 3:15 p.m. ET): NBC News on Friday obtained a copy of the warrant used in the FBI's search of former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago home in Florida, as well as the related property receipt. The FBI recovered 11 sets of classified documents in the search, according to the documents.

At the moment, there’s still far more we don’t know about the FBI search of former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence on Monday than we do know. Not that this ambiguity has imposed caution on the cast of characters who arbitrate our political discourse.

Trump’s fans on social media took these assaults on the legitimacy of American law enforcement to their logical conclusion: “Civil war coming to America.”

In their telling, the plainclothes agents who executed a federal warrant to search for yet-unknown materials are either the harbingers of the republic’s downfall or liberators who will free us from the former president’s grip. This is sophistry. The search’s unknowable (at this stage) effect on the former president’s future or the health of our legal and governing institutions is pure speculation. More relevant now is what the instant reaction to this event reveals about the future of the Republican coalition.

Well before any of the details of the warrant or its predicates were publicly available, Republican politicians with an interest in preserving their truck with GOP primary voters lashed out at the government with scene-chewing indignation.

“This is what happens in third world countries,” the GOP’s House Judiciary Committee insisted. “The FBI raid on President Trump’s home is an unprecedented political weaponization of the Justice Department,” declared South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem. “Using government power to persecute political opponents is something we have seen many times from 3rd world Marxist dictatorships,” Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida mourned. “Biden has taken our republic into dangerous waters,” Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri fretted on Twitter, calling the raid “an unprecedented assault on democratic norms.”

As is his talent, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis channeled the most aggrieved sentiments of the Republican base. “The raid of MAL is another escalation in the weaponization of federal agencies against the Regime’s political opponents,” he wrote. “Now the Regime is getting another 87k IRS agents to wield against its adversaries? Banana Republic.”

Trump’s fans on social media took these assaults on the legitimacy of American law enforcement to their logical conclusion: “Civil war coming to America,” read the all-too-common refrain.

Critics of the FBI’s conduct may have a point, though they’re filling in the blanks with inferences derived from the agency’s conduct in other politically charged investigations into Trump and those in his orbit. The agency’s reliance on the Christopher Steele dossier as a predicate for opening an investigation into the former president and securing a FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) warrant against former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page should give any good government advocate pause before giving the agency the benefit of the doubt. The FBI’s decision not to prosecute or even execute a search of Hillary Clinton’s effects despite being under investigation for a similar mishandling of government documents lends credence to Republicans' suspicions.

A consuming persecution complex has always been a feature of Trump’s movement.

The proper response to the FBI’s precedent-setting search of a former president’s residence over an allegation that had not previously justified such extraordinary measures is not, however, to attack the legitimacy of America’s governing institutions — not without evidence justifying this equally extraordinary charge. It would be to demand investigations, depositions, even resignations depending on what is uncovered. These are the sorts of measures that can only be sought by other competing, equally legitimate federal institutions. Jealous stewards of that legitimacy would not fan the flames of popular resentment, which have the potential to fuel a mob.

A consuming persecution complex has always been a feature of Trump’s movement. “In reality, they’re not after me. They’re after you,” read a meme the then-president himself tweeted in 2019. “I’m just in the way.” If this is what you believe — that powerful yet unseen forces are at work, depriving you of your due — an unavoidable corollary is that it is necessary and just to fight fire with fire. It’s this mentality that is contributing to the right’s abandonment of one of the chief tenets of conservatism: the virtue of limited government.

The political incentives to defer to this principle no longer exist. Not when Trump is involved. Indicting the institutions that are routinely dragged into the business of litigating Trump’s indiscretions — the courts, Congress, political media, etc. — is easier than defending the man on the merits. Occasionally, Republicans’ reflexive mistrust of the president’s adversaries proves prescient. But some of Trump’s GOP defenders have recklessly blurred the distinctions between alleged institutional misconduct, which can be remedied by institutional mechanisms, and the illegitimacy of those very institutions and mechanisms.

Government, in the populist imagination, is an instrument. It will be wielded, if not by you, then against you. The ungainly leviathan only expands, and it cannot be tamed into submission. It can only be harnessed and directed. If you’re not riding atop it, you will be trampled beneath it. This Nietzschean dialectic has no higher principle attached to it. It’s pure will to power.

And it’s dangerous. The Republicans who have allowed themselves to give voice to their worst suspicions without evidence to support them are playing with fire. The average Americans who later regretted being swept up in a lizard-brained mob on Jan. 6 were convinced to act by reckless agitators who told them that this was a make-or-break moment for the republic.

What the FBI did at Mar-a-Lago was inflammatory, but we do not yet know if it was supported by probable cause. It would cost these Republicans nothing to await evidence that would substantiate their accusations against the FBI. Nothing, that is, but political relevance. We’re left with the conclusion that the pursuit of political relevance is of more value than notions like the preservation of institutional legitimacy and the keeping of the peace.

The public is mad, and that anger will be harnessed by someone. It might as well be me, the thinking goes. But the pursuit of fleeting political advantage at the expense of institutional legitimacy is as bad as the sacrifice of that legitimacy by those institutions’ stewards. If Republicans are right, and federal law enforcement is setting itself on fire amid a politically motivated temper tantrum, the facts are on their side.

Emphasizing those facts while preserving the legitimacy of the state is how political power works in this country. Breaking down the state for the sake of temporary, parochial political gain is a contest that cannot end in triumph. At most, the victor of that competition will rule over the rubble of the American experiment.