Shortly before the 2016 election, Mike Pence tweeted that "@realDonaldTrump and I commend the FBI for reopening an investigation into (Hillary) Clinton's personal server because no one is above the law." And who can forget the GOP crowds chanting "lock her up" in regard to Clinton—a sentiment Trump supported?
I had no problem with the email investigation provided a judge had authorized it and it conformed to legal standards. Truly, no one—not even a potential or actual president—should be above the law. However, the "lock her up" mantra, which pro-Trump crowds directed at other Democrats including Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, gave me the creeps.
In banana republics, the new despot tries to lock up the old strongman and rounds up his vanquished supporters. Even accounting for emotions that politicians drum up at rallies, that line was appalling. Americans should never cheer the idea of turning federal law enforcement—whatever its many current flaws and abuses—into a version of the Praetorian Guard.
Last week's big news is the FBI had executed a search warrant at Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate, as it conducts an investigation into the alleged mishandling of classified documents. The former president and his minions have been all over the media describing the investigation as a political witch-hunt—a concept that, apparently, they no longer find to be entertaining.
"My beautiful home, Mar-A-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, is currently under siege, raided, and occupied by a large group of FBI agents," the former president said in a statement. Some of his most-agitated supporters are openly calling for civil war. They are blasting the FBI's "tyranny." Suddenly, people who seemed eager to sic federal agents on their political opponents are aghast that the FBI would conduct an investigation of one of their own.
Some conservative rhetoric would be laughable if it weren't so dangerous. One popular podcaster, Steven Crowder, warned liberals: "(Y)ou think they're not gonna come for you?" He didn't seem concerned about turning the U.S. into a third-world hellhole: "I don't care if we become Nicaragua at this point. You've already rung the bell, you can't un-ring it."
But the strangest response, from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R–Ga.) was to "defund the FBI." The anti-Trump conservative website, The Bulwark, collected assorted tweets and statements from prominent Republican members of Congress and commentators who had savaged leftists for their "defund the police" rhetoric during anti-police-abuse protests—but who now are echoing Greene's ideas.
"Man Shot in Downtown Memphis Just Off Beale Street. This is What Happens When You Elect 'Defund the Police' Democrats," tweeted conservative columnist Todd Starnes in June. This week he had a somewhat different hot take: "The FBI has been weaponized. Defund and Dismantle."
Fox News' Dan Bognino called for widespread firings and accountability at the bureau: "I don't buy this rank and file crap either. Throw it right in the garbage. I don't buy it one bit. I was a Secret Service agent, and I was the rank-and-file. Me. And you know what? I saw something I didn't like, and I left." At this point, I should start cheering. Conservatives finally are echoing points that my fellow criminal-justice reformers have long made.
Police agencies absolutely need reform. Police unions protect bad actors. District attorneys rarely prosecute those officers even for egregious conduct. Fired cops simply get jobs at other agencies. The "thin blue line" mentality prods officers to follow orders rather than hold misbehaving colleagues accountable—as evidenced by the failure of Derek Chauvin's three colleagues to intervene during George Floyd's death.
Instead of walking away when their agencies carry out unconstitutional raids or abuse the power of asset forfeiture to confiscate property, police typically go along without complaint. But instead of proposing serious reforms, some progressives trotted out their "defund the police" mantra, which allowed conservatives to easily depict them as advocates for lawlessness.
It was one of the dumbest political mantras I've ever heard, but it was based very loosely on a sound idea. Why shouldn't Americans use the public purse strings to force police departments to improve their operations? When government agencies abuse our constitutional rights, they will do so even more zealously if we give them more money. Ditto for federal police agencies.
Now, suddenly, the Right seems to believe progressives were right—it only took the FBI to target their beloved ex-president to open their eyes. It remains to be seen whether the raid on Trump's estate is an abuse of power, but the FBI has a history of misusing authority. (So does the IRS, which is poised to receive a huge cash infusion.)
Frankly, it's hard to believe conservatives who wanted to lock up their political opponents and opposed police-accountability measures are acting out of principle rather than partisanship. Their opponents on the Left are no better, but perhaps this could be a teachable moment for everyone.
This column was first published in The Orange County Register.