On Wednesday morning, a group of Republican lawmakers stormed the Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, or “SCIF,” where members of the House Oversight, Intelligence, and Foreign Affairs Committees were deposing a witness as part of the impeachment inquiry into President Trump. Led by Representative Matt Gaetz, the Florida congressman seen previously peddling the conspiracy theory that George Soros is bankrolling migrant caravans from Central America, between 25 and 30 of them occupied the room for several hours in protest, with several asking to be arrested. (None of them were.)
The stated reasons for their demonstration were as follows: House Democrats, led by Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff, are holding secret hearings about impeachment and cutting Republicans out of the process. In reality, proceedings like Wednesday’s deposition have been neither secretive nor exclusive to one party. The hearing was not public — as is customary when sensitive or classified matters are being presented, including during Bill Clinton’s GOP-led impeachment trial in 1998 and 1999 — but Republicans who sit on the three committees mentioned above are more than welcome to attend, as many have.
Reality was beside the point, though. The actual goal for Gaetz and company was to create the false optics of victimization. The Republican sit-in was designed to convey to the public a dynamic that pitted marginalized conservatives against the powerful Democratic Establishment — an image strikingly at odds with the reality that they’d undertaken it to protect the president of the United States, on behalf of a political party that controls the White House, the Senate, the majority of governorships and state legislatures, and, in all but name, the U.S. Supreme Court.
Crucially, they sought to accomplish this by co-opting the imagery of civil-rights protest: the occupations, sit-ins, and arrests that marked the American Indian Movement and the fight against Jim Crow recast as a refuge for powerful white men desperate to preserve their power. Even beyond Wednesday’s demonstration, this fictitious inversion of the actual power dynamics that animate American political and social life is a centerpiece of the conservative political project — a movement that would deflate if its adherents ceased to believe that they were victims constantly under attack.
The forces that wish to upend life as it’s known for the millions of mostly white, politically conservative supporters of the GOP have shifted over the years, to their minds, but the most consistent bogeymen are people of color — most recently undocumented immigrants — and the liberals and leftists facilitating their inclusion in American society. The perceived costs of a growing immigrant presence are a subject of great anxiety for these voters and their elected representatives: higher crime rates, a welfare state that disproportionately benefits people who don’t support it by paying taxes, and a scourge of illegal voting that would disproportionately benefit the Democratic Party and guarantee its long-term hold on power.
None of this is supported by evidence, but it’s proven to be a compelling rationale for a range of cruel and anti-democratic policy measures, from the imprisonment of migrant children forcibly separated from their families at the border with Mexico, to tighter voting restrictions, to efforts to manipulate the U.S. Census to ensure that Latinos are undercounted and white people are overrepresented. The perceived encroachment of these forces has also become an agreed-upon harbinger of the inevitable ills of Democratic rule, none of which have actually materialized under a Democratic president or Congress: rampant abortions, the confiscation of firearms, the marginalization of Christianity in public life, and more broadly, the erosion of a sense of national cohesion rooted in shared fealty to a white, Christian, jingoistic, heterosexual, capitalist ideal.
The apparent endgame of these cultural conflicts is perpetual one-party rule for Republicans, whose core mission is to enable the dramatic concentration of wealth within a privileged stratum, achieved through radical deregulation, corporate handouts, and tax cuts for the wealthy. But they often play out in a sphere that is fundamentally cultural — one fueled by Identitarian conflict and disputes over what constitutes appropriate social relationships between people. That’s why Gaetz and company’s deployment of civil-rights protest methods is significant: It conjures, through misleading cues and claims, an illusion of persecution that fuels more concrete conservative political and policy activity. It raises the stakes of GOP rule to feverish heights and pushes voters to the polls in service of a policy agenda that, in practice, almost always subordinates their material interests and well-being to that of people far wealthier and more powerful than they are.
It’s easier to convince voters to support such a project if they think the alternative is the further stripping away of their rights and privileges. Victim status conveys on its suppliants a legitimized claim to the moral high ground, which in theory entitles them to special allowances, and especially to increased power and representation. The Republican twist here is to make such a claim while holding a viselike grip on federal, state, and judicial power at the same time. Donald Trump isn’t actually a victim of “lynching” or the “greatest witch hunt of all time.” Nor are his typical supporters on the brink of social and economic cataclysm; in fact they are, on average, more secure, financially and socially, than their Democratic counterparts, and even those who aren’t find themselves in that position due to problems generated more by the people they’ve voted for than the violent, freeloading immigrants and puritanical leftist culture warriors at whom they level blame.
The absurdity of Gaetz & Co.’s posturing was recognized immediately as it unfolded on Wednesday. When GOP Representative Mark Meadows walked past Democrat Jamie Raskin that same afternoon, Raskin quipped to him, “Good to see you! Haven’t seen you since you became a Freedom Rider!” Democrat Eric Swalwell wrote on Twitter, “I’ve always thought telling my children I served with civil rights icons like John Lewis & Elijah Cummings would be the highlight of my time in Congress. But now, I can share the time Matt Gaetz, Louie Gohmert, & Steve King sat in an air-conditioned SCIF and ate pizza for 5 hrs.” The disconnect is indeed ironic. But it should also be taken seriously as a crucial tool for sustaining conservative politics. The public understanding of past civil-rights protests — particularly those against Jim Crow — is that they were righteous crusades against injustices imposed downward by the powerful. But today’s Republicans have found a much easier and more convenient work-around toward the illusion of the same rectitude: Protest like you’re powerless while keeping all the power.