The storming of Trump's castle
The incessant whining about "Third World" tactics in response to the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago is telling in more ways than one
Edited by Tommy Craggs
The only surprising thing about the FBI search of Donald Trump’s oceanside mansion at Mar-a-Lago is that someone at the Justice Department had the balls to authorize it.
Our most criminal of several criminal ex-presidents is under multiple legitimate criminal and civil investigations. The Palm Beach Post reacted to Monday’s FBI raid in its neighborhood by pushing out a story noting five of them: Trump’s alleged thefts of classified materials, his alleged scheme to seat fake electors, his well-documented attempt to strongarm Georgia officials into “finding” enough votes to fraudulently swing the state in his favor, his alleged financial wrongdoing, and of course the storming of the Capitol on his behalf on Jan. 6, 2021.
There are even more possible indictments a search warrant could inform, not least the still-viable charges of obstruction of justice as outlined in the Mueller Report (remember that one?). Just this morning, Trump invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination in another: a civil investigation into his company’s dodgy business practices in New York.
With so many cases to choose from, you really have to search for a reason to express genuine shock, much less alarm, on the ex-president’s behalf. (Hilariously it was Trump who signed the law elevating the potentially mildest of the allegations, the theft of classified materials, to the level of a felony charge in 2018.) And we don’t even have to guess which case it was: Trump or his lawyers could immediately answer the question of what the FBI was looking for by posting a photo of the search warrant, if they wanted to.
But, lol, no, instead the deflection brigade came out in full force. The most powerful sitting Republicans rushed to the ex-and-potential-future president’s defense as soon as he announced the raid on Monday. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy threatened to drag Attorney General Merrick Garland into calendar-clearing nuisance hearings “when Republicans take the House” this fall. (Particularly funny was McCarthy’s pretend order to “preserve your documents,” given the circumstance.) Marco Rubio — who, note, is the senior Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee — described the search as “something we have seen many times from 3rd world Marxist dictatorships.”
“Biden is playing with fire by using a document dispute to get the @TheJusticeDept to persecute a likely future election opponent,” Rubio fumed. “Because what goes around is going to come around. And then we become Nicaragua under Ortega.”
Of course, it isn’t Biden but Trump — with his naked attempts to rig elections, nationalistic Christian posturing, and his open desire to “lock up” his opponents — that more closely resembles the Nicaraguan strongman. And it’s up to Republicans like Rubio how they respond. But more notable is Rubio’s wording — specifically the part about “the Third World,” which is the ultimate tell of where one’s talking points are coming from this week.
The phrase was introduced by Trump himself, in a statement announcing the supposedly “low-key” FBI search for maximum political effect on Monday night. Trump said that, rather than being the lawful execution of a signed warrant, the search of his house (he was out of state at the time) was an “assault” that could only take “place in broken, Third-World Countries [comma sic].” (He also called the search a “siege.”)
That phrasing showed up immediately in tweets from Rep. Jim Jordan’s staff and the ex-president’s son. (Don Jr. upped it to “3rd World Banana Republics!!!”) It then spread across the ranks of the MAGA trolls and Fox News, as well as the “I’m not defending Trump, I’m just attacking his opponents and adopting his talking points” platoon, in the person of Matt Taibbi.
It’s a dumb, common, imperialist metaphor. (Much of the breaking of the “Third World” was done at the behest of or directly at the hands of the United States1). It’s also backward: a democratically accountable executive department using its lawful authority to investigate an ex-president for violations of the rule of law is the opposite of a “broken dictatorship.”
Accountability is in fact something that traditionally “Third World” countries have a much better track record of than the United States. See, for instance, Peru — where the conviction of the autocratic former president Alberto Fujimori showed “citizens that its system of justice is capable of prosecuting even the most powerful — affirming that most fundamental of democratic principles, equality before the law,” as the political scientist Jo-Marie Burt has written. (I wrote about that case in relation to Trump on the day of Biden’s inauguration.)
