I recently watched the “Waco” miniseries, which premiered last year on the 25th anniversary of the siege, and is now available on Amazon Prime. The production was well done, made a fair attempt to show multiple perspectives, and reminded me of how powerful the image of a church being assaulted and then burning to the ground was for those on the political Right.
The story also reminded me of my own, very typical journey during the intervening years from skeptic, to supporter, and then skeptic again of government power.
Conservatives Vacillated on Government Depending on the President
Conservatives were fearful of government in the 1990s. Bill Clinton was a polarizing figure, in spite of his popularity. There was much talk on the right of “jack-booted thugs,” augmented by events in Waco, Ruby Ridge, and the 1994 federal assault weapon ban. The most extreme variant trended toward the militia movement, but this became radioactive after Timothy McVeigh bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. Nonetheless, fear of government, skepticism of the FBI and ATF, and inchoate feelings of hostility directed toward Washington, D.C. persisted on the Right.
Much of this alienation dissipated after the 2000 election of George W. Bush and the September 11 attacks. At that point, many on the Right directed their feelings of alienation and fear towards Islamic terrorists.
Bush’s perceived moral clarity was welcome, and a new kind of bellicose populism dominated the movement. Much conservative energy went into defending executive power during the Bush years, including the augmented powers of the FBI and CIA enshrined in the USA Patriot Act. In response, the Left focused a great deal of its energy on opposing what they deemed to be excessive government power. Bush-Hitler posters were ubiquitous, and slippery slope arguments abounded regarding Gitmo, the FBI, and other aspects of the government’s war footing. This was the time when Ed Snowden became the Left’s cause celebre, and 9/11 conspiracy theories were fashionable.
With Obama’s election, some of the small-government instincts of conservatives returned, even though he avoided the polarizing issue of gun control until his second term. The “Fast and Furious” scandal, IRS harassment of conservative activist groups, and the massive data mining undertaken by the NSA all prompted criticism from the Right.
As John Huntington observed, “During Barack Obama’s presidency, right-wingers sounded the alarm about the imperial presidency. Conservatives lined up to contest Obama’s numerous executive orders, calling the president a ‘king,’ a ‘dictator’ and an ‘emperor.’ [U.S. Senator] Ted Cruz [R-Texas] characterized Obama as a ‘lawless president.’” At the same time, those on the Left mostly supported Obama and his use of state power, even defending his aggressive investigations of reporters to uncover leakers.
Thus, over the past two decades, a typical pattern emerged among both Democrats and Republicans, with each sounding like libertarian skeptics when out of power and borderline authoritarians when they were in power. This has now reached a ridiculous stage, where Democrats are ganging up on Representative Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) for supporting peace measures they all supported during the Bush years, while Democratic leaders have praised as the “guardians of democracy” the FBI and CIA, organizations that until very recently were the objects of extreme derision.
Apparently, “democracy” now means that unaccountable spies can undo an election.
The Deep State’s Hostility to Trump Has Kept the Right Skeptical
Trump presents an odd situation. He’s nominally the head of the executive branch, but powerful figures in federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies have allied with the Democrats and NeverTrump Republicans to destroy his presidency.
Democrats in power did the very thing they warned against after 9/11, weaponizing intelligence against a rival political campaign during the 2016 election and they are continuing to do so now through the use of CIA and FBI spies in the executive branch.
Thus, instead of conservatives becoming government cheerleaders for a Republican in the White House, hostility to the Republican president from the deep state has fueled an even deeper and more thoroughgoing skepticism of government power among Trump’s supporters.
This will persist in the face of a future Democratic president or a more establishment-oriented Republican. The Right’s continuing skepticism of law enforcement and intelligence agencies is an unusual and perhaps healthy dynamic, as the on-again/off-again libertarian instincts by partisans of both parties have proven to be mostly a pose, where both sides voice concerns for government overreach only with regard to the particular policies and parties they do not like.
Limited Government Is Important, and Waco Shows Us Why
Government is a tool, but it is supposed to be in the hands of the people and limited by the Constitution. The federal government is not nearly as responsive or controllable as local law enforcement, as the country’s size and diversity render the federal government’s exercise of its powers unpalatable to one locality or another.
When government is actively hostile or devoted to social engineering, it is both dangerous and frightening. For all the talk of Trump being a would-be tyrant, his treatment has exposed the independent agendas and utter lack of accountability within very powerful executive branch agencies such as the FBI, CIA, and NSA. Such excessive power loosened from accountability and oversight is the very definition of tyranny.
Returning to the Waco siege, the death of 82 Americans (26 of them children) at the hands of the ATF and FBI was an avoidable tragedy. One does not have to adjudicate conflicting claims about how the fire started to reach this conclusion. The government’s use of extreme force at Waco—both during the initial raid and the later siege—was possible because Americans with peculiar religious beliefs were dehumanized and treated as enemies. The propaganda deployed during the siege and the government’s coverup afterwards should cause all Americans to pause and consider what constitutes excessive deference to the government.
Respect for religious freedom and for gun owners has only declined since 1993, with Hillary tossing half the country into a “basket of deplorables,” and Beto O’Rourke and Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) salivating at the thought of disarming their fellow Americans. We can expect more Wacos when these people return to power, but at least then, unlike 1993, a good swath of those on the Right will be habitually and rightfully skeptical of overreach by federal law enforcement and the intelligence community.