When Reactionaries Fight Alphabet Boys
For socialists, FBI vs MAGA looks like an Iran-Iraq War, as those that work forces face hostility from those that burn crosses. But if MAGA doesn't actually start shooting, history suggests a detente.
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Written by Spencer Ackerman for Forever Wars
Edited by Sam Thielman
MAGA IS TURNING on the FBI after the Mar-a-Lago "raid." (Though is it really a raid if cops don't throw flash bangs that maim your children? Or if they don't shoot your dog?) Most seriously, Ricky Shiffer, who claimed to have been a January 6 insurrectionist, sought Valhalla at the FBI field office in Cincinnati, where he ended up committing suicide by cop.
"Violence is not (all) terrorism," Schiffer posted to Truth Social, really neatly summing up a post-9/11 perspective on the right documented in REIGN OF TERROR. FBI and DHS believe law enforcement should expect an "unprecedented" increase in "threats and acts of violence" from the right, according to a joint intelligence bulletin published internally. Marjorie Taylor Greene has started selling Defund The FBI merch.
The House GOP leadership doesn't quite want that smoke. Instead it vows to subpoena Merrick Garland upon its return to the majority. Significantly, MAGA's Jim Jordan, who will likely be the chairman of the Judiciary Committee in a Republican House, is talking about politicization of the FBI, rather than abolition. That's what we call a "clue." MAGA prefers suborning law enforcement to dismantling it, and they might be able to, provided they can find it within themselves to not shoot FBI agents.
For a socialist, this can feel like the Iran-Iraq war, as a repressive state apparatus comes under siege from its far-right cousins. I think it's foolish to make predictions, but here are some observations. Remember that the most salient facts about the actual Iran-Iraq War were that hundreds of thousands of people died; both wartime regimes survived; and Saddam Hussein used it to commit a genocide. This isn't a michael-jackson-eating-popcorn-dot-gif situation.
WHEN MAGA DOESN'T BACK THE BLUE, the spectacle occasions media disbelief and confusion. It really, really shouldn't. Cast your mind back all the way to… January 6, 2021, when insurrectionist MAGA forces famously fought it out—in some cases but hardly all, as is important—with Capitol Police. As I wrote at the time:
The people who drape themselves in Blue Lives Matter flags have no experience of being policed. So they forgot the first rule of Cop Club, which is that what the police demand above all is that you obey. But MAGA is itself a politics of domination: you are to obey it. And so MAGA finds itself at something of an impasse with its closest, most essential allies.
Roughly speaking, and current nationalist rhetoric aside, both sides prefer not to fight one another. Who could forget the epic line from a confused insurrectionist, witnessed by reporter Andrew McCormick: "They’re shooting at us. They’re supposed to shoot BLM, but they’re shooting the patriots." In an absolute shocker you could never have predicted, the president of the Chicago police union defended the insurrection as not-crime a single day later. Last week, a Virginia cop got 7 years for participation in the insurrection. Not long before that, we learned a Long Island cop illegally bought guns for someone in a would-be death squad called Rapekrieg.
The cop/MAGA dynamic looms large in a forthcoming book by New Yorker reporter Luke Mogelson, The Storm Is Here: An American Crucible. Mogelson was in the Capitol on January 6, and his eyewitness narrative is riveting. At one point, a young, red-bearded Capitol Police officer asks an insurrectionist who calls himself Mister Black and is bleeding from the face if he needs medical attention ("you good, sir?") before asking, "Any chance I could get you guys to leave the Senate wing?" Someone Mogelson describes as a skinny man in dark clothes tells the officer, "This is so weird—like, you should be stopping us." Outside on the Capitol grounds, Mogelson describes the insurrectionists seeking to overpower any cop that stood in their way while showing kindness to those who didn't or who tapped out from exhaustion. The passages reminded me of training a dog.
