Remember the Patriot Act? It still exists, and law enforcement is still widely abusing it. A key part of this authority was set to expire at the end of the year, providing an opportunity to curtail or abolish it. Yet despite the 2018 “blue wave” election that came with a promise to stop the worst of Trump’s abuses, the Democratic-led House of Representatives just quietly voted to extend it, with no reforms.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. As an experiment, do a quick Twitter search to find users who proudly label themselves as part of the #Resistance but also invoke another hashtag: #ILoveTheFBI. You’ll find quite a few examples. It’s a bizarre phenomenon of the Trump era—with an unpopular president whose unhinged rants frequently include screeds against “the Deep State,” confidence in the national security apparatus is soaring by contrast. But while blind allegiance to these institutions might find some success in scoring points against Trump, it only enables Trumpism more broadly.
On one level, this trend is understandable, particularly among newly-activated voters reeling from the 2016 election and grasping for a return to perceived normalcy. Donald Trump frequently peddles conspiracy theories and attacks, including claims that he was a victim of illegal surveillance, that there’s a partisan conspiracy against him at the FBI, that investigations into his misdeeds are “witch hunts,” something about “unmasking,” warrants, and Carter Page…the list is seemingly endless.
This is all counterfactual and quite silly, of course. But the opposing response has been worrisome, too. Figures like former FBI directors James Comey and Robert Mueller have been elevated to hero status (including, inexplicably, a children’s book featuring Mueller in a Chippendale outfit). Former CIA directors John Brennan and Michael Hayden fill the airwaves of ostensibly “liberal” cable news programming. Bill Maher led an applause tribute to the FBI and CIA on his show. Celebrities implore fans to “cherish” the CIA. At various points, military leaders in the administration like John Kelly or Jim Mattis have been relied upon as the “adults in the room” to save us from the worst of Trump’s impulses.
But here’s the problem: the creeping authoritarianism, lawlessness, and human rights disasters exemplified so clearly by Trump have long existed in the U.S. government, mostly in the shadowy crevices of the national security state that’s now being lionized. The FBI and CIA will not save us from Trump. They helped give us Trump.
It’s a form of privilege to think that things were okay in the pre-Trump era, or at least okay enough that we should return there as soon as possible as a first step to fixing this mess. But merely turning back the clock isn’t going to cut it. As abuses in the name of national security disproportionately impact racial and religious minorities, communities under attack at home and around the world have long been well aware of the dangers that come when we fail to critique or limit the power of the security state.
It wasn’t so long ago that federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies colluded to operate a covert torture program that was illegal, brutal, and—not that it matters—completely ineffective. They lied to the administration, Congress, and the American people and are still fighting to keep the totality of their crimes under cover (by the way, don’t miss the new film The Report to get caught up on and really angry about this recent history). That’s part and parcel, though: for decades the CIA has worked to overthrow and assassinate abroad, while the FBI has terrorized dissidents, activists, and communities of color here at home.
Before taking up residence as an MSNBC contributor reliably issuing anti-Trump zingers, John Brennan played a supportive role in torture and targeted killings. Michael Hayden led a secretive, illegal mass surveillance network. John Kelly managed the indefinite detention camp at Guantanamo and Mattis oversaw civilian massacres in Iraq. Robert Mueller’s testimony helped get us into the Iraq War and his FBI leadership oversaw rounding up and detaining Muslim men on bogus charges post-9/11.
The point is that, while of course there are civil servants working in good faith within the system who are totally undeserving of Trump’s erratic attacks, we must be clear-eyed about our own history if we’re to have a better future. The answer to Trumpism isn’t unchecked faith in the security state, it’s transformational reform that centers the rule of law and accountability to the people.
If ever there was a time to rein in the power of the national security state, it’s now, when the self-described resistance holds some power under a dangerous president embattled in an impeachment scandal. It’s time for our elected representatives to lead the way not in protecting the norms, but in creating new norms that truly make our communities secure.