Non-partisan media took note of the Republicans’ dishonest framing, then channeled it into their own faux-impartial arguments. The New York Times turned the recovery of illegally held documents from Trump’s oceanside compound into a story about the Justice Department taking a “high-risk gamble” (though they generously allowed that Mr. Trump — who, once again I should note, is the subject of multiple criminal investigations — “faces risks of his own”).
The Washington Post’s Philip Bump bemoaned the “politicization” of the FBI (while noting in an easily missed internal paragraph that “there is no reason to think the FBI’s action was triggered by politics”). CNN’s Alyssa Farah Griffin said that unless a significant crime was discovered (she did not specify how significant it would have to be), the FBI search may have “just handed Donald Trump the Republican nominee [sic] and potentially the presidency.” Dana Bash chimed in that Trump’s reaction was “kind of genius.” (Fox News gleefully shared the clip of that panel for their viewers to see as well — introducing Griffin as a “CNN commentator and ‘The View’ co-host,” and leaving to the end of the story the disclosure that she also used to handle communications for the Trump White House.)
No such benefit of the doubt is given to those hoping for a wildly corrupt, authoritarian ex-president to be held accountable under the law — ideally, before he can run again for an office he will never peacefully give up. I think it’s because powerful people in America, many of them the holders of elite media jobs, implicitly adopt the conservative framing spelled out four years ago in a much-shared comment on the political science blog Crooked Timber: “There must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.”
Trump may have broken untold numbers of laws, he may have tried to overthrow the government he led — he may have explicitly told his generals that he wanted to model himself literally after Hitler — but the assumption at base is that search warrants aren’t meant for people like him. And that, I think, is what accounts for the panicky references to the “Third World.” The class accustomed to being protected just witnessed the binding of one of its most powerful exponents.
Maybe it is a sinisterly “genius” move to spread agitprop like: “If can do this to President Trump, imagine what they can do to you.” It’s a line that cuts to the core of ages-old right-wing paranoia (think: black helicopters, Birchers, and the like) and could well get the armed crazies tilting for civil war. But I think it’s deeper than that. I think the most powerful among them — Trump and his inner circle — see in this “siege” a threat to the order that protects and enriches them. To them, it portends a future in which undesirables like those of the “Third World,” and their avatars in the state, start beating down their gilded doors, rifling through their papers, and sitting in the monkey loggia. For people like the Trumps and their defenders and apologists of every stripe, at the end of the day, the law is meant to protect the people in beachfront castles from everyone else.
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Speaking of sieges, a fun footnote for “fans” of the Business Plot: the mooted 1934 fascist coup to overthrow Franklin Delano Roosevelt (which I cover in my book on General Smedley Butler):
As Butler told the congressional committee, his contact told him the coup was to be backed by the so-called American Liberty League, a consortium of industrial titans and former politicians opposed to FDR and the New Deal. The League’s principal founder was Irénée du Pont. As I note in the book, other “backers included the head of General Motors, Alfred P. Sloan, as well as executives of Phillips Petroleum, Sun Oil, General Foods, and the McCann Erickson ad agency.”
Well, the allegedly putschist executive in question at General Foods was one Edward Francis “E.F.” Hutton. Hutton was married to Marjorie Merriweather Post, the richest woman in America and heiress of the Post Cereal company; they had consolidated their mutual holdings into General Foods in the 1920s. Around that time, Hutton and Post decided to build themselves a new winter home in Palm Beach, Florida. It took four years and 600 workers to complete the oceanside compound; the cost overruns ended up straining their marriage. They divorced in 1935, a year after Butler revealed the fascist plot in which Hutton was allegedly involved.
Post kept the Palm Beach house. She named it Mar-a-Lago.
Also, “Third World” originally just meant countries aligned with neither the U.S. (“the First World”) or the Soviet Union (“the Second World”) during the Cold War — meaning that it initially applied to neutral Sweden and not the Soviet-aligned Somalia. That it ended up being a synecdoche for “poor” says more about the ravages of U.S. and Soviet policy on formerly colonized battleground states than it does about any inherent brokenness of their domestic systems. But I digress.