The Republican war against US intelligence agencies, which started when those agencies announced their consensus on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, hit an odd juncture last week with the release of a House intelligence committee memo that the GOP had trumpeted as revealing crimes "worse than Watergate".
But when the memo – actually a series of Republican talking points about the Russia investigation – was finally made public, there wasn't much there. If the four-page document was the extent of the committee's evidence of FBI misconduct, then it was a great day for the intelligence community.
Which makes the memo a baffling own-goal for a party that currently controls the presidency and both houses of Congress. Over the past several weeks, an army of Russian bots, conservative media personalities, GOP members of Congress, and earnest Trump supporters sent the hashtag #releasethememo trending, creating a crisis that could only be resolved with the memo's release. The members of the House intelligence committee who created the memo, however, knew that it contained no bombshells. The best they could hope for was to muddy the waters, to create an air of misconduct where no evidence of it existed.
The memo is only the latest flashpoint in the Republican war against the FBI, one of the more alarming developments in recent US politics. Yet it is not entirely surprising. For the better part of a decade, Republicans have been trading long-term national stability for short-term political gain.
Although the trend could, arguably, be traced back to the days of impeachment hearings and hanging chads in the late 1990s and early 2000s, GOP politics began its current devolution during the Obama era. Hell-bent on undermining the Democratic administration, Republicans engaged in a series of showdowns that slowed down the Obama agenda at the cost of the nation's overall political health.
These norm-busting tricks paraded under a number of different names – fiscal cliffs, debt-ceiling showdowns, sequestration, government shutdowns – but they all were part of a single strategy, a politics of crisis that culminated in the Trump administration. And they had real costs: draconian and haphazard budget cuts, the loss of the nation's AAA credit rating.
And now, the credibility of the US intelligence agencies.
To be sure, the country's intelligence agencies should not be immune to scrutiny. Those agencies have had to work hard in the past decade to rebuild credibility after the September 11 attacks and the faulty intelligence used to justify the invasion of Iraq. And well before Republicans were criticising the FBI for political shenanigans over Russia, Democrats were alarmed by Director James Comey's unprecedented interventions in 2016 over the Clinton email-server investigation.
But the current GOP attacks on American intelligence agencies aren't about improving or de-politicising the agencies. They're about blocking an investigation that could call into question the legitimacy of Donald Trump's election. Trump has spearheaded the attacks, comparing intelligence agencies to Nazis and accusing them of being Democratic shills, despite the overwhelming percentage of Republicans and Republican appointees in the agencies. Conservative media figures and Republican lawmakers have echoed those charges, so that the party line on the intelligence community has become one of suspicion and distrust.
That campaign to discredit these agencies comes at a high price. Most immediately, it will almost certainly achieve its goal of calling into question any of the conclusions reached by Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the election. As all American intelligence agencies agree both that there was interference in 2016 and that there will be interference in future elections, this distrust hampers any effort to combat that coming election-meddling.
Which means that Americans will lose faith not only in the intelligence agencies but in the outcome of their elections. The consequences of that lost faith cannot be overstated. Trust in elections is the cornerstone of a democratic society. Unpopular and corrupt administrations come and go. Parties rise and fall. But if the majority of people lose faith in electoral outcomes, representative democracies fail.
Indeed, it was this flagging trust in democratic processes that yielded Donald Trump, whose nomination was the product of a nihilism that told voters nothing mattered except tribalism and power. That mindset kept the party united around Trump, despite his hostility to so many of their ostensible values, and that mindset produced the House intelligence committee memo.
That memo shows precisely how far the party has gone in its devotion to Trump-style politics: more concerned with optics than with facts, with winning the news cycle than with winning the argument, with destroying faith than with earning trust. It is a deeply cynical, deeply corrosive approach to power.
But it is also, at least in the short term, an effective one. It gained the GOP a Supreme Court seat that should have been filled by Democrats. It got them a steep tax cut for wealthy Americans. It won them a deregulatory wave that is remaking the American landscape far below the level of daily headlines or shocking scoops. The question now is what more do they want, and how much are they willing to destroy to get it?