Donald Trump, like many of us, likes to use holidays as an excuse to become more exuberant and expressive. On Christmas Eve, the former president wrote a Truth Social post airing his year-end grievances. Even by Trumpian standards, the statement was extravagantly baroque in its bile: “Merry Christmas to EVERYONE, including the Radical Left Marxists that are trying to destroy our Country, the Federal Bureau of Instigation [sic] that is illegally coercing and paying Social and LameStream media to push for a mentally disabled Democrat over the Brilliant, Clairvoyant and USA LOVING Donald J Trump, and, of course, the Department of Injustice, which appointed a Special ‘Prosecutor’ who, together with his wife and family, HATES ‘Trump’ more than any other person on Earth. LOVE TO ALL!’”
Despite the splenetic prose, there’s no surprise in seeing Trump use a Christmas message to take jabs at supposed Marxists, the media, Joe Biden, or even the Department of Justice (in its incarnation as an investigator of the former president). These are familiar targets for not just Trump but almost any garden-variety Republican. What’s more eyebrow-raising is that the FBI has joined Trump’s Christmas “naughty” list. Trump’s feud with the FBI started early in his presidency with his quarrel with FBI director James Comey, which led to Comey’s firing. But these conflicts have only intensified since the Bureau’s raid on Trump’s residence at Mar-a-Lago earlier this summer.
As a result, anti-FBI rhetoric has become the norm not just with Trump but also among the broader right. As The New York Times reports, the Republican Party is increasingly talking about the FBI as a foe. Pundit Dinesh D’Souza, an impudent scofflaw since receiving a presidential pardon from Trump for a 2014 conviction for campaign finance violations, tweeted, “The FBI is the largest criminal gang in the country.” He added, “It’s America’s version of the KGB or the Chinese state police.” Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene is selling baseball hats that read “Defund the FBI.” This bit of merchandizing puts Greene in competition with former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka, who is selling T-shirts offering the message that FBI stands for “Fascist Bureau of Intimidation.”
The incoming Republican Congress plans to scrutinize the FBI’s investigations into Trump and the January 6 attack on the Capitol. The pretext for the congressional probe is an open letter from former FBI agents who call themselves “The Suspendables” that alleges a widespread anti-conservative bias in the agency. According to The New York Times: “Representative Jim Jordan, the Ohio Republican who will be the Judiciary Committee’s chairman next month, has pledged to investigate what he describes as the politicization of the FBI as well as that of the Justice Department. In a taste of what is to come, the committee’s Republican staff released a 1,000-page report last month that asserted that the FBI hierarchy ‘spied on President Trump’s campaign and ridiculed conservative Americans’ and that the ‘rot within the FBI festers in and proceeds from Washington.’”
As the Times notes, the new anti-FBI sentiment on the right is a reversal of long-standing partisan patterns: “Historically, the FBI’s most vocal critics have come from figures on the left, who have accused it of using heavy-handed tactics in investigating groups like trade unionists or civil rights activists. Conservatives and Republicans have, at least by tradition, supported the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies.”
This account needs to be qualified somewhat: Many on the left, particularly radicals, have distrusted the FBI since at least the late 1940s. But some liberal politicians, such as John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, have also been willing to use the Bureau for dubious ends. The COINTELPRO program, which notoriously used illegal methods to harass civil rights and anti-war activists, flourished under JFK and LBJ as well as under Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon.
And while it’s true that the Trump era has seen a new surge of right-wing anti-FBI sentiment, there are some important precedents for reactionary opposition to federal law enforcement, most notably anger over the 1990s investigations of anti-government militias and white supremacists.
Still, it’s broadly true to say that there has been a Trump-inspired partisan flip-flop on the FBI. Despite its history as one of the most conservative institutions in America, the FBI currently enjoys more support from Democrats than from Republicans. As Trump has made himself the avatar of anti-establishment politics, the supposed foe of the Deep State, Democrats have recast themselves as the institutionalist party. Partly in hopes of gaining support from defecting Republicans aghast at Trump’s lawlessness, Democrats emphasize how they are the party of norms and respect for authority.
This partisan switch reflects badly on both parties. On the GOP side, there’s no real love of civil liberties at play. The Republicans who now distrust the FBI for its treatment of Trump haven’t shown any concern for much more flagrant civil rights violations, notably the agency’s targeting of Muslim Americans. Conversely, in their single-minded focus on Trump, Democrats are ignoring the dangers of treating the FBI as an agency deserving automatic trust and deference. Aside from the abuses of the COINTELPRO era, more recent history shows the FBI is hardly the friend of Democrats—let alone the activist left. After all, it was James Comey’s last-minute intervention in the 2016 election that assured Trump’s victory. But now that Comey has been recast as a hero of the anti-Trump Resistance, that history has been conveniently forgotten.
As my colleague Ross Barkan recently noted in The Nation, the mainstream media has been strangely blasé about the revelations of recently released documents from Twitter (presented by the new management of the company as the “Twitter Files”). These documents show that “both the Biden campaign and the Trump administration took aggressive steps to control the flow of information, as did the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, which have behaved similarly under both presidents.”
The downplaying of the Twitter Files is very much part of a broader pattern whereby stories about institutional wrongdoing are evaluated within a narrow framework of whether they help or hurt Trump. As opinion about the FBI is now polarized, there’s a danger that the same standard will be applied to questions of FBI wrongdoing. Just because Trumpists fanatics hate the FBI for stupid reasons is no reason for anyone else to think better of the agency. In this case, the enemy of my enemy is still the same old FBI.