Politics & Policy

Obama’s Crackdown on Dissent Has Made Conservatives a Little Paranoid — and Rightly So

The year is 2023, and President Ted Cruz is ending the second of his contentious terms in the Oval Office. While his policies have been controversial — for example, undoing major social legislation (Obamacare) without a single Democratic vote — his administration’s continual expressions of hostility toward dissent have finally proved intolerable to millions of Americans.

Liberal grievances date back to 2017, the first year of Cruz’s administration, when his Department of Homeland Security issued a report declaring that fears about economic stagnation and inequality combined with liberal hatred of a conservative Latino could foster left-wing extremism. Specifically, failure to achieve comprehensive immigration reform could lead to violence. According to DHS, left-wing “extremist groups’ frustration over a perceived lack of government action on illegal immigration has the potential to incite individuals or small groups toward violence.”

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And since it was known even during the Obama administration that returning vets were having trouble integrating into their communities but were instead “ready to do battle,” the Cruz administration feared that left-wing extremists would find willing recruits in the ranks of former soldiers: Left-wing extremists “will attempt to recruit and radicalize returning veterans in order to exploit their skills and knowledge derived from military training and combat.”

Facing a firestorm of criticism from liberal activists who reminded the administration that “dissent is the highest form of patriotism,” DHS Secretary Allen West stood firm: In his statement Wednesday, West defended the report, which says “left-wing extremism” may include groups demanding immigration reform and amnesty, as merely one among several threat assessments. But he agreed to meet with the head of La Raza, who had expressed anger over the report, when he returns to Washington next week from a tour of the U.S.-Mexico border.

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Concerns only deepened as periodic reports surfaced of Army briefings that list La Raza, MoveOn.org, and the Southern Poverty Law Center as “extremist” organizations similar to Hamas, the KKK, and al-Qaeda. DHS-funded reports even went so far as to redefine mainstream leftist concerns about income inequality and climate change as “extremist,” essentially labeling tens of millions of Americans as suspect.

President Cruz turned the federal bureaucracy into an engine of intolerance, with the IRS launching systematic audits of the NAACP, Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, and other liberal nonprofits.

Conservative critics labeled liberals as “paranoid” to be concerned over the DHS reports and Army briefings, but liberals countered that Vice President Rubio himself had accused Democratic lawmakers of acting “like terrorists” during the Democrat-triggered government shutdown in 2021.

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In addition, Democrats noted that President Cruz had turned the federal bureaucracy into an engine of intolerance, with the IRS launching systematic audits of the NAACP, Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, and other liberal nonprofits, costing them millions of dollars in legal fees and bringing their fundraising to a near halt. At the same time, reports surfaced that the Cruz Department of Justice was attempting to “piece together” prosecutions of liberal nonprofits while — locally — conservative district attorneys were launching terrifying pre-dawn raids on the homes of liberal activists in swing states.

Even the military hasn’t been immune to President Cruz’s crackdown on dissent. His purge of generals — long noted in left-wing blogs — spilled over into the mainstream with a second-term feature story in Politico called “Cruz vs. the Generals.” Americans of all ideological backgrounds continue to express confidence in the rank-and-file soldiers, but increasing numbers of Americans believe that the top leadership has been drafted into the president’s ideological crusades.

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Fear and mistrust finally boiled over in San Francisco, Manhattan, Boston, and other stalwart liberal enclaves when the Pentagon announced “Operation Crimson Hammer,” a “Realistic Military Training” exercise in which thousands of special-forces soldiers will hold exercises in New York City, San Francisco, Oakland, other urban areas. Strangely enough, the Pentagon’s own briefing slides listed deep-blue locations such as Manhattan, the Bay Area, and Cambridge, Mass., as “hostile,” while conservative exurban communities were all listed as “friendly.” Democratic lawmakers returned home to find their town halls full of leftist activists demanding answers from the Pentagon. What is “realistic” about a military operation in Central Park?

So, how would the Left respond to the mirror image of the Obama administration’s treatment of conservatives? To know the answer, one only has to look back to the Bush administration and to the extent of leftist paranoia — though, compared with Obama, Bush did not take even a fraction of the negative actions against activists and political speech. Let’s not forget that more than half of Democrat voters thought it was “very” or “somewhat” likely that the Bush administration either “assisted in the 9/11 attacks or took no action to stop the attacks because they wanted the United States to go to war in the Middle East.” Let that sink in: For all the elite’s disdain of allegedly gullible conservatives, a majority of the Left believed that an American president was complicit in mass murder.

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But extreme paranoia wasn’t limited to the Democratic rank and file. As National Review’s own Rich Lowry pointed out, Naomi Wolf (former campaign consultant to Bill Clinton and Al Gore) actually wrote a book explaining how the Bush administration was mirroring the early actions of dictatorships like those in Germany, Russia, and China. Harper’s Magazine published breathless stories about a barely averted Bush administration “coup” or “military dictatorship.” Even as recently as 2013, the National Journal published an article claiming that military officers were considering “staging a coup” against President Obama — the basis for the claim was a series of statements by a retired general who specifically declared that no coup was being contemplated.

In this atmosphere of earned distrust, it is appropriate for elected officials to ask questions about even benign and well-meaning military exercises.

No, the Obama administration isn’t going to invade Texas or Utah. Yes, there are some bottom-dwelling, opportunistic conspiracy-mongers who’ve done their best to whip up public concern. But when the Obama administration has done so much for so long to express its disdain for conservative citizens, when it has turned one of its most powerful bureaucracies — the IRS — into a weapon against domestic political opponents, and when it has stonewalled through every meaningful investigation of admitted misconduct, it has richly earned citizens’ distrust.

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In this atmosphere of earned distrust, it is appropriate for elected officials to ask questions about even benign and well-meaning military exercises. I don’t believe there is anything nefarious about “Operation Jade Helm,” but I also don’t believe there is anything burdensome about justifying the operation to a conservative public that has been targeted and maligned by the Obama administration in multiple other contexts. After all, suspicion about domestic use of the military is baked into our constitutional cake.

I hope the soldiers involved in Operation Jade Helm have a safe and successful exercise. I also hope, however, that the Obama administration and the media have learned their own lesson: that the price of continually expressed ideological hostility is the erosion of public trust. And for that, they have only themselves to blame.

— David French is an attorney, a staff writer at National Review, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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