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Vivek Ramaswamy’s Good FBI Fight

Ramaswamy is right: The FBI cannot be reformed.

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(Photo by Lisa Lake/Getty Images)

The usual media suspects are piling on Vivek Ramaswamy after a Meet the Press interview in which the investor and GOP primary contender expounded on his oft-repeated call to abolish the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The Beltway consensus is that host Chuck Todd “owned” Ramaswamy by alternately dismissing his complaints against the bureau and insisting that all Ramaswamy would do is “replace the FBI with the FBI.”

Actually, Ramaswamy’s is an important proposal that deserves a serious hearing. It is refreshing in its acknowledgment of the FBI’s long history of skullduggery and helps move the Overton window on the issue of politicized law enforcement, even if he is never elected president.


Let me declare that I carry no brief for candidate Ramaswamy. This magazine doesn’t do endorsements, while my Compact cofounder and fellow American Conservative contributing editor Matthew Schmitz and I are on the record suggesting that Donald Trump remains the best GOP candidate for sustaining the class-based realignment in American politics.

If anything, I have good reason to be skeptical of Ramaswamy. Some of his brainstorms, such as his call for establishing a branch of the National Rifle Association in Taiwan to deter the Chinese, can’t but prompt eyerolls. Meanwhile, his endless meritocracy rhetoric—American identity, he told me in a recent interview, is about “an affirmative vision of the unapologetic pursuit of excellence”—suggests he heralds a kind of neoliberal retread in the GOP.

The Trump phenomenon (and the Bernie one, too) was in many ways a popular rebellion against America as foremost a “pursuit,” an idea that could sit comfortably at, say, the American Enterprise Institute. American populism, by contrast, has from the beginning stood for a contrary ideal: that this nation is a common home for a people, and that economic pursuits should be subject to the democratic will of that people.

But if you are a populist like me who wants to subject elite economic power to politics and the imperatives of the common good, then you should be all the more open to Ramaswamy’s arguments about the FBI. The question is whether the American demos gets to hash out our disagreements, contest our rival interests, and generally use politics—or whether a narrow elite continues to frame one side in national debates as a criminal element, to be dealt with by law enforcement agencies like the FBI.

The latter, as Ramaswamy told me, represents the “beginnings of a police state.” He is right. It is the stuff of police states for a federal law enforcement agency to concern itself with the liturgical preferences of Catholics. Or to go after parents upset about their kids’ heads being stuffed with ahistorical nonsense in school. Or to help suppress a legitimate news story ahead of a sensitive national election.  


“There’s not one incident that [his abolition proposal] is in reaction to,” Ramaswamy told me. Rather, what concerns him is “the politicization of a law enforcement function, to fashion itself as a national Praetorian Guard for an existing establishment.” The current hyper-politicization, he added, is “the accumulation of decades of sins committed” by the bureau. “J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI still lives to this day, and now it punishes one political wing instead of another. Yesterday it would have targeted certain kinds of Democrats and civil rights advocates.”

In his Meet the Press appearance, Ramaswamy tried to persuade Todd on just this point, to no avail. Indeed, the left today, as the Marxist economist Christian Parenti has noted, has utterly closed its eyes to this history, to the fact that going back to the 1950s, the FBI waged a “campaign of surveillance, infiltration, disruption, and entrapment” against the left (both the “hard” left and the liberal left), against the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr., even against labor unions.

Parenti’s pleas notwithstanding, I simply don’t see the mainstream left shifting gears on this count.

Which leaves it to the right to stake out a defense of open politics against police-state tactics. And Ramaswamy’s proposal is a good place to start. Obviously, a continental nation needs a national law enforcement agency. But the one we have is irreformable. “When the culture of an institution runs so deep,” he told me “at that point that bureaucracy cannot be reformed. Someone else can’t sit on top of that institution and reform things.”

So we build from scratch—an institution “built for purpose, tailored to the narrow goal of a federal law enforcement agency, rather than the total goal of building a protectorate, its purpose today.” An institution, moreover, that answers to presidential power, rather than subjugating it. As Ramaswamy said, “the president isn’t the king on the chessboard, it’s the pawn, in the eyes of the bureau.” This state of affairs should horrify every American who cares about preserving the very possibility of democratic political contestation.