Sticklers for precise usage of the English language might hope that the House GOP’s newly anointed Select Committee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government is empowered to address the Washington national security establishment’s long and ugly history of destabilization of foreign governments at gunpoint. Indeed, the lead strategists behind the committee—the existence of which is one entry in the long list of concessions that the hard-right House Freedom Caucus wrested from Kevin McCarthy in exchange for halting its blockade on his speakership bid—have likened it to the landmark Church Committee hearings of the 1970s. Those sessions revealed a host of violent and illegal campaigns on the part of the US intelligence community to strike down democratic self-governance at home and abroad in the name of cracked Cold War realism.
But that analogy is woefully misguided—and not just because Congress endorsed massive increases to the already bloated US defense budget in its omnibus spending package at the end of the year. No, the sort of weaponization now under epic House review is purely metaphorical—referencing the bottomless sense of grievance that sends a shape-shifting narrative of victimization coursing through the right-wing mediasphere and political funding complex. The new committee’s real agenda is neatly distilled in the person of its designated leader—Ohio Representative Jim Jordan, who is also the new chair of the Judiciary Committee, thanks to still another deal cut with the procedurally obtuse yet reliably power-grasping McCarthy. Jordan was a major player in the run-up to the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol, as Trump and his legal advisers sought to strong-arm swing-state legislatures into disavowing the duly certified outcomes of the 2020 presidential balloting in their jurisdictions.
Jordan, like McCarthy himself, refused to honor subpoenas from the January 6 select committee to chronicle his coup support in detail—and now, thanks to the demented backward-spooling logic of legislative oversight on McCarthy’s watch, he’ll be issuing a raft of his own subpoenas seeking to lend the appearance of gravitas to right-wing campfire tales from the culture wars. The committee will probe the phantom mobilization of 87,000 IRS agents to harangue middle-class and working-class citizens—even though the last Congress’s budget hike for the chronically understaffed and underfunded agency stipulated that it was aimed chiefly at high-income tax evaders, and would mostly fight staff attrition in the IRS’s back-end operations, as opposed to unleashing a corps of Elliot Ness–style door-busting enforcement goons. The committee also plans to launch an inquiry into the fabricated claim that US Attorney General Merrick Garland instructed the Justice Department to treat parents embroiled in the (also phony) culture-war fracas over critical race theory as “domestic terrorists.” The docket will even include the Elon Musk–vetted “Twitter Files,” which sought to repackage content-moderation debates at the social-media platform as smoking-gun evidence of concerted censorship of right-wing speech. And needless to say, there will be a meta-investigation into the operations of the January 6 select committee as still more proof of the insatiable drive to victimize the virtuous patriots of the right just because they happened to be plotting to overthrow the government.
This all calls to mind the investigatory efforts of Kevin McCarthy’s long-dead namesake in the Senate: raging anti-communist demagogue Joe McCarthy. “McCarthy’s goal wasn’t to find where communist threats in the US may have been; it was primarily the same tool Republicans are using now,” says Princeton University historian Julian Zelizer. “The House Un-American Activities Committee was, like this one, itself a weaponized committee: The goal turned into using that platform to go and make allegations about Communist ties among Democratic and progressive circles. That’s a useful model to keep in mind as this committee’s work goes forward.” It’s also worth noting the enhanced media resources today’s committee enjoys, Zelizer adds: “I assume this is going to be on a much grander scale—it’s going to work within the context of a sophisticated and powerful conservative media that will echo and amplify all this.”
In all its efforts to make mountains out of rabbit holes, Jordan’s committee isn’t following the lead of the Church Committee so much as that of GOP maximum leader—and longtime Jordan fetish object—Donald Trump. Trump is the acknowledged master of minting mass grievance from the eternal suspicion that the culture’s dominant narrative is unfairly shifting away from him; that catechism is what lurks behind everything from Trump’s rote demonization of the “fake news” elites to his immigration horror stories to his delusional lies about the 2020 “stolen election.”
The clearest template for the committee’s agenda is probably Trump’s infamous 2019 call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky seeking to make US military aid conditional on Zelensky’s announcement of an investigation into the business dealings of Hunter Biden. Trump wasn’t interested in an actual probe of the Biden failson’s work for the Ukrainian energy giant Burisma; he just wanted an official declaration he could wave in front of a credulous Washington press corps to set the Republican base aflame once more. It had worked for the content-challenged “but her e-mails” coverage that the establishment press produced on virtual demand throughout the 2016 presidential cycle, and Trump was determined to use the powers of the presidency to lock the same playbook into gear at the earliest opportunity for his reelection campaign. That the American right is still convulsed with lurid Hunter Biden speculation four years later, after Trump’s own impeachment over the Zelensky call, shows the intractable nature of the conservative movement’s rage to harness any convenient victimization narrative to all available news cycles.
This playbook was hiding in plain sight during the 2022 midterm campaign, in McCarthy’s “Commitment to America” platform for GOP congressional hopefuls. That statement “now stands as the official agenda of the Republican house majority,” says Geoffrey Kabaservice, vice president of political studies for the Niskanen Center. “And it’s full of lies. It’s lying about the Justice Department calling parents domestic terrorists; it’s lying about Congress having hired 87,000 IRS agents to audit the working class and the middle class. It’s lie upon lie upon lie.”
Such lies continue gaining traction and driving political debate because the mainstream press is ill equipped to call them out forcefully. “A lot of our ideals, including press objectivity, worthy though they may be, they rest on a set of assumptions we take for granted,” says Columbia University sociologist Michael Schudson, author of several books about decision-making in the news industry. “You take it for granted that Democrats and Republicans actually believe in democracy. But that’s something you can’t take for granted now. Do you still quote them legitimately?” Reticence in such key matters makes for a disorienting experience for most news consumers, he notes: “When I read The New York Times, it’s often the case that, by the time you’re in the second paragraph, the thing they’re talking about, they have language discrediting it: So and so said this, but there’s not a grain of truth in it. … Yes, they still report that this new committee exists, and it’s the same people who brought you the Benghazi hearings and whatever else. But they could say it more directly.”
To grasp the scale of this challenge, one just has to toggle over to the coverage of the news that Biden’s cache of vice presidential papers contained some classified material that Biden says he wasn’t aware of. The press has clamored to revive the “but her e-mails” template in stunningly short order, even though the scale of the Biden revelation is wildly incommensurate with Trump’s decision to sequester box upon box of classified papers in his Mar-a-Lago estate. You can bet that this is exactly the kind of uncritical shiny-object hunt that Jim Jordan and his subpoena-happy colleagues will be looking to weaponize in the two years ahead.