ONEAmong the many subplots raging in Washington, DC, is an increase in Republican concern over a provision of the Inflation Reduction Act that would invest $80 billion. in the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to modernize outdated technology and increase tax law enforcement. Referring to this investment, Senator Ted Cruz warned of an upcoming “shadow army of 87,000 IRS agents“.
The preference for paying lower taxes is as American as apple pie and has been a central element of modern Republicanism. Demonizing the IRS is not. Indeed, mainstream Republicans have historically maintained a commitment to cutting taxes without promoting hysterical fear of tax law enforcers. When tax cut advocates have talked about “starving the beast,” even they have been clear that the beast is big government. The Ministry of Taxation is only the messenger.
George W Bush requested one increase in funding for “IRS enforcement activities,” insisting that “Americans who play by the rules and pay their taxes deserve confidence that others will also pay their fair share,” and also that “enforcement more than pays for itself.” This made sense to the leader of a party that prided itself on its commitments to “law and order” and balanced budgets.
For his father, George HW Bush, these commitments also required a vocal rejection of anti-government rhetoric. In 1995, the former president publicly resigned as a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association when the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre stood by his characterization of federal agents as “jack-booted thugs” who sought to “attack law-abiding citizens” even after anti-government extremists executed a deadly attack on a federal office building in Oklahoma City.
Today, the Republican Party—emboldened by years of sitting presidents denouncing the “deep state”—has embraced this exact type of anti-government rhetoric, and their latest target is the IRS. In addition to Cruz’s talk of a “shadow army,” Sen. Rick Scott issued an open letter to “American job seekers” discouraging them from applying for the new positions with the “IRS super-police force.” The Republican candidate for governor of Arizona has promoted the conspiracy theory that the new IRS funding is connected to the FBI’s search of Donald Trump’s home, warning that “not one of us is safe”. And lest you think these messages are limited to the party’s fringes, the Republican National Committee itself released an ominous ad focusing on “growing fears of a growing IRS.”
Anti-IRS fear mongering didn’t come out of nowhere—conspiracy theories about the IRS have long abounded in the extremist fringes of the American right. The question is how they moved to the political mainstream. Media coverage of the Republicans’ latest attack on the IRS has focused on a key moment in recent times: conservative backlash to the IRS’s wrongful targeting of Tea Party groups seeking tax-exempt status under the Obama administration. In response to these revelations, the founder of the Tea Party Patriots attacked the IRS as “trained thugs” and “gangsters” who “have declared war on the American people!” Movement leaders and their allies in Congress quickly called for the IRS to be investigated and moved to cut the agency’s funding.
They were drawing from a playbook Republicans had used before. In 1997 and 1998, congressional Republicans led a major effort to “rein in” the IRS, ultimately winning bipartisan support for reforms that significantly curtailed the agency’s enforcement powers. Theater hearings featured witnesses “testifying behind black curtains with their voices disguised, like mafia-speak, to protect their identities”, and focused on “suspected commando-style raids by armed tax inspectors wearing flak jackets”. Representative Dick Armey – who went on to lead FreedomWorks, a major Tea Party organization – dashed Republican hopes for the process: “The IRS is too big and too evil. Once this bill becomes law, the IRS will just be too big.”
These efforts were notable not only because they were successful despite much of the IRS’s alleged wrongdoing being later debunked, but also because they marked a key moment in which the Republican Party gave a national platform to arguments previously heard primarily within anti-government extremists. circles. As Daniel Levitas, expert on the American far right, wrote in a 2001 report for the Southern Poverty Law Center: “Legislators chose to emphasize the image of a looming, out-of-control federal agency—an image long cultivated by tax protest patriarchs and other ideologues of the radical right.” By doing so, they “give credence to right-wing activists’ claims of IRS abuse.”
To understand why, it is also necessary to place these attacks on the IRS in the larger context of rising anti-government sentiment following the 1992 standoff in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, where federal agents killed the wife and son of a white supremacist during a siege, and a deadly 1993 raid on a cult compound in Waco, Texas. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh claimed his attack on a federal office building was payback for “what the US government did at Waco and Ruby Ridge”. These events are also credited with igniting the modern militia movement.
The anti-government sentiment that inspired this violence and extremism seeped into the Republican Party as well. Only months after the Oklahoma City bombing, rather than rejecting the paranoia that fueled this horrific act of violence (as former President HW Bush did), Republicans in Congress authenticated McVeigh’s concerns about demanding investigations into the actions of federal agents at Ruby Ridge and Waco. “We’re sitting on a powder keg,” said Sen. Arlen Specter, “with a lot of anxiety and anger bubbling up across the country about overreach by the federal government.” The hearings that followed increased public focus on the government’s use of “military-style tactics” against ordinary American citizens.
The backlash to Ruby Ridge and Waco focused mainly on the potential dangers posed by the agencies involved in these events, the FBI and ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms). But this backlash tapped into a much larger well of anti-government sentiment (often fused with white Christian supremacy and anti-Semitism) that has long framed the IRS as a deeply sinister threat. If we zoom out to see this broader picture, a third defining moment joins Ruby Ridge and Waco in a kind of holy trinity of anti-government martyrology: the 1983 death of tax protester Gordon Kahl in a confrontation with law enforcement.
Kahl was a self-proclaimed “Christian patriot” and a member of the far-right Posse Comitatus. After embracing white supremacy and anti-Semitic ideology of Christian identity, he came to believe that “taxation was a scheme by ‘international Jews’ to enslave America”, and stopped paying his taxes. In 1983, Kahl killed two federal marshals when they tried to arrest him on a tax-related charge. After fleeing and going into hiding, he defended himself in a 16-page letter: “We are a conquered and occupied nation; conquered and occupied by the Jews, and their hundreds or perhaps thousands of front organizations doing their wicked work.” Front organizations like the IRS.
Today, when sitting U.S. senators are raising fears of a “shadow army” of IRS agents, it’s important to remember this shadow history. Those attacking the IRS today do not necessarily share Kahl’s anti-Semitism or propensity for violence. But when our political leaders repeat barely sanitized versions of far-right conspiracy theories, they consciously or unconsciously continue the violent anti-government project that Kahl and others set in motion, introducing and legitimizing these sentiments to new generations of conservatives. This is how it becomes extreme mainstream.