Though much about the administration of Donald Trump was hard to pin down, there was one ironclad rule of his presidency. If you happened to be a public official, a man or woman with some reputation to safeguard, and you put that reputation on the line defending or otherwise giving Trump the benefit of the doubt, it would end in one of two things happening, and often both. One, time would reveal your complicity in some awful crime that endangered your mortal soul. And two, you would eventually be made to look a fool.
This happened with remarkable consistency, but memories are short and elected officials hate learning lessons as much as anybody. So on Monday, when the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago, Texas Republicans from the fringes of the party to the governor lined up in near-unanimous anger. No matter that the Department of Justice had brought to a judge evidence that Trump had been stashing classified documents at his resort and golf course, or that the judge saw the evidence and agreed to a search warrant. The FBI search was an abuse of power, Senator Ted Cruz tweeted; Biden was a new Richard Nixon, according to Governor Greg Abbott, who wrote that “never before has the country seen an Administration go to such extent to use the levers of government to target a former President and political rival.” State representative Bryan Slaton from Royse City, a member of the right fringe, raged that “we are at war with the Left. Watergate pales in comparison,” before saying, preposterously, that “Texas should immediately expel all FBI employees from our state until this madness ends.”
The end of the Republic was nigh; as the state GOP itself put it on social media, “Biden has crossed the Rubicon. If there was any doubt remaining, we are now living in a post constitutional America where the Justice Department has been weaponized against political threats to the regime, as it would in a banana republic. It won’t stop with Trump. You are next.” When Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon river with his army in 49 BC, it marked a key moment in the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the Empire, with Caesar becoming tyrant. The meaning of the Texas GOP’s analogy was clear: the American republic is dying, Biden is a tyrant, and force may be necessary to defend it. The official statements mirrored the anger of many on the far right, who were promising and warning of violence, as this thread demonstrates.
That was on Monday. On Thursday, just 72 hours later, came the moral culpability and the humiliation. A man in Ohio, previously charged for his activities at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, attacked an FBI office with an AR-15. He attempted to blast his way through bulletproof glass with a nail gun. Only that abject stupidity kept agents from getting killed, but experts have warned about the likelihood of political violence and of others making similar attempts.
That same day, the Washington Post reported that the FBI had been hunting for “nuclear secrets” it believed had been improperly taken from the White House—and that among the fifteen boxes of documents the FBI seized was material originating with intelligence agencies. The voices of Republican elected officials fell silent. But the damage had been done.
The responses from state leaders to the search were particularly clarifying for one reason in particular: in condemning the warrant, not one major elected Republican official in Texas expressed the slightest bit of interest in whether the former president had committed a crime. Leaders objected not to accusations made against Trump that may have led to the search—about which they had no information—but to the fact that a former president of their party was the subject of an investigation at all. The truth of the matter was irrelevant.
Take Abbott’s accusation that Biden is “next-level Nixonian.” It’s true that the specter of Nixon, an authoritarian populist who used unethical and illegal methods to try to cling to power before being granted immunity from prosecution by his successor, hangs over American politics right now—just not in the way Abbott thinks. (The former president’s actions on January 6 exceed anything that Nixon could have imagined in his most fevered, drunken state.)
One of Nixon’s most famous propositions is that “when the president does it, it is not illegal.” The idea that the president should not be subject to other people’s petty laws struck a lot of Americans as horrific back then, but Nixon was giving voice to a real and influential legal theory about executive power that is still pervasive today. And it is those who wish to extend the unwritten, not-in-the-Constitution privilege of legal immunity to a former president who most embody Nixon’s arrogance and authoritarian tendencies. The principle that Trump is accountable to legal inquiries like any other citizen is evidence of the health of the republic, not its sickness.
Or take Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s reaction, which was relatively muted in comparison with most of his peers and came late, on Wednesday, raising the eyebrows of some on the right. But he, like many others, offered the observation that “if Democrats will weaponize DOJ, FBI, IRS against a former President, they will think nothing of weaponizing them against the American people.” This framing posits that if the government can oppress the mighty Donald Trump, no one is safe. The problem, of course, is that “former president” is not a distinct and separate identity from “the American people.” Trump is not higher than you or I in a hierarchy. He is—and it really kind of boggles the mind that this needs to be said, doesn’t it?—subject to the same laws that we are subject to. Having lived in the White House does not give someone carte blanche to commit felonies or to be protected from investigation.
What about Texas Republicans who don’t support Trump? State representative Jeff Leach of Plano, who recently said he wanted a Republican other than Trump on the presidential ballot in 2024, refrained from language that seemed to call for violence. But he asked: “Would Clinton do this to Bush? Bush to Clinton? Obama to Bush? Or Trump to Obama? No.” The search, he said, ran “roughshod over our constitution.”
Republicans may hate pronouns these days, but the “this” in Leach’s tweet is doing a heroic amount of work. Dubya’s FBI never went looking for classified documents in Bill Clinton’s home because Clinton was never the subject of a search warrant as part of an ongoing investigation. For Leach to ask why the FBI didn’t do “this” is to say that the truth or falsity of the allegations against Trump are unimportant.
A lot has changed in American politics since the days of the George H.W. Bush that Leach seems to long for—and indeed very little for the better. In 1995, after his presidency, H. W. wrote an open letter to the National Rifle Association. The organization had taken to calling federal law enforcement agents “jack-booted thugs,” a pretty mild piece of rhetoric by today’s standards, but one that Bush felt was an unconscionable slur on FBI agents and others that he had come to know in public life. So he renounced his membership. Even more recently, the right praised FBI agents as foot soldiers in the war on terror.
Matt Rinaldi, the chair of the Texas GOP, called on Monday for the nation to “abolish the FBI.” For today’s Republicans to be comparing the FBI to totalitarian secret police, while right-wingers on social media openly call for violence against government agents, is a little vertigo-inducing.
All the while, as elected officials in Texas railed against the FBI as an arm of the Democratic party, in the online forums where the former president’s most passionate supporters gathered, the reaction to the search at Mar-a-Lago was clear: it meant violence. “Civil war is imminent,” said one user on Telegram, as reported by right-wing watcher Ben Collins. “Lock and load,” read a top-ranked comment on TheDonald, a pro-Trump message board. “They will cry out in authentic pain soon,” said another, meaning federal agents.
Most are paper tigers, who’ll never do anything besides post. But it takes only one to do something more consequential. America has a well-established tradition of bringing lethal violence to bear in political disputes, one that has shown itself frequently in the past few years, from the 2017 shooting at the congressional baseball game to the man who sent pipe bombs to George Soros and Democratic politicians in the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections. And we have a recent history, too, of right-wingers targeting federal agents and employees.
It fits a pattern we’ve seen too many times before, notably with the 2019 El Paso massacre, when a white supremacist from the Dallas suburbs murdered 23 people. Elected officials echo and amplify the most dangerous rhetoric coming from the fringe—in El Paso, the shooter’s fear of the “great replacement” mirrored language Abbott and Patrick used—and deranged individuals take those claims to their logical conclusion. We’re watching it happen again. And Texas Republicans can’t seem to help themselves.