House Republicans are planning a long-running extravaganza of hearings designed to dramatize the notion that the “deep state” is persecuting conservatives. In one sense, this will find a receptive audience: A new Post-ABC News poll finds that 55 percent of conservative respondents believe federal agencies are “biased against conservatives.”
But among all American adults, only a measly 28 percent believe this, and solid majorities of independents and moderates do not. Therein lies a trap that could prove dangerous for Republicans — if Democrats properly exploit it.
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has subpoenaed top Justice Department officials, supposedly to investigate the department’s suppression of information about the persecution of conservative parents. Republicans have long alleged that federal jackboots have terrorized parents for protesting at school board meetings about covid-19 restrictions and teachings about race and sex.
Democrats will no doubt respond by noting that this claim has been decisively debunked. But Democrats should use these hearings not just defensively but also affirmatively: to show that GOP rhetoric, much of it degenerate nonsense, has helped fuel a toxic atmosphere of threats and violence toward educators that has no business anywhere near your child’s school.
I asked Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), a member of the Judiciary Committee, how far Democrats might go in this regard. Swalwell suggested they would treat such GOP oversight as a “committee to obstruct justice,” in that it seems designed to chill law enforcement efforts to deal with actual threats made against educators.
“They don’t want the FBI to investigate people on their side who they’ve spun up over frankly bulls--- claims,” Swalwell told me of Republicans. “You have a right to say just about anything you want, but you don’t have a right to threaten violence.” Swalwell added that under the circumstances it was reasonable to want the FBI or local police to investigate genuine threats.
Republicans appear determined to bury this aspect of the story. Their subpoenas seek documents related to “alleged threats posed by concerned parents at school board meetings.” Note the word “alleged,” as if threats didn’t actually happen.
Republicans also want documents relating to a 2021 letter by the National School Boards Association to President Biden, which detailed numerous specific threats against school officials and referred to them as “equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism.” This led Attorney General Merrick Garland to direct the FBI to work with those officials on strategies to address threats, which Republicans magically transformed into proof of FBI persecution of parents.
The Post fact-checking team has exhaustively demonstrated that this reading is nonsense. While the school boards association did use language that would be indefensible if applied to parents, many threats actually did happen, and lurid claims about FBI overreach haven’t been borne out: The FBI focused on those threats, not on conservative speech.
Regardless, if Republicans think they can prove FBI harassment of conservatives, let’s air this out. But Democrats can’t function just as fact-checkers, accusing Republicans of “conspiracy theories” and complaining they are “stoking the culture wars.” That could make Democrats seem defensive and responsive, which isn’t sufficient in an environment that’s increasingly shaped by full-blown information warfare.
Instead, Democrats should make these hearings about what Republicans did. This entails using spectacle to show what happened to educators as a result of Republicans systematically smearing them with hateful propaganda. Why not try to bring in educators to testify emotionally about the threats and harassment they’ve faced?
Asked about this, Swalwell said it’s possible. “The American people need to see these people’s faces and understand the fear that they’re living in,” Swalwell told me, speaking about targeted educators. “Republicans feel that fear should have a green light to continue.”
There is a danger for Democrats: Republicans could successfully define themselves as the party that uniformly speaks for “parents’ rights” while maneuvering Democrats into being seen as protecting educators at parents’ expense.
Democrats can try to rebut this by bringing in ordinary parents to testify that they don’t want their kids’ educators to face a climate of reactionary hate. They could seek the testimony of those who want law enforcement to deal with real-world threats.
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), a member of the new GOP “weaponization of the federal government” committee, agreed that Democrats could try to bring such witnesses, though he stressed he is speaking for himself.
“This absolutely could include educators,” Connolly told me, as well as “school board members” and citizens who “have been severely harassed and threatened.” Such witnesses, he said, could talk about how the “FBI played a productive role.”
This debate could backfire on Republicans. If a large majority of conservatives believe the feds are persecuting them, as The Post poll suggests, that could incentivize Republicans to use hearings to activate those grievances with ever-more-hallucinatory inventions. This could further alienate the large percentage of moderates disinclined to believe this to begin with.
Democrats should try to speak to those moderates on their own terms. The country deserves a real debate about the real consequences of our culture wars, not one that unfolds strictly in the information universe Republicans are manufacturing.