"87,000 IRS agents": New conspiracy theory proves Trump's encouragement of violence is GOP standard

The latest GOP lie isn't just a distraction — it's feeding the violent fantasies of the insurrectionist right

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published August 15, 2022 12:52PM (EDT)

Brian Kilmeade, Ron Johnson and Ted Cruz (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Brian Kilmeade, Ron Johnson and Ted Cruz (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

While Donald Trump spins out ever more brazen lies and nonsense to sow confusion over the seizure of stolen classified documents at Mar-a-Lago, Republicans have seized on a particularly gross conspiracy theory to justify their ridiculous claim that all of this somehow impacts the personal freedoms of every day Trump voters: "87,000 new IRS agents."

A reference to new federal funding in the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act, this latest talking point appears to have been crafted originally as some anti-tax propaganda to get the base to defend the ability of the wealthy to cheat on their taxes. But it almost immediately morphed into something far more threatening. It is now an unhinged conspiracy theory that's spreading rapidly through social media, as armed right-wing nuts are riling each other up to commit more acts of political violence. 

The entire situation shows that Trump's tactic of winking at right-wing extremists, in hopes they will commit violence on his behalf, has spread throughout the Republican Party. With this new lie about the IRS, both Republican leaders and Fox News have made it clear that they will not hesitate to stir up the most violent elements in their base, inflaming serious tensions for no other reason than the belief it helps them score political points during a midterm election. 

The problem for Republican leaders is that the bill that further funds the IRS generally benefits the working and middle-class voters. The soon-to-be law not only doesn't raise taxes on ordinary people, but it also saves money on health care costs and features a bunch of tax credits to reduce energy costs for regular consumers. Plus, it's fundamentally about fighting climate change, a problem that's grown so pressing that even more than half of Republican voters want the government to do something about it. 

Republican leaders and Fox News have made it clear that they will not hesitate to stir up the most violent elements in their base.

Yet even though this legislation benefits their voters, every single Republican in Congress voted against the bill. Partially, it's that the party is now totally controlled by its most radical elements. Partially, it's because Republicans in Congress are hyper-focused on serving their wealthy benefactors who are apprehensive about increased corporate taxes and auditing of wealthy tax cheats. But there is an important violent element at play now. In the past, perhaps, Republicans would have just hyped the higher taxes and increased audit power to mislead everyday Americans into thinking they'll be subject to any of this. But in this Trumpian era, where every GOP lie is set to QAnon levels of crazy, merely raising the specter of an IRS audit is apparently not enough. No, the party tailor-made this one for the insurrectionist crowd. 

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So the conspiracy theory boils down to this: President Joe Biden is using the IRS as cover to build up a secret police force of 87,000 armed jackbooted thugs who are coming to kick down MAGA doors to take guns, etc. We've all heard it thousands of times before from the Infowars and far right social media set, which has predicted for decades that a Kristallnacht for NASCAR fans is coming any day now. This time, however, the conspiracy theory is being pumped up not just by the fever swamps but by GOP leadership and Fox News.

Less than a week after Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., announced a surprise agreement to pass the bill, Tucker Carlson was hosting segments on Fox News falsely claiming that because a small minority of IRS enforcement agents have to carry guns, Biden is "treating the IRS as a military agency" and "stockpiling" ammunition.

Republicans are now relying on the implicit threat of violence to intimidate political opponents.

None of this is true, to be clear. The hiring is mostly focused on pencil pushers, and even the increased enforcement is focused on the richest Americans. 

It's possible, likely even, that this whole talking point would have died once Biden signed the bill into law. But the conspiracy theory got a steroid injection last week when the FBI raided Mar-a-Lago to retrieve the classified documents Trump stole. In their pathetic attempts to defend Trump, Republicans tried to make it seem personal for their audiences, with the GOP House Judiciary account tweeting, "If they can do it to a former President, imagine what they can do to you." But as most Americans do not, in fact, have stolen classified documents about the nuclear program stashed in their broom closet, it's a tough sell. And so a bunch of Republicans immediately seized on the already percolating "87,000 IRS agents" lie and built on it to spin out a conspiracy theory tying Trump's false accusations of "persecution" to some larger lie about a "deep state" assault on MAGA America. 

"The Biden Admin has fully weaponized DOJ & FBI to target their political enemies. And with 87K new IRS agents, they're coming for YOU too," Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., tweeted last Monday, always eager to be out there first with the most shameless Republican rhetoric. 

"Who do you think they'll weaponize the 87,000 IRS agents against? The answer is obvious. Their political enemies," Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., tweeted, always eager to beat Cruz in the race to the bottom. 

Unsurprisingly, the talking point spread, with the right-wing conspiracy theory machine hyping the idea that IRS agents are about to kick down a door and kidnap your family — and worse, your guns — any minute now. Fox News, always eager to muddy the waters when Trump commits crimes, got heavily involved. 

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That Republicans depend heavily on shameless lying is not new, of course. But this is a development of an even more dangerous trend: Republicans relying on the implicit threat of violence to intimidate political opponents.

Trump, of course, has been doing this for years, starting with his 2016 hinting that "second amendment people" should deal with Hillary Clinton. It culminated in his incitement of the January 6 Capitol insurrection and is still going on today as he appeals to his unhinged and armed base to intimidate the FBI into backing down on their investigation into him for espionage. Floating this IRS agent conspiracy theory now shows that Republican leadership is ready to appeal to the same paranoid right-wing elements in order to drum up violent opposition to otherwise non-controversial climate change legislation. 

It's doubly worrisome because a huge number of influential commentators are, in fact, arguing that the FBI should just let Trump get away with crimes, lest more of Trump's lunatic followers act out violently. As Michelle Goldberg of the New York Times argues, this is absurd because it amounts to allowing "an insurrectionists' veto" over any law they don't want to follow. 

"The far right is constantly threatening violence if it doesn't get its way," Goldberg notes. "Does anyone truly believe that giving in to its blackmail will make it less aggressive?" 

The use of the "87,000 IRS agents" conspiracy theory shows how right Goldberg is. Trump's leverage of stochastic terrorism against the FBI hasn't even worked yet, but it's so emboldened the larger Republican Party that they're using the same tactic to try to bully Biden's administration out of enforcing tax laws.

It's unlikely Biden or the IRS will be intimidated, to be clear. It's hard to imagine the same armed right-wing nuts who are rallying to Trump's lies about the FBI will be similarly eager to act on behalf of a billionaire having to pay a couple million in back taxes. Still, the fact that Republican leadership so easily feeds paranoid conspiracy theories to their violent fringe is alarming. It shows Trump's terroristic tactics are going mainstream in the larger Republican Party. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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