Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 24 books, including, “The Presidency of Donald J. Trump: A First Historical Assessment.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
On Thursday, US Attorney General Merrick Garland, who has tended to stay out of the political spotlight, defended the FBI’s search of former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home on Monday, saying he personally approved the decision. Garland also announced the Justice Department would move to unseal the search warrant and property receipt, saying it was “authorized by a federal court upon the required finding of probable cause.”
The attorney general effectively turned the tables on Trump, who has tried to discredit the search of his Palm Beach, Florida, home as politically motivated.
And despite indicating that he will not oppose the release of the documents before the 3 p.m. deadline on Friday, Trump is unlikely to stop his full-scale attack on the FBI and the Department of Justice anytime soon, given his pattern of attacking our institutions and raging against everything that stands in his way.
Indeed, Trump didn’t miss a beat after The Washington Post reported Thursday that FBI agents searched his Florida resort for classified documents related to nuclear weapons. He shot back with a statement on Truth Social, writing, “Nuclear weapons issue is a Hoax,” and slammed the involvement of “sleazy people.”
Trump’s supporters have already followed suit, with some of them going so far as to say that the FBI planted evidence at his home to entrap him. The baseless theory spread quickly, with Republicans rallying the base with their fury.
This is nothing new. Attacking the legitimacy of our institutions was a central pillar to Trump’s rhetoric both as candidate and president. There was the supposed “swamp” that was the federal government, the “fake news” media, the “radical” Democrats, “witch hunts” and much more. Indeed, Trump attacked our elections, floating baseless claims of a “rigged election” before the 2016 presidential election – and reiterated claims of voter fraud even after he won. That, of course, only escalated when Trump ran for reelection and lost.
Now under multiple investigations, Trump seems to be finding his rhythm once again. Coming out of his political slumber, the former President is zeroing in on investigators. He has already started on the “unselect” January 6 committee, but the recent actions by the FBI have provided him with the foil he was looking for. The drama of the search, combined with the DOJ’s “no comment” policy (which Garland broke on Thursday, citing public interest and Trump’s own decision to confirm the search), gave him a golden opportunity to shape the narrative in the immediate aftermath.
Why does Trump focus on discrediting institutions? After all, he was at the top of the most powerful institution of all as President of the United States. He has also thrived because of the institutions that shape our society. Without mainstream television – from reality shows to cable news – he would not have been able to garner the attention that propelled him to the national stage. Without the Electoral College, he would not have won the election in 2016. Without the power of the Republican Party behind him, he would not have survived two impeachments. Without financial and real estate institutions – and family money – he would not have amassed the wealth that has been at the heart of his identity.
Attacking the institutions of government and the media serves two main purposes. For a public figure frequently mired in scandal and accused of wrongdoing, this has been a way to turn the tables against the investigators, shifting the national focus on those who are tasked with asking the questions.
Whether filing a lawsuit or unleashing wild accusations, Trump can always exploit the attacks against him by playing victim. As the Yale historian Beverly Gage examined in a chapter for the book I edited on the Trump presidency, his pivot away from the “law and order” mentality that had been crucial to Republican politics since President Richard Nixon became a defining element of his four years in office.
“Before Trump, most Republicans and conservatives professed great admiration for the FBI, CIA, and other intelligence agencies, describing them as patriotic bulwarks vital to national security,” Gage wrote. Democrats tended to look at these institutions with concern. “Trump,” she continues, “flipped that equation, sending Republicans scrambling to condemn a disloyal and invasive ‘Deep State’ while Democrats looked to the FBI and other intelligence services to hold the White House accountable.”
Discrediting institutions is also a way to paint himself as an outsider – even when that is far from the truth. And by positioning himself in an adversarial stance, he can stoke distrust in institutions and make the case to his supporters that he is still one of them – rather than a part of the establishment. The billionaire businessman and former president of the United States is still at odds with “the system,” or at least so he claims. This plays particularly well among his supporters who believe conspiracy theories about “elites” orchestrating nefarious plots, or those who are fearful of the government intruding on their rights.
The damage inflicted by the former President’s strategy will not be easy to undo. As the fallout from Vietnam and Watergate showed in the 1970s, a deep distrust in our democratic institutions can simmer into a boil, making it extraordinarily difficult over the long-term to regain the trust and enthusiasm of voters.
To be sure, a healthy skepticism of institutions is not always a bad thing. One of the lessons of the 1970s was that they are sometimes at odds with what is best for democracy.
But in the current situation, we are looking at the outcome of a political strategy embraced by the former President of the United States and his allies in the GOP – one that is not about strengthening our country so much as it is about exploiting people’s blind loyalty to regain power and undermining the norms and laws that are essential to a healthy democracy. The costs of this kind of extreme partisanship will be felt for generations to come.