As the manhunt for the suspect in a mass shooting in Maine on Wednesday drags on, much of American public is wondering how he could have eluded authorities this long. But for right-wing commenters and influencers, his baffling disappearance is only further proof that the country’s top law enforcement agency is to blame for acts of domestic terror.
Contempt for the FBI among extremists dates back at least to the bureau’s 1990s-era deadly sieges on Ruby Ridge and Waco, which in turn motivated attacks including the Oklahoma City bombing. It has reached a new fever pitch, however, in the wake of the contested 2020 election, the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, and criminal proceedings against Donald Trump, all of which have generated conspiracy theories about the supposed corruption or incompetence of the feds, who in MAGA circles are viewed as villainous agents of the so-called Deep State. Following the latest mass shooting, the right once again took the FBI to task, using them as a convenient and well-established scapegoat rather than entertain the perennial calls for gun control.
“If only the FBI would stop spying on Catholics, concerned parents at PTA meetings, and Maga patriots maybe they’d actually stop real terrorists for a change rather than trying to create them,” tweeted Donald Trump Jr. on Thursday. (Screenshots of the suspect’s alleged account on X, formerly Twitter, appeared to show that he had liked a Trump Jr. tweet falsely asserting an “incredible rise” in trans and non-binary mass shooters.) Widely followed conservative influencer @Travis_in_Flint had expressed a similar sentiment the day before. Memes about the bureau routinely failing to prevent violent attacks made the rounds — along with calls to disband the agency altogether.
The right’s list of grievances against the FBI seems to be ever-expanding. There are the persistent yet baseless allegations that federal agents somehow orchestrated or provoked the Jan. 6 takeover of the U.S. Capitol by a MAGA mob. The agency’s search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate last year prompted an Ohio gunman to try to break into their Cincinnati field office (he died in a shootout with law enforcement nearby). Outrage over the bureau’s alleged role in suppressing the Hunter Biden laptop story, and accusations that it conspired with tech companies to censor online discussion of it, has simmered for years. And in August, when agents killed an armed, elderly Utah man they were attempting to arrest for threats against President Biden, prominent figures on the far right claimed that the FBI was now wantonly murdering any critics of the Democratic administration.
Trump Jr.’s references to Catholics and parent-teacher associations invoked two other running themes amid this anti-FBI fervor. The first arose from a leaked memo, since withdrawn, that suggested developing sources in church parishes to monitor the extent of “radical-traditionalist Catholic ideology.” (Attorney General Merrick Garland called the document “appalling” in congressional testimony, and there’s no evidence the FBI is actually spying on Catholics.) The PTA complaint, meanwhile, has to do with the bureau’s efforts to track threats against school staff — an initiative Republicans have misrepresented, saying the FBI flags any parent who raises concerns or asks questions about the curriculum at parent-teacher meetings. Such canards ultimately found their way into the hearings of Rep. Jim Jordan’s failed subcommittee investigating the supposed “weaponization” of the federal government against conservatives.
With major right-wing personalities now regularly labeling the bureau a “domestic terror organization” or “gestapo” based on all this, it’s easier than ever for the same influencers to argue that events like the Maine spree killings — to all appearances carried out by a man who shared their ideology — is actually the fault of this boogeyman agency. Some, like @EndWokeness, used the tragedy to argue that the FBI had unjustly persecuted Jan. 6 rioters, while implying that they were not even bothering to look for the shooting suspect.
Of course, if the FBI were as fanatically committed to surveilling people who engage with right-wing views as these posts seem to contend, the suspected shooter might have been ensnared by law enforcement by the time he acquired a semi-automatic rifle. That it can instead be faulted for not catching him before the massacre is a measure of how resentment of the bureau has metastasized in MAGA-land, transforming it into an all-encompassing evil. Whether it acts or not, it does so to oppose this movement.
And in the case of the Maine shooting, this is a rather useful deflection. There are legitimate questions as to how the suspect managed to carry out attacks on separate locations and remain at large — and putting the focus on these rather than his easy access to firearms, or apparent affinity for the likes of Trump Jr., Tucker Carlson, and Reps. Jordan and Kevin McCarthy, redirects anger from his political identification or potential motive.
Yet if the FBI missed something here, it’s not because they were tailing conservative moms home from a PTA meeting or serving a warrant to someone who participated in Jan. 6. That’s just the playbook for the far right: when innocents are gunned down by someone evidently on your side, you find a way to play the victim.