The Grifter-in-Chief’s Dangerous Gambit

If there’s one thing a top-notch grifter knows how to do, it’s exploit a crisis.

So it is that Donald Trump has transformed the F.B.I.’s search of his Mar-a-Lago home from a potentially debilitating scandal into a political bonanza — one that threatens to further divide a twitchy, polarized nation.

His formula for this alchemy? The usual: playing on pre-existing grievances among his followers — in this case, the right’s bone-deep suspicion and resentment of federal authority. If you thought members of the MAGAverse were jacked up on Deep State conspiracy theories before, just wait until they spend several more weeks consuming the toxic spinsanity that Mr. Trump and his enablers have been pushing out like black tar heroin.

Once Mr. Trump donned his trusty cloak of victimhood, which by now must be threadbare from overuse, the Republican response to the search was predictable: His base roared in outrage, a display of blind fealty featuring threats of lethal violence against their savior’s perceived persecutors. Party leaders tripped over themselves to fuel the fury, lobbing attacks at the F.B.I. for which they should forever hide their faces. (Dear Kevin McCarthy: Any blood spilled over this is partly on your hands. An “intolerable state of weaponized politicization” of the Justice Department? Seriously?)

Mr. Trump is back to dominating the political stage, and a couple of recent polls show his support among Republicans having ticked up vis-à-vis the party overall, as well as compared with potential contenders for the 2024 presidential nomination. And just when Gov. Ron DeSantis was feeling sassy!

Even better, from the perspective of a veteran snake-oil salesman, the money has come pouring in. In the immediate aftermath of the so-called raid, fund-raising by Mr. Trump’s political action committee spiked, even topping $1 million on at least a couple of days, according to The Washington Post. Compare this with the more modest daily haul of around $200,000 to $300,000 in recent months.

This bump was no accident: Mr. Trump is a master at bilking his fans, and the F.B.I. had barely left Mar-a-Lago when his fund-raising machine kicked into overdrive. In the 10 days after the search, Trump World sent more than 120 fund-raising emails mentioning the episode, reports USA Today. Others featured more general references to persecution by the left. Several solicitations cited the “Official Trump Defense Fund” — which smells suspiciously like the “Official Election Defense Fund” for which Trump World once cadged donations but that, as best as anyone can tell, was never a real thing.

Trump flags outside the federal district courthouse in West Palm Beach, Fla., during a hearing last week on unsealing documents related to the F.B.I.’s search of Mar-a-Lago.Credit…Chandan Khanna/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

And so the grift grinds on.

As with so many Trump cons, this one goes beyond being shameless and self-serving. The former president and his allies are engaged in something deeply pernicious: an aggressive disinformation campaign that is ginning up anti-government anxiety and animus on the right by painting Mr. Trump as beset by evil, out-of-control feds.

Right on schedule, the F.B.I. is feeling the MAGA wrath. In the creepier corners of the internet, right-wing extremists are calling for violence against federal agents. A Republican candidate for the Florida legislature was booted from social media platforms after posting, “Under my plan, all Floridians will have permission to shoot FBI, IRS, ATF and all other feds ON SIGHT! Let freedom ring!” Among ostensibly more responsible Republicans, including a smattering of House members, there is chatter about defunding the bureau, drawing comparisons with the “defund the police” movement on the left.

On one level, the conservative assault on law enforcement feels discordant, ironic, even hypocritical. Especially when you consider that the F.B.I. has an achingly conservative culture and has long enjoyed a chummy relationship with the Republican Party. More specifically, it bears noting that the F.B.I.’s director, Christopher Wray, was picked by Mr. Trump.

But on another, this development makes perfect sense. The political right, which increasingly controls the party, has long had … issues … with federal authority, which periodically bubble up in nasty, dangerous ways.

Think back to the early 1990s, when the F.B.I.’s clashes with white separatists at Ruby Ridge in Idaho and later Branch Davidians near Waco, Texas — both of which ended in bloodshed — fueled conspiracy theories and anti-government sentiment on the right. These episodes played a role in radicalizing the domestic terrorists responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, but the damage lingered far longer. Ruby Ridge has been held responsible for birthing the American militia movement, and, as The Times noted more than two decades after the Texas siege, “for right-wing militias and so-called Patriot groups, Waco amounts to evidence of a tyrannical, illegitimate government unblinkingly prepared to kill its own people.”

Playing to this anti-government fever can prove politically irresistible. In 1995, Wayne LaPierre, then the executive vice president of the N.R.A., called federal agents “jackbooted government thugs” in a fund-raising letter. Back then, this rhetoric troubled some Republicans, including George H.W. Bush, who canceled his N.R.A. membership in disgust. But just a few years later, Representative Tom DeLay, then a member of the Republican leadership, dusted off the term, denouncing as “jackbooted thugs” some of the immigration agents involved in the case of Elián González, the Cuban boy found floating off Florida on Thanksgiving in 1999 and later returned to his father in Cuba.

Some of this cultural friction may be unavoidable. Federal agents, after all, are the ones tasked with enforcing all those Big Government edicts that many conservatives regard as an infringement upon their God-given individual liberties.

It was agents from the Bureau of Land Management who wound up in an armed standoff in 2014 with the supporters of Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who refused to pay the required fees for grazing his cattle on federal lands. Mr. Bundy insisted that the federal government had no rights to the land — and, moreover, stated that he abided “by almost zero federal laws.” The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, meanwhile, became a popular conservative target years before Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene introduced legislation in 2021 to abolish it.

Gov. George Wallace confronting Gen. Henry Graham of the National Guard in a symbolic attempt to block two Black students from enrolling at the University of Alabama in 1963. Even now, plenty of white Southerners cling to their sense of being oppressed by highhanded federal meddlers.Credit…Agence France-Presse, via Getty Images

Going back still farther, federal troops played a prominent role in dismantling the segregated South. In his 1963 inaugural address, Gov. George Wallace of Alabama delivered his infamous pro-segregation rallying cry and whined that, after the Civil War, the South was “set upon by the vulturous carpetbagger and federal troops, all loyal Southerners were denied the vote at the point of bayonet, so that the infamous illegal 14th Amendment might be passed.” Even now, plenty of white Southerners — the aggrieved heart of today’s Republican Party — cling to their sense of being oppressed by highhanded federal meddlers.

Responsible political leaders work to lessen these kinds of tensions for the good of the nation. Mr. Trump cares nothing about that. He has spent years working to delegitimize the entire Department of Justice, claiming political persecution by the Deep State to advance his own ambitions.

The G.O.P. may fancy itself the party of law and order, but Mr. Trump has endeavored to redefine which laws matter and what kind of order is legitimate. Short answer: only ones that ensure he comes out on top. It is the ultimate grift, and one that grows ever more dangerous.

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