Part 2. Un-framing the IRS
How to BEAT the right-wing attack machine.
Republicans are clearly on the side of global financial elites. In addition to slashing their taxes, they gutted the IRS budget, helping white collar criminals get away with tax evasion. That’s just not fair to the people and businesses who obey the law. Now they are inciting violence against overworked public servants. They should be ashamed of themselves.
In Part 1, we talked about when to ignore the wing-nuts who desperately need our attention. Here, we talk about large-scale coordinated assaults by the right-wing attack machine, and how to fight back.
The Inflation Reduction Act provides the IRS with $80 billion in direly needed funding to update antiquated equipment and hire 87,000 people over ten years. This funding will help reduce inflation and pay for itself many times over in the collection of taxes already owed by wealthy people and big corporations.
The Right has been at war with government and taxes for decades, but this time, they take their opposition right over the edge into conspiracies and dangerous fear-mongering. What is truly disturbing, is the degree of coordination in these attacks and the fact that they are coming from formerly moderate Republican voices.
What is the right-wing attack machine?
The right-wing attack machine is the vast propaganda industry for the alliance between market fundamentalists (the free-market, trickle-down guys) and Christian fundamentalists (increasingly, white Christian nationalists.) They may seem like strange bedfellows, but they are actually united by a common vision of what they believe constitutes right and wrong.
The attack machine frames the debate by giving people a completely different way to interpret what they are seeing and hearing, a narrative based on “alternative facts.” They always have a story to tell, full of graphic imagery and designed to make us appear evil and them appear heroic.
They promote that narrative consistently and relentlessly through the Republican Party, Fox News, and their vast networks of right-wing radio, podcasts, websites, social media channels, local newspapers and activist groups. Their strategy is to provoke outrage, dominate the public debate and plant those graphic images into everybody’s heads. And it almost always works.
Framing the IRS
In the latest right-wing narrative, the IRS is hiring an army of 87,000 gun-wielding agents to terrorize middle-class taxpayers at the bidding of President Biden and his oppressive socialist regime. Their “evidence” for this is a gross misrepresentation of a job listing for a very small division in the IRS that involves armed law enforcement.
U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley:
“Are they going to have a strike force that goes in with AK-15s (sic) already loaded ready to shoot some small business person in Iowa with these? Because I think they are going after middle class and small business people because basically they think anyone that has pass-through income is a crook and they aren’t paying their fair share and we’re going to go after them.”
Fox News host Brian Kilmeade:
The IRS is "Joe Biden's new army" that will "hunt down and kill middle class taxpayers that don't pay enough."
Their intention is to stoke their MAGