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The conspiracy congress

Feb 09,2023 - Last updated at Feb 09,2023

ATLANTA — Voltaire famously warned that anyone who can make people believe absurdities can make them commit atrocities. Two and a half centuries later, an insurrection at the US Capitol by those who believed Donald Trump’s lies confirmed Voltaire’s point. And now, the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives is doing everything it can to “flood the zone” with even more absurdities.

Exhibit A is the new House “Select Subcommittee on the Weaponisation of the Federal Government”, which supposedly will show how the Democratic Party has used federal agencies to persecute Republicans and their supporters. Trump has long peddled such allegations, and now Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, the new subcommittee’s chair, will create a spectacle of “investigating” law-enforcement and intelligence agencies.

Among other things, Jordan claims that the FBI’s investigation into death threats directed at local school board members was really a veiled attempt to crush parents’ right to freedom of speech. Though this charge has been thoroughly debunked, we can fully expect the subcommittee to revive all the old theories, still considered to be sacred truths among a shocking number of Republican voters, about “deep state” conspiracies against Trump.

True, in a constitutional system based on the separation of powers, congressional investigations are crucial to effective oversight of the executive branch. Yet, many Republicans today admit that good governance isn’t really their goal. Still harbouring resentments over the many investigations into Trump’s Russia ties, the two impeachment proceedings against him, and the January 6 Committee’s damning report, GOP House leaders have made clear that they want revenge.

Jordan will also direct his ire at the Department of Justice and the intelligence community, picking up where the Trump administration left off. In October 2020 (just before Trump lost his reelection bid), Attorney General Bill Barr appointed US Attorney John Durham as a special prosecutor to ferret out supposed CIA and FBI conspiracies against Trump. Three years and $6.5 million later, all Durham has to show for his efforts is a single legal transgression by an FBI lawyer (who has been sentenced to probation and community service).

Undeterred, and with no obligation to prove anything in a court of law, House Republicans have vowed to expand the quest. Yet beyond producing televised theatrics and sound bites with which to raise funds from the party faithful, it is unclear what they want to achieve.

One guess is that they are hoping merely to distract from more bad news that is coming Trump’s way. After all, Jack Smith, a special counsel appointed by the current attorney general, is investigating Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election. And Fani Willis, the district attorney for Fulton County, Georgia, will decide soon whether to indict Trump for pressuring state election officials to “find” more votes for him in 2020.

Unfortunately, congressional Republicans’ “investigations” will come at a price for the country. Even bogus accusations are likely to undermine public trust in federal law-enforcement and intelligence agencies. Public support for the FBI and the CIA fell precipitously during Trump’s single term (especially among Republicans), and Trump has continued to attack the intelligence community for disclosing how Russia interfered on his behalf in 2016.

While popular support for the FBI rebounded last year among Democrats, it has not budged among Republicans. Partisan differences over the FBI are now greater than for any other federal agency. This kind of polarisation has dangerous implications for domestic security. Like all law-enforcement organisations, the FBI depends on public cooperation to carry out its work. Reviving discredited accusations and mythical plots about FBI machinations will not help the agency perform its proper function. Worse, it will galvanise America’s violent right-wing fringe.

Perhaps that is the point. By depicting the FBI as the enemy, House Republicans will divert attention from the growing problem of domestic extremism. According to the Homeland Security Department, the FBI, and a three-year Senate study, white nationalists and other far-right groups now constitute the country’s top terrorist threat.

These groups are increasingly synonymous with the Republican base. From QAnon believers to militia groups such as the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, Trump’s outreach to the far right has drawn the radical fringe fully into the GOP fold. While Republican leaders still offer pro forma condemnations of white supremacy, anti-Semitism and political violence, they have remained loyal to the man who invited these elements into the party. Republican leaders’ tepid criticism of Trump’s November dinner with the white supremacist Nick Fuentes was a case in point.

Testifying before the January 6 Committee last year, Rachel Kleinfeld of the Carnegie Endowment detailed how the Republican Party’s conspiracy theorizing and courting of the far right endangers American democracy. Her research shows that annual threats against members of Congress rose tenfold (to 9,600) between 2016 and 2021. In the 11 weeks between Election Day in 2020 and Biden’s January 2021 inauguration, the number of armed protesters at political demonstrations grew 47 per cent compared to the 11 previous weeks.

The rise in political violence is not confined to Washington, DC. According to Kleinfeld, armed protests at state legislatures rose by nearly 20 per cent between 2020 and 2021, and participation by paramilitary groups grew by 96 per cent. “Stop the Steal” protests are more than four times likelier than other demonstrations to feature armed actors or unlawful paramilitary militias. This nationwide response from right-wing extremists to bogus election-fraud claims speaks for itself.

It remains to be seen how far House Republicans will go. They would do well to reflect on the fate of one of their predecessors 70 years ago. In 1954, the Senate censured Republican senator Joseph McCarthy, the chair of its Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, for his groundless accusations, character assassinations, and baseless claims of communist infiltration throughout the government.

The Republican-controlled House seems prepared to re-enact that history. Sadly, America’s democracy and national security will suffer for it.


Kent Harrington, a former senior CIA analyst, served as national intelligence officer for East Asia, chief of station in Asia, and the CIA’s director of public affairs. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023.

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