Carter Page recently made headlines when it was determined that while the FBI investigation into his involvement with Russia was warranted, the FBI’s application to the FISA court was severely flawed. The Republicans are trying to blame this on the Democrats and are suddenly very concerned about the FISA court and civil liberties. However, this does not seem to be the Democrats doing; rather it is a long-term problem with the FISA court that civil liberties advocates have been warning America about since its inception. Before the Carter Page episode, the Republicans actively defended FISA and it was the ACLU that was concerned about this court, bringing an unsuccessful lawsuit in 2012.
To infer that the Republicans are wrong now because they previously defended FISA and law enforcement against liberal critics would be to fall into an ad hominem tu quoque fallacy. In one version of this fallacy, it is concluded that what a person claims now is false because they previously claimed the opposite. While both claims (the current and the past) cannot be true at the same time, this does not show which one is false (and both might be false).
I hold that the Republicans and the ACLU are both right—there are problems with FISA. The Republicans and long-time liberal critics of the FBI and police are also right—there are problems with the FBI. As such, my issue with the Republicans is not that they are in error—I agree that the case of Carter Page was handled badly. My issue with the Republicans is that they are professing false motivations.
False motivation is a rhetorical tactic in which a person professes a laudable and credible motive for taking an action or holding a belief when this is not their real motive. This tactic is used to cast the person in a good light and to persuade others to accept their claim or actions. The idea is that if they convince others they are acting from a laudable and credible motive, then they will also persuade them they are doing right for the right reasons. The problem is, of course, that the professed motive is not the real motive. As such, they do not deserve any praise for acting from a laudable or credible motive and any persuasive power derived from claiming such a motive is thus earned by deceit.
It is important to note that a person’s motives do not affect the truth of a claim or the rightness of their action (or the morality of its consequences). For example, sugar companies have a strong profit motive to lie about negative effects of sugar, but this motive does not prove that their claims about sugar are not true. As another example, a person might give money to a charity to improve their reputation for an upcoming political campaign; but this does not make the act of giving the money or its consequences bad.
The Republicans are obviously not going to say that they are only concerned because they want to protect Trump and score political points by going after FISA and the FBI. While the Republicans profess that their concern with FISA and the FBI arise from concerns about constitutional rights and justice, the facts of the matter say otherwise.
As noted above, Republicans have consistently defended FISA and law enforcement against liberal critics and the ACLU. See, for example, the conservative view of Black Lives Matter. The Republican view suddenly changed when they learned what happened to Carter Page and realized they had been handed a chance to score political points. All the previous problems with FISA and law enforcement largely did not concern the Republicans—presumably because these problems involved people they did not like, mostly minorities. If the Republicans were motivated by a general concern about constitutional rights and justice, then they would have been on board with the ACLU lawsuit—the ACLU is consistently motivated by these concerns. Instead, the Republicans only discovered a concern for FISA and law enforcement when Carter Page (and others in the Trump orbit) have become the subject of investigations.
I want to stress again, that the Republicans are right that Carter Page was wronged and that FISA and law enforcement need to be reformed. Their motivations are irrelevant to the truth of their claims. However, their motivations are relevant to assessing their ethics and in assessing their rhetorical strategy. If they, like the ACLU, were champions of constitutional rights, then they would be worthy of praise. But they are clearly operating from different motives and only deserve whatever faint praise one earns by finally doing some small right from selfish motives.
It could be argued that Carter Page was the come to Jesus moment for the Republicans; that they had been staunchly defending FISA and law enforcement against liberal critics and the cruel oppression of a rich, white man finally made the scales fall from their eyes. They should, of course, be given a fair evaluation here. If this is the case, then one would expect them to play out the tale of Saul becoming Paul: they should change their ways and broadly defend constitutional rights and engage in constructive, but stern, criticism of abuses by law enforcement. If this happens, then I will admit that their professed motives are their real motives. If their concern begins and ends with rich, white guys (associated with Trump) then their true motives will be evident.
It could also be claimed that the Republicans are rationalizing. Rationalizing does have some similarity to the false motive strategy, but there is an important difference. When someone uses the false motive tactic, they are aware of their real motive and a lying when they profess a laudable or credible motive in its place. When someone rationalizes, they also present a laudable or credible motive in place of their real motive, but they are not only trying to deceive others—they are also striving to deceive themselves. If they succeed, it could be claimed that they are no longer lying—they are saying what they believe to be true. As such, rationalization might be seen as morally superior to the use of false motive; or perhaps it is worse, since it involves lying to one more person (themselves).
Since we can only discern motives from words and deeds, it can be hard to sort out when someone is engaged in a false motive tactic, rationalizing or telling the truth. However, we can try to sort things out. As noted above, if the Republicans profess, they are motivated by a concern for constitutional rights and justice, then this can be tested by observing how they act in other cases. If they are not consistent, then it is worth considering that they are engaged in using the false motivation method. It is also worth noting that people often fail to act consistently on their principles—so one can be sincere but flawed. If they seem to be struggling to convince themselves as well, then rationalization could be a possibility.
My view is, of course, that the Republicans generally do not care about the broader issues raised by the Carter Page case in terms of constitutional rights and problems with law enforcement. Their real motive, which can be assessed by their actions, seems to be to score political points and protect Trump. If they did, in fact, come to Jesus, then I will happily accept that they have had a Grinch like experience and their hearts have grown. In fact, I promise to write essays praising them should they engage in broad reforms of the courts and law enforcement that go beyond merely protecting Page, Trump and other rich white guys.