You could and should go back even further, to Kathleen Belew's Bring The War Home, which contextualizes the post-Civil Rights Act nativist turn against federal law enforcement. In Belew’s narrative, as now, that turn is a function of the motivating belief that after 1965, America stopped properly having a white man's government. The inherent illegitimacy of a government that does not enforce a white-dominated social order (I know, lol) spreads to its agents. This is where you get secessionist law enforcement theories like the Constitutional Sheriff, whereby a sheriff gets to nullify federal and even state dictates if they conflict with his duty to inflict terror and dispossession upon nonwhites. Readers of REIGN OF TERROR may remember how white revolutionary patriarch Robert "Grandpa" Millar stockpiled for a war with the feds while boasting of being on good terms with the local sheriff.
The FBI doesn't want to be here, either. You'll recall the contortions it has gone through, very recently, to portray an equivalence between black political violence and white supremacist terrorism. The overwhelming majority of FBI officials are white, and quite a few of them, per people encountering them first hand, are Trumpy. After MAGA vented its fury at the FBI (remember, "kill the FBI on sight" was Shiffer's instruction), an ICE official named Larry Cosme, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, tried to speak in terms MAGA understands. He told the Washington Post that the "rank and file" federal law enforcement "cherish the Constitution like the average American." Brian O'Hare, the president of the FBI Agents Association, reminded, "FBI Special Agents are dedicated members of the law enforcement community who put their lives on the line every day to protect the public from criminals and terrorists." We're not so different, you and I…
THE HISTORY OF THE FBI tells two related stories. First is that the primary function of the FBI, going back over a century, is to attend to designated internal enemies—Tim Weiner literally titled his FBI history Enemies. The second story is that the enemies are nonwhite and/or left-wing, reflecting the social order we discussed earlier. For the unfamiliar or the skeptical, I would strongly recommend Book II of the 1975 Church Committee report, and specifically its discussion of COINTELPRO. Any list of the most powerful racists in American history is incomplete without the name of J. Edgar Hoover, which still adorns FBI headquarters.
The past 20 years show that this is not ancient history. Armed after 9/11 with expansive surveillance powers and relaxed probable-cause restrictions, the bureau systematically violated and constrained the civil rights of American Muslims. They placed informants in mosques, they kept neighborhood maps of businesses and community centers without the slightest connection to crime, they engaged in surveillance under the guise of government outreach. Implementing the sweeping authorities granted to the FBI after 9/11 resulted in surveillance violations that stretched far beyond the Muslim communities targeted. Agents and informants of the FBI and its three-letter colleagues, a 2014 study found, often scored high-profile terrorism busts often by compelling angry young men online to take material steps into a world of violence. They accepted, including within their academy and on their intranet, apocalyptic and ignorant depictions of Muslims and Islam, including a perspective that normal Muslims rather than al-Qaeda were the real national security threat the U.S. faced. Terry Albury, a former FBI special agent, experienced a crisis of conscience about his role "help[ing] destroy people."
You'll remember this was all stuff MAGA's antecedents cheered on. While there have been committed civil libertarians on the post-9/11 right, they were marginal, much as the Democratic Party's civil libertarians have been. Among the cohort on the congressional right that embraced Trump early and eagerly, there was enthusiasm for persecuting Muslims and their communities. Legislators who prefigured and then embraced Trump held a long grudge against Robert Mueller, whom they considered to have betrayed the FBI's Muslim-persecution mission when, during the Obama administration, the White House made the FBI purge the Islamophobic counterterrorism training material once I exposed it.
It's true that the FBI under Hoover mobilized against the Third Klu Klux Klan in the 1960s. It's also true that OPERATION WHITE HATE was a small sliver of COINTELPRO, the political exception rather than the rule, and enabled entirely because of the rest of COINTELPRO had taught the FBI how to infiltrate, confuse, marginalize, blackmail, harass, entrap, coerce and imprison nonwhite and left-wing movements and their members. The Church Commission noted that WHITE HATE “used comparatively few techniques which carried a risk of serious physical, emotional, or economic damage to the targets,” while FBI operations aimed at black organizations and communities "used such techniques extensively."
MAGA, in short, is not mad at the FBI for pulling this type of shit. It's mad at the FBI for losing the plot about who this type of shit is supposed to get pulled against. And it has ways of redressing it, if it doesn't fuck everything up by shooting.
