The announcement for the House Judiciary Committee’s oversight hearing on July 12 — to hear from FBI Director Christopher Wray — sounds a lot like an elevation of the work of its Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government. If so, this will be another instance of misusing the valuable powers of congressional oversight to perpetuate conspiracy theories and notions of victimhood that social science research tells us mobilizes anti-government extremist and white supremacist violence in the country.
As its name implies, the weaponizaton subcommittee has apparently undertaken its work over the last six months in service of a self-fulfilling prophecy that the FBI and Department of Justice are driven by politics to persecute their ideological enemies, not only through investigations into the mishandling of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago and into the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, but also through collusion with social media companies to stifle conservative voices. Representative Jim Jordan, who chairs both the subcommittee and the full Judiciary Committee, promises that the July 12 hearing “will examine the politicization of the nation’s preeminent law enforcement agency under the direction of FBI Director Christopher Wray and Attorney General Merrick Garland.”
If the subcommittee hearings led by Jordan are any indication of what to expect, it is likely there will be little, if any, genuine oversight accomplished. But more damaging, the political theater will perpetuate the spread among the American public of a victimhood-based “us vs. them” mentality that has been shown to drive political violence and undermine respect for the rule of law. Indeed, one political violence researcher who focuses on victimhood, conspiracism, and racial identity as part of a toxic brew, noted that these factors have “been shown in past research to be susceptible to elite manipulation. In other words, political leaders can stoke feelings of victimhood, white identity, and the like. Thus, political leaders can likely play a role in fanning the flames of political violence.”
The presidential election year of 2020 alone brought armed assaults on statehouses by those opposed to stay-at-home orders, mask mandates, and other public health measures in response to COVID-19; armed vigilantes standing off against Black Lives Matter protesters they claimed were violent anarchists determined to pillage and loot; and armed attacks and threats against election officials and vote-processing centers alleged to be covering up fraud in the election. In each case, those most closely aligned with former president Donald Trump claimed to be victims of conspiracies by those they opposed — victimhood relied on by Trump’s foot soldiers to justify violence and threats of violence.
The post-election period of 2021 was ushered in by a shocking and violent assault on the U.S. Capitol in an effort to prevent Congress from counting the Electoral College ballots that would declare Joe Biden the presidential victor. Again, victimhood — stoked by Trump’s claims of a “stolen” and “rigged” election by evil conspirators — was the justification for the violence. Even when he finally called off the violent mob, Trump doubled down on victimhood:
I know your pain, I know you’re hurt. We had an election that was stolen from us. It was a landslide election and everyone knows it, especially the other side. But you have to go home now. We have to have peace. We have to have law and order. We have to respect our great people in law and order. We don’t want anybody hurt.
It’s a very tough period of time. There’s never been a time like this where such a thing happened where they could take it away from all of us — from me, from you, from our country. This was a fraudulent election, but we can’t play into the hands of these people. We have to have peace. So go home. We love you. You’re very special. You’ve seen what happens. You see the way others are treated that are so bad and so evil.
Since early 2021, new issues susceptible to conspiracy theories and the victimhood narrative have kept the “us vs. them” culture war alive. School boards and teachers have been threatened and intimidated for teaching history and allegedly making white children feel guilty about their race. The LGBTQ+ community has been targeted for allegedly grooming children in order to sexually abuse them. And the immigrant community is regularly attacked for allegedly bringing drugs and crime into the country. Victimhood has been a key feature in all of these false narratives. And all have resulted in varying levels of political violence.
We all deserve better from political leaders and the oversight process.
The weaponization subcommittee (more specifically, the members of the majority party on the committee) is now itself engaged in “elite manipulation” — playing the victim card, naming the federal government as the perpetrator. In anticipation of, and in response to, the federal indictment charging Trump with mishandling classified documents and obstruction, Jordan issued letters demanding information from the Department of Justice about its investigation, supposedly to ensure it wasn’t “poisoned by politicization,” and criticizing the indictment as “a politically motivated prosecution.” These kinds of attacks not only destroy faith in governmental institutions, they have led, foreseeably, to threats against law enforcement and prosecutors. Prominent conservatives, including Trump’s former attorney general, William Barr, and George W. Bush’s former attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, have defended the indictment, both arguing that political attacks on the charges undermine the rule of law. Indeed, Gonzales eloquently pleaded:
Those of us who believe in civil discourse must seek to shore up our foundations, push back against Trump defenders’ attacks on the rule of law and refuse to be distracted. The role of the institution charged with getting to the bottom of the facts of this matter is straightforward. The job of prosecutors and investigators at the Department of Justice is to investigate criminal wrongdoing and bring individuals who violate the rule of law to justice.
When FBI Director Christopher Wray testifies before the Judiciary Committee on July 12, it would be wise for committee members to heed these words. Testifying before oversight committees of the House and Senate historically has been a regular part of the job of the Director of the FBI. It is necessary as a means for members of Congress and the public to better understand foreign and domestic threats to Americans and how the FBI is addressing those threats. It is also an essential component of our system of checks and balances — a time to raise legitimate criticisms and concerns about mistakes made by the agency as it exercises its authorities, which Congress itself has bestowed upon it.
There are plenty of legitimate questions that Director Wray should be asked when he testifies. For example, he should be asked about the FBI’s well documented noncompliance with statutory requirements for searches related to U.S. persons under section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). The 702 program is up for reauthorization this year, and Congress reasonably is considering reforms. It is also fair game to revisit the inaccuracies and omissions made by the FBI under a separate part of the law that is not subject to reauthorization — the FISA applications related to former Trump adviser Carter Page in 2016 and 2017. These are relevant to whether broader reforms to FISA should be considered. Probing questions on these topics are likely to help understand the reasons for the lapses: Was it sloppiness? Lack of training? Inadequate internal oversight to ensure scrupulous accuracy? Cognitive bias toward one’s own investigation? Political motivation? Understanding the causal basis for the failures is a necessary step toward preventing them in the future. This type of oversight shores up our governmental institutions and promotes respect for the rule of law.
In light of the stated purpose of the hearing and Jordan’s media appearances beforehand, it is unlikely this type of oversight is what we will get. Instead, we can expect attacks on the FBI as politically biased against conservatives, and part of a conspiracy with the Department of Justice to bring down the former president. Never mind that the FBI is far from monolithic in its politics — and has been far more often criticized for its alleged bias against the left — as those facts don’t fit into the victimhood narrative. Never mind that the real victims of this narrative are the American people, both those spurred to engage in acts of political violence that can expose them to criminal liability and those targeted by such violent actions. We all deserve better from political leaders and the oversight process.