Editor’s Note: Douglas Heye is the ex-deputy chief of staff to former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a GOP strategist and a CNN political commentator. Follow him on Twitter @dougheye. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Once again, breaking news about former President Donald Trump has caused political shockwaves, sending speculation into overdrive on “what it all means” for Trump, the GOP and the November elections.
This time, it was the FBI searching and seizing papers from Mar-a-Lago, an unprecedented move on an unprecedented former president.
But as much as the immediate firestorm of commentary was predictable, the truth is the political implications are not yet known. The search could spur Republican enthusiasm to defend Trump and motivate their voters. It could also fire up Democratic enthusiasm, which had been lagging as many party members grew impatient with what they saw as the Department of Justice dragging its feet.
For Republicans, quick out of the gate to back Trump, there’s a political risk in shifting focus from what had been the salient political messages blaming President Joe Biden, fairly or not, for inflation and crime.
“Defund the police” became a driving force on the far left and an opportunity on the right. For every tweet or comment by far-left activists or members of Congress, statistics and anecdotes about an increase in car-jackings and muggings gave an opportunity for Republicans to highlight their support for police at a time when the public viewed the issue with increasing anxiety.
Concern over crime led to the recall of Chesa Boudin, the now-former district attorney of San Francisco – not exactly deep red territory. Polling shows that crime and safety remain top of mind for voters.
As news spread of the FBI search, that the GOP would defend Trump was obvious. But the reaction of the Trumpiest of Trump acolytes went in a direction perhaps unexpected, attacking law enforcement.
“The GOP majority must defund all forms of tyranny throughout Biden’s government,” tweeted Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado, tagging the FBI’s Twitter handle.
The typically caustic Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona tweeted, “We must destroy the FBI.”
Not to be outdone, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, often seen as a Boebert rival, tweeted, “DEFUND THE FBI” - yes, in all caps. She did this shortly after tweeting an image of an upside-down American flag which, according the US Flag Code, should only occur as “a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property.”
Many of my Republican brethren will point out that these three Republican members are on the extreme of the party and that there is a difference between their rhetoric and, say, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy calling for an investigation into a raid that will surely be investigated simply given its unprecedented nature. Fair enough.
But political parties are often defined by their extremes, especially within the media and an opposing party. There’s a reason why the Democratic members of “The Squad” are household names and, say, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense chair is not. (That would be Rep. Betty McCollum of Minnesota, elected in 2000.).
Or, that the three Republicans mentioned above bask in unending coverage (all press is good press to members like these), but you’ve not seen a cable news segment on Rep. Gus Bilirakis, a Florida Republican who has served since 2007. The members who put their heads down and work don’t get the same attention as squeaky wheels.
This is a time when extreme or lackluster GOP candidates, backed by Trump and Democrats, threaten to both take Republican eyes off the ball and potentially tank winnable races. The result is an unnecessary headache for Republicans still smarting over Senate losses by candidates like Todd Akin, Sharron Angle, Richard Mourdock and Christine O’Donnell.
In other words, by aping what had exclusively been terrible Democratic messaging on “defunding” law enforcement, Republicans, in subservience to Trump, hurt their own chances by losing focus and moving away from their own messaging in what otherwise should be a successful November.
Of course, this is about more than just elections.
Words like “destroy” and “tyranny” or invoking “dire distress in instances of extreme danger” are neither done by accident, nor in a vacuum. They are meant to incite. As CNN’s Donie O’Sullivan noted, there was a spike in tweets using the term “civil war” immediately following the news of the FBI’s Mar-a-Lago search.
America is still in a tender place post-Jan. 6, while beset with other challenges that tear apart any semblance of national unity. Threats of violence against politicians, be they politicians or Supreme Court justices, have become commonplace and, for too many, acceptable. Responsible rhetoric seems in short supply.
These Republicans using inciting rhetoric against law enforcement to defend Trump are as unconcerned about national unity as they are the Capitol Police officers injured or killed on Jan. 6. But unity has never been the point. Neither, too, it seems is winning elections.