By Karrin Vasby Anderson
After the FBI completed a lawful search of former president Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate on Aug. 8, 2022, conservative politicians responded with one of three strategies: silence, circumspection and attack.
Many responses echoed Trump’s own framing of the search. In his Aug. 8 message he claimed his residence was “under siege, raided, and occupied by a large group of FBI agents.” In the statement, replete with war metaphors, Trump alleged that executing a legal warrant was “the weaponization of the Justice System” and an “assault” that “could only take place in broken, Third-World Countries.”
Trump’s framing of the event was quickly echoed by most Republican politicians commenting immediately on Twitter, despite the fact that they, like Democrats and the public, lacked relevant knowledge of the facts of the case that prompted the search and seizure of classified documents.
The impulse to hastily legitimize Trump’s perspective illustrates a dangerous rhetorical strategy frequently employed by GOP politicians during the Trump era: message laundering.
Conditioned to accept violence
Message laundering occurs when inflammatory language and/or unsubstantiated claims are mixed with mainstream partisan communication and presented to the public with an air of respectability. Just as money laundering enabled mobsters to disguise their ill-gotten gain as the profits of a legitimate business, message laundering presents dishonest and dangerous speech as credible, innocuous or persuasive.
As a political communication scholar, I study how rhetoric strengthens or erodes democratic institutions. The aftermath of the FBI’s Mar-a-Lago search illustrates how message laundering can undermine democratic processes and gradually condition its audience to expect and accept violence.
After Trump released his statement, conservative politicians echoed key aspects of his message. Some sanitized Trump’s ideas by combining them with more measured critique or references to democratic processes.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., decried an “intolerable state of weaponized politicization” in the Justice Department, even as he promised to “follow the facts” and “leave no stone unturned” if the GOP retook the House. Democrats interpreted his directive to Attorney General Merrick Garland, “preserve your documents and clear your calendar,” as a threat. But the tweet launders Trump’s notion of a weaponized Justice Department by combining it with McCarthy’s promise to use democratic processes to “follow the facts.”
Similarly, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem recycled Trump’s war metaphors in her tweet, saying, “The FBI raid on President Trump’s home is an unprecedented political weaponization of the Justice Department.” She tempered that imagery, however, by appealing to the rule of law in the same tweet, asserting that “using the criminal justice system in this manner is un-American.”
Not all of the GOP’s early statements were measured, however. Some laundered more extreme ideas and edged readers toward an acceptance of violence.
In a tweet sent the night of the search, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis labeled the search a “raid” and described it as “another escalation in the weaponization of federal agencies against the Regime’s political opponents.” He continued, saying, “Now the Regime is getting another 87k IRS agents to wield against its adversaries? Banana Republic.”
DeSantis’ invocation of “the Regime” legitimizes a fringe notion peddled by Michael Anton, a right-wing commentator and member of Trump’s administration. Anton speculates that Democratic elected officials would work in concert with members of the Biden administration, liberal judges and the media – who, together, form “the regime” – to prevent Trump from taking office again using legal or illegal means.
DeSantis referenced a budgetary item included in the Democrats’ Inflation Reduction Act that would allocate “$80 billion to the IRS.”
McCarthy also referred to that aspect of the bill, alleging a “new army of 87,000 IRS agents” are “coming for” American taxpayers. Politifact and The Washington Post debunked the notion. Yet Republicans repeatedly made that argument.
‘Gestapo’ and ‘brown shirts’
The imagery of an “army” of federal agents turned against ordinary Americans via legislative mandate legitimized the alarmist rhetoric that followed. As GOP tweets coalesced, the line item from the Inflation Reduction Act merged with reports of the Mar-a-Lago search in ways designed to make individual voters feel vulnerable.
Rep. Andrew Clyde, R-Ga., tweeted, “If they weaponize the FBI to go after President Trump, they will surely weaponize the IRS’s 87,000 new agents to go after you.”
The GOP members of the House Judiciary Committee tweeted, “If they can do it to a former President, imagine what they can do to you.” Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., tweeted, “This #DepartmentofInjustice must be held accountable. It was President Trump today, but it’s you next if we don’t take a stand.”
