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A "weaponization of government" trope explainer
Another linguistic ruse by the people who actually want to weaponize government
The Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government began its business this week. The hearings were not been especially interesting, replaying old grievances of how Trump had been mistreated, with a star FBI whistleblower who turned out to have left government in the last century.
What is more interesting is the way in which the idea of “weaponization” itself has emerged and been, well, weaponized.
The creation of the new subcommittee represents the formalization of a new trope that has quickly become part of the partisan language of government, serving as a linguistic shorthand for an array of imagined misdeeds, in the way that “woke” or “CRT” has come to do. The word “weaponization” is intended to evoke a pavlovian response that short-circuits actual engagement about evidence: you know the narrative already, so no need to critically assess the specifics.
As it is used, “weaponization” appears to mean an inappropriate use of government resources to target people for unjustified partisan purposes. But “weaponization” by who? And against who? As the Stefanik example above makes clear, there is no effort to employ it even-handedly: the implication is that the federal government is coming for conservatives. (Stefanik is a member of the committee, along with notables such as Matt Gaetz, who was investigated for sex trafficking by one of the agencies the committee will investigate). So where does the trope come from?
Language: a key mechanism of control for a conspiratorial age
One of the most influential Republican operatives of recent years, Chris Rufo, built his career by popularizing “CRT” and “groomer” as smears. In building his personal brand, Rufo is explicit about the centrality of manipulating language and branding ideas: “we have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.”
If it feels like conservative politics is increasingly centered on these linguistic misdirections, it is worth remembering Newt Gingrich’s 1996 memo “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control.” Newt explained to his Republican colleagues the words to routinely employ to contrast with their opponents.
So, is what we are seeing now the same old thing? New wine in old bottles? A 2023 edition of the Gingrich memo would expand the lexicon to include terms like: deep state, social justice warriors, groomers, CRT, woke, and, now, weaponize. This reveals that the new linguistic attacks reflect the changing nature of the Republican Party centered less on traditional conservative ideas, and more on an anti-state, conspiratorial version of populism.
How a trope became a Congressional subcommittee
The idea of weaponization is not new. You can find the term in past Fox coverage for example. Journalist Matt Gertz (not to be confused with the aforementioned Matt Gaetz), took a look at the prominence of “weaponization” on Fox News. It turns up (for example, Sean Hannity in 2017 saying “we now have proof that intelligence wasn't the only powerful government entity that was weaponized by the Obama Administration”) but is an episodic rather than constant theme.
“Weaponization” of course implies a martial aspect. It is similar to the linguistic trick of calling the Biden administration the Biden regime to evoke an illiberal approach to governing. It carries the whiff of a rogue state, implementing Stasi-like operations to suppress dissent. “Federal agencies have a long and sordid history of illegally targeting American citizens to gain political advantage. Government agencies like (but not limited to) the FBI, DHS, and DOJ are actively working to silence and suppress citizens who subscribe to ideas that differ from the regimes” says the Center for Renewing America.
You probably have not heard of the Center for Renewing America, but it offers an important insight into both the origins and meaning of the weaponization trope.
The Center for Renewing is a Trump aligned think-tank. As best as I can tell, the Center promoted the idea of the weaponization committee in the form it has now taken before anyone else. Last October, characterizing it as a “Church-style” committee, the Center stated: “we call on Members of Congress to assemble a stand-alone committee with broad investigative powers focused on woke and weaponized agencies and personnel within the federal government.” GOP hardliners who opposed Kevin McCarthy’s leadership bid used similar terminology when they successfully demanded, in a December 8th letter, that McCarthy: “Form a “Church Commission”-Style Committee to Target Weaponized Government.”1
The Center for Renewing America is led by Russ Vought, a Christian nationalist and former head of Trump’s budget office. I want to focus on Vought because he has not just helped to popularize the “weaponization” trope (he has been using this language since at least 2021), but he also embodies its intent and hypocrisies.
Vought is an extreme partisan who, when given the chance to govern, damaged the institutions of government. He weaponized government in the worst ways while in power:
As the Office of Management and Budget chief, Vought pushed the Schedule F executive order that would have made it possible to fire career employees for political reasons.
Vought OK’d the withholding of aid to Ukraine even though his career OMB lawyers warned him it was illegal.
Weeks after it was clear that Trump had lost the election, Vought blocked career officials from co-operating with the Biden transition at a crucial moment during the pandemic. This prompted Dana Milbank to write a lacerating but accurate profile:
…what Russ Vought is very good at is sabotage. He’s sabotaging national security, the pandemic response and the economic recovery — all to make things more difficult for the incoming Biden administration. That he’s also sabotaging the country seems not to matter to Vought, who has spent nearly two decades as a right-wing bomb thrower.
So that is Vought when working in government. When out of power, Vought characterized legitimate uses of government power as “weaponization”, such as when the FBI searched, under court order, the home of a key player in Trump’s efforts to overturn the election. He is now building an “army” of far right ideologues with a “biblical worldview” to take control of federal agencies. Vought told Axios: “We are consciously bringing on the toughest and most courageous fighters with the know-how and credibility to crush the deep state.”
The “weaponization” trope therefore originates from the far-right of American politics. It serves the conspiratorial and anti-statist element of the Republican Party in five specific ways.
Purpose 1: Mainlining conspiracy theories
At a prosaic political level, an oversight committees generates headlines that damage your political opponents and show your base you are taking their concerns seriously. The formalization of the weaponization trope does so in a way that gives Republicans the opportunity to mainline conspiracy theories. Compared to the Benghazi era, there are simply more salient conspiracies for Republicans to pursue, and they are more central to Republican political identity. Committee hearings and reports can generate a simulacrum of evidence to feed “deep state” conspiracy theories.
And it’s not just the “deep state.” Testifying before the committee, Ron Johnson complained that “the World Health Organization has been captured by the Chinese government…global institutions in general have been captured by the left, and that some charitable foundations are exerting far more power over public policy than should be allowed...I have barely scratched the surface in describing the complexity, power, and destructive nature of the forces we face.” Shadowy global forces ahoy!
Purpose 2: Victimization as justification
A central reason why populism is dangerous is that victimization is a defining tenet. Cas Mudde’s influential definition of populism describes it as “an ideology that considers society to be separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people.”
A well-nourished sense of victimhood is a powerful justification for all sorts of actions. “Weaponization” serves to strengthen this victimhood narrative, reinforcing the idea that the deep state is seeking to steal not just your elections, but your entire way of life. We are merely defending ourselves, justifying our radical action.
Purpose 3: Working the ref
Accusations of weaponization help to “work the ref” — that is, to give policy decisionmakers reason to pause if they take action against legitimate targets. For example, the IRS targeted political groups claiming a tax deduction on the fiction that they were “social welfare” groups not actively involved in politics. It targeted both conservatives and liberals, but the outrage was all on the conservative side. IRS budgets were cut. As a result, the agency has largely given up on policing violations of tax law by political activists, to the point that what seem like obvious misdeeds — such as right-wing think-tanks claiming to be churches for a big tax deduction — go unpunished.
Policymakers will know that if they take regulatory, investigative, or police action that intrudes on conservative stakeholders, they will be accused of weaponization. Hearings and subpoenas will follow, such as the ones now faced by Merrick Garland (DOJ), Christopher Wray (FBI) and Miguel Cardona (Education) because of investigations into harassment of school officials that Republicans characterized as an infringement on free speech.
For decisionmakers with limited time and resources, it is easier to simply move to another policy area or investigation that will not draw the same political heat. This is also an example of how formalization of these tropes matters: there is a vast difference between being called out by Hannity versus being compelled to respond to subpoenas before Congress.
Purpose 4: Justification of hypocrisy
In pointing to the juxtaposition of the announcement of the weaponization committee with new evidence of abuses of power by the Durham investigation, Michelle Goldberg notes the following.
This squalid episode is a note-perfect example of how Republican scandalmongering operates. The right ascribes to its adversaries, whether in the Democratic Party or the putative deep state, monstrous corruption and elaborate conspiracies. Then, in the name of fighting back, it mimics the tactics it has accused its foes of using.
The sense of victimhood excuses not just extreme action, but also obvious hypocrisies. A political movement built on “lock her up” chants was never all that squeamish about the inappropriate use of government power. A defining quality of the Trump era was attacks on officials who sought to follow the law by showing how Trump was breaking it. What about Trump’s politicization of the Department of Justice, obstructions of investigations, or efforts to use government powers to subvert a free and fair election?
The weaponization trope helps to not just selectively ignore the misuse of government power, largely by Republicans, that has fueled American democratic backsliding. It also creates a sense that the other side is guilty. If we can’t defend our guy, make the other guy look just as bad. Supporters focus on the alleged misdeeds of their enemies, while the media will be pulled into a perpetual cycle of whataboutism if they accurately castigate one side of being more guilty than the other of abuses.
Purpose 5: Towards delegitimization, deconstruction and control of government
The defining characteristics of the Republican relationship to governing over recent decades reflect what I have previously described as delegitimization, deconstruction and control.
These tendencies seem contradictory, and in many ways they are: undermining the trust in institutions is not a good strategy in the long run if you want to use those institutions to govern. But it is possible to see how these impulses fit together. Discrediting government provides a populist logic for disempowering those within it that they distrust, such as the career bureaucracy, and justifies asserting loyalty to narrow partisan values as a primary governing value.
This, ultimately, is the payoff of the weaponization trope: to save government, we must burn it down, and rebuild from the ashes. For example, the “weaponization” of the FBI to search Mar-A-Lago for classified government triggered a rash of anti-statist rhetoric alleging that the FBI, an agency which has never been led by a registered Democrat, was irredeemably biased against Republicans, and had to be recaptured.
Illustrating these anti-statist tactics, Russ Vought released a budget blueprint for the new GOP House to follow. It relies on culture war tropes as a means to deconstruct much of the state. While mentioning “woke” 77 times, and “weaponize(d)” 42 times, it calls for massive cuts in federal discretionary programs: $9 trillion over the course of a decade.
Vought’s budget is also explicitly pro-weaponization. While calling for cuts to parts of the FBI that monitors extremist groups, it advocates for a $618 million increase for FBI investigations of progressives: “to thwart the increasing societal destruction caused by progressive policies at the state and local levels that have defunded police, refused to prosecute criminals, and released violent felons into communities.”
Vought reflects the emerging view on the far-right that the era small government conservatism is over: instead they should actively take control of government to pursue their goals. This helps to explain the right-wing adoration of Victor Orban in Hungary, and serves as the basis for the DeSantis rise in the Republican Party. John Daniel Davidson in The Federalist wrote an essay summarizing this view, “We Need to Stop Calling Ourselves Conservatives”:
To stop Big Tech, for example, will require using antitrust powers to break up the largest Silicon Valley firms. To stop universities from spreading poisonous ideologies will require state legislatures to starve them of public funds. To stop the disintegration of the family might require reversing the travesty of no-fault divorce, combined with generous subsidies for families with small children. Conservatives need not shy away from making these arguments because they betray some cherished libertarian fantasy about free markets and small government. It is time to clear our minds of cant.
In other contexts, wielding government power will mean a dramatic expansion of the criminal code. It will not be enough, for example, to reach an accommodation with the abortion regime, to agree on “reasonable limits” on when unborn human life can be snuffed out with impunity.
All of this sounds an awful lot like the weaponization of government, free of concerns about individual rights. If you are going to make “Stasi” like comparisons with today’s government, it doesn’t help if your alternative looks a whole lot worse.
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