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A New Report Sheds Light on the Tea Party's IRS Delusion

The TIGTA report underscores the false notion of tyrannical taxation that some libertarians have been fixating on for years.
A man walks into the Internal Revenue Service building in Washington, D.C., on March 10th, 2016.

A man walks into the Internal Revenue Service building in Washington, D.C., on March 10th, 2016.

In the conservative fever swamps that shroud the Trump era of American politics, there were few greater abuses of power perpetrated by the heinous regime of Barack Obama than the Internal Revenue Service targeting scandal. The May of 2013 disclosure that the IRS had allegedly targeted for "intensive review" the right-leaning political organizations that formed the core of the Tea Party tax revolt in 2009 and "wantonly disclosed confidential documents," and engaged in other "inappropriate" activity sparked a years-long outcry from libertarian and economic conservatives. It was, as Tea Party Patriots president Jenny Beth Martin insisted on the four-year anniversary of the scandal this past May, "motivated by political animus and caused untold—incalculable, even—devastation to conservatives and to conservative groups."

"The IRS's targeting inspired fear and silenced entire groups across the country, as they disbanded and discontinued their work. The targeting was unfair, unconstitutional, and, yes, un-American," Martin wrote, pointing the finger at the mainstream media for turning a blind eye to the problem. "A free and robust press must, on the one hand, be free of government control and coercive pressures to propagandize, but, on the other hand, must be judicious enough to recognize, and report on, the stories and scandals like the IRS targeting that threaten our liberty."

Martin is right about one thing: Paying taxes is no fun, and the IRS is a bureaucratic boogeyman, the embodiment of the state's coercive power that's so antithetical to the minarchist freedom that libertarians and conservatives often envision. But even though taxation may be theft, the IRS is absolutely an equal opportunity bandit.

That's the conclusion of a report issued last week by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, the IRS's accountability and oversight office. The Washington Post reports that, in a review of instances in which the IRS used "inappropriate political criteria to select groups for heightened scrutiny" between 2004 and 2013, TIGTA found that liberal-leaning groups were also frequently targeted for additional review. Groups with names that included phrases like "Progressive" and "Occupy" were targeted for extra scrutiny right alongside those with "Patriot" and "9/12." The scrutiny paid to Tea Party groups wasn't exceptional; it was business as usual.

The TIGTA report underscores the delusion of tyrannical taxation that's captured the more libertarian element of the cultural wave that President Donald Trump rode in on. Americans voted for Trump to drain the swamp; now, the White House's once-in-a-generation tax overhaul and its significant giveaways to corporations are putting the GOP at odds with Trump's base, voters who favor cuts for low- and middle-income households and don't believe the benefits of corporate tax cuts will actually trickle down.

The explanation for this far-right tax delusion, of course, is simple: It's not about taxes or tyranny, but partisanship. Those working-class Americans who turned out for Trump were certainly not doing looking out for their own economic interests; they were given a promise of an impossible future and offered various scapegoats on which to blame their problems.

But the Trump era, more than any other time in Americans political life, is a post-truth era—and, as a result, the specter of the IRS boogeyman will continue. The Washington Post notes that, after facing pressure from Republican lawmakers for years to prosecute disgraced IRS official Lois Lerner, Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd finally responded in September of 2017 that doing so "would not be appropriate based on the available evidence"—a decision Texas Republican Representative Kevin Brady attacked.

"It sends the message that the same legal, ethical, and Constitutional standards we all live by do not apply to Washington political appointees—who will now have the green light to target Americans for their political beliefs and mislead investigators without ever being held accountable for their lawlessness," Brady said, per the Post, adding that the recent TIGTA report "reinforces what government watchdogs and congressional investigators have confirmed time and time again: bureaucrats at the IRS, such as Lois Lerner, arbitrarily and haphazardly administered the tax code and targeted taxpayers based on political ideology."

The IRS delusion will persist, and no number of inspector general reports will make the threat of bureaucratic malfeasance a less potent patsy for Trump to conjure. After all, the TIGTA report doesn't dispute that targeting did occur—it only confirms that targeting happened fairly equally across the political spectrum. But in a world of ideological silos, nobody's thinking about the other side.