After making audiences feel personally threatened, GOP messaging returned to the war posture implied in Trump’s original statement.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., tweeted that the FBI “raiding President Trump’s home” was the “type of things that happen in countries during civil war.” Conservative pundits and politicians cast FBI agents as “Gestapo” and “brown shirts,” the latter referring to Hitler’s storm troopers. In an interview on Fox News, Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., exclaimed, “This should scare the living daylights out of America citizens” and compared the U.S. federal government to the Nazis, the Soviet Union and Latin American dictatorships.
What’s next, #CivilWar?
Communication scholars have observed that once political opponents are cast in those terms, democratic remedies are insufficient. The opponent must be destroyed, and violent repercussions seem reasonable.
A Bloomberg newsletter noted that during the week of Aug. 8, the #CivilWar hashtag gained traction on various platforms, reflecting a “war-time mentality (that) has become increasingly common since it’s started to find footing with politicians.”
The Texas Nationalist Movement issued a statement citing the “raid” on Mar-a-Lago, the “weaponization and politicization of federal instruments of power” and the “announcement of the hiring of 87,000 IRS agents” as grounds for Texas to secede.
During the week that followed the Mar-a-Lago search, FBI officials reported numerous instances of individuals threatening FBI field offices, with some confrontations ending in violence. On Aug. 12, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security released a joint bulletin documenting an increase in violent threats to law enforcement and other government officials.
Message laundering does not always result in politically motivated violence, but it can make violence seem like a logical and reasonable response to partisan disagreement. Voters should be aware of this rhetorical tactic.
Karrin Vasby Anderson is Professor of Communication Studies at Colorado State University.
The Conversation arose out of deep-seated concerns for the fading quality of our public discourse and recognition of the vital role that academic experts could play in the public arena. Information has always been essential to democracy. It’s a societal good, like clean water. But many now find it difficult to put their trust in the media and experts who have spent years researching a topic. Instead, they listen to those who have the loudest voices. Those uninformed views are amplified by social media networks that reward those who spark outrage instead of insight or thoughtful discussion. The Conversation seeks to be part of the solution to this problem, to raise up the voices of true experts and to make their knowledge available to everyone. The Conversation publishes nightly at 9 p.m. on FlaglerLive.
New precedents are being set, Biden will most likely face the same scrutiny in the future.
Dennis C Rathsam says
Something is rotten in the FBI, & DOJ…. This is not the FBI of the past, too many questions remain with no explanation. And when did the DOJturn into a pawn of the president? The American people have seen the coruption in Washington. They are not blind, they see through the bullshit, and the lies. If Trumps guilty, he must pay the price. But if he,s not guilty, like in the past…..Heads will roll, & clean house in Washington.
DR: As I recall, it was Trump who said he believed Putin over our own intelligence departments. I can tell you now, I would take the word of the FBI and our Justice Department over the word of a former KGB agent. It was Trump who used Barr as his personal attorney, so that should answer your question. No, I don’t agree with you regarding the FBI not being the same organization as it once was and I have a heck of a lot more faith in our government agencies over the Russians. These past directors of the FBI are men with histories of integrity, unlike Trump who has a history of crying victim, dodging the war and ruining people’s lives who disagree with him.
Is Trump guilty? Give me one good reason for him taking classified, or any, documents home with him from the White House. Let’s hear it.
Dennis C Rathsam says
theyve been after Trump for many years now, they have fabrigated lies & false stories. None of them have proof, its nothing more than a witch hunt. How much lower can the Biden, and his band of fools go? Why are they so affraid, looks to me the shits gonna hit the fan real soon.
DCR: I’m still waiting for one good reason for Trump to take 27 boxes of documents, that belong to the government, home with him. Waiting…
@dcr. . . Other than repeatedly whining and crying that any investigation of your lord and master, trump is a witch hunt. . . please cite any “credible factual evidence” that trump won the last election, that trump did not try to “bribe/coerce” President Zelensky of Ukraine to get dirt on the Bidens, that trump had nothing to do with the insurrection on Jan. 6th, that trump is not the only President to be “impeached” TWICE. dcr. . . Why don’t “YOU” prove that all the evidence Congress and Mueller has uncovered are, as you say “fabricated lies, and false stories”?
As Laurel says, dcr PROVE that the classified documents that trump stole are his and do not belong to our government. Simply because someone is not behind bars does not prove that they are not a criminal!
The director of the FBI is Christopher Wray. He was appointed by Donald Trump in 2017 after Trump fired James Comey. Wray was confirmed by every Republican Senator. Wray is a lifelong Republican. Trump was shady and battling investigations even before he was elected president.
In order to find out if Trump is guilty of any crimes he has to be investigated (search warrant), indicted, and finally tried. If Trump had simply complied with the subpoena months ago, the FBI would not have had to obtain the search warrant.
The DOJ has not become a pawn of the president. However, Trump tried to make it his pawn.
Mary Jane says
Talk about spreading lies and propaganda why is the Cult Republican party doing this which causes anger and promotes violence like what happened on January 6th?
First of all, Donald Trump’s property was NOT RAIDED. He, his wife and attorney all knew they were coming so that is not a RAID. A RAID is when law enforcement shows up without notifying anyone.
And then to say the lies watch out they are coming after you is spreading fake information. Unless you have committed a crime no one is coming after you.
The Trump Cult base is stirring up trouble and this needs to stop. Donald Trump had been asked several times by the FBI to return the classified files, his lawyer signed off that they returned them all, which in fact was a lie. So, please people stop acting like the FBI is the bad ones here and be honest with yourselves and the sake for our country.
Add to that the unnecessary nearly weeklong drama caused by Trump over the search warrant and the list of items taken during the search. Trump’s attorney had a copy of the search warrant and the list on Monday night. Instead of releasing the information himself, Trump ramped up the rhetoric so much that the Justice Department had to petition the judge to release the warrant and list. Just a made up controversy to stir up his cult base.
These Republicans, who back this crap, are nothing more than sociopaths if they are that willing to mislead the public. My gosh, Republican lemmings are so seriously easy to manipulate. It’s like the worse the Republican candidate is, the more they like him/her. It’s really sad, and shameful.
Liz Cheny was right when she said that one day Trump will be gone, but the Republican legacy will continue in shame.
SOOOOOOO, The Russian collusion hoax and pee pee tape was real? The FBI lawyer who got convinced for lying to the FISA court really did not happen?The Michigan governor kidnapping trail is not real either. No FBI involvement there?
The Roe Supreme Court decision didn’t cause the Democrat party to say things that incited violence? A gun man shows up at a judges home to kill him.
Please stop with the one sided stories. It makes you sound silly.
Justsayin: Is that what Fox Entertainment tells you? I’ll take the FBI over Fox any day.
The Russian collusion was all too real. Remember when Trump himself said at a rally in July 2016: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 (Clinton) emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”
The existence of a “pee pee tape” is has never been confirmed. Considering that Mr. Trump is a known germaphobe, I doubt it ever happened.
Two of the individuals charged in the attempt to kidnap and murder the Michigan governor were acquitted, but two others are facing a new trial.
It is true that a person threatened to kill judge Kavanaugh. However, the Florida magistrate who issued the Mar-a-Lago search warrant has had multiple death threats.
On this date August 18 in 2020…”The Republican led Senate Intelligence Committee concluded that the Kremlin had launched an aggressive effort to interfere in the 2016 presidential contest on behalf of Donald Trump, and that the Trump campaigns interactions with Russian intelligence had posed a “grave” counterintelligence threat”. -Daytona News-Journal. So I don’t think it was a “hoax” Justsayin.
Alphonse Abonte says
I put a BIDEN/HARRIS sticker on my broken vacuum cleaner, now it sucks again………
Alphonse Abonte says
Whole Foods CEO on Socialism
“My concern is that I feel like socialists are taking over,”
“They’re marching through the institutions. They’re…taking over education. It looks like they’ve taken over a lot of the corporations. It looks like they’ve taken over the military. And it’s just continuing.”
“You know, I’m a capitalist at heart, and I believe in liberty and capitalism. Those are my twin values. And I feel like, you know, with the way freedom of speech is today, the movement on gun control, a lot of the liberties that I’ve taken for granted most of my life, I think, are under threat,” he continued.
“Socialism has been tried 42 times in the last 100 years, and 42 failures. It doesn’t work. It’s the wrong way. We have to keep capitalism. I would argue we need conscious capitalism.” He then branded socialism as “trickle-up poverty” and said, “it just impoverishes everything.”
Socialism is not okay, but fascism is okay?
@aa. . . you do understand that successful countries with high standards of living like UK, France, Denmark, Norway, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden and others have had Democratic Socialist governments, right?
Of course the CEO of Whole Foods is a Capitalist, it’s his mission to maximize profits. Just how does that make him an expert on government structures?