THE GEORGIA CONGRESSMAN BARRY LOUDERMILK—A+ name—vented his Mar-a-Lago frustration to the Epoch Times this weekend. FBI "overreach," he said, was symptomatic of a broader executive overreach—which I agree with, though not for the reasons that Loudermilk contends. Then he got practical. "I think every single committee has to do a deep dive into every area of their jurisdiction, and we have to weed out the corruption," he said. “Because a lot of these agencies[,] they exist to increase … their power, their scope. They’re not there to support the American people. And they don’t feel that they’re accountable.” Loudermilk did not respond to a request for comment as to whether he would support or propose any legislation to defund the bureau.
Much like his colleague Jim Jordan, Loudermilk is not speaking the language of abolition. He's speaking the language of purge.
MAGA is not a movement interested in decontrol. It's a movement interested in wielding state power, particularly the elements that tread on people. One of the things we learned from the recent New Yorker piece about Gen. Mark Milley—aside from the fact that he wants credit for almost resigning!—is that on January 6, the White House wanted to know who at the just-purged Pentagon was willing to carry out its orders. That was the lesson of Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf, the lesson of Acting Director of National Intelligence Ric Grenell and Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, the lesson of putting Michael Ellis at the NSA in the final days of the administration. Trump thought it would be the result of replacing Jim Comey with Chris Wray at the FBI. What these guys want is a Security State that will reliably pursue their agenda and harass their opponents. You know, a Deep State.
We saw from the Trump administration that everyday subornments are more common than outright purges. After about two decades of observing FBI officials interact with Congress, I feel comfortable saying that the bureau fears conservative condemnation vastly more than it fears the ire of congressional liberals, for all the structural reasons discussed above. (As well as the instinct among senior Democrats to simp for the FBI.) I'm not making any forecasts for success, but the nationalists encounter fairly favorable structural conditions within the Security State, particularly when GOP congressmembers have gavels and subpoena power, for installing and promoting loyalists. That was the lesson of the border patrol union backing Trump, whom they saw as liberating them from the liberals to carry out their mission of persecution, and accordingly sending the tactical guys from Customs & Border Protection to Portland to brutalize nonwhite, left-wing protesters.
The thing I suspect can fuck this all up for MAGA is what they're doing: calling for violence against the FBI. Trump seems to be doing a nice-bureau-you-got-here shakedown in the guise of pleading for calm. Threatening the lives of bureau agents is the likeliest path I can think of to a concerted FBI mobilization against at least some elements of MAGA. If they shoot at an agent, cop mode will activate, and the result will be more dead Ricky Shiffers. Even short of that, Proud Boys president Enrique Tarrio—Mogelson's book raises questions as to whether he was more of a figurehead—was an informant. Cosplay revolutionaries may quickly find out, as have several January 6 figures, that they are not in fact built for this.
All that said, I was surprised that my friend Mike German was less confident about violence against the FBI prompting a crackdown. Mike is someone to take seriously, a former FBI special agent whose work against white supremacists in the 1990s preceded his relentless post-9/11 criticism of the bureau as a force of repression.
"Going from the number of federal law enforcement officers and police officers injured on January 6, there wasn't a sharp change in attitudes among law enforcement" regarding MAGA, Mike noted. "It was easier to weave conspiracy theories that it was antifascists; or [mere] pushing and shoving; or that the rioters had no weapons, which of course was false." When I asked Mike if violence against the FBI would represent a tipping point, he replied, "I think it would depend on the scale."
Mike pointed to recent FBI history that he lived through. "This isn't very much different from the period in the early '90s, after Ruby Ridge and Waco, where the militant far right was targeting federal law enforcement," he recalled. "Even with an attack as deadly as the Oklahoma City bombing—which was then the most deadly attack on U.S. soil—the immediate policy action from federal law enforcement was to expand the laws against foreign terrorists. I'm not really sure it resulted in—certainly, there was not a broad crackdown on far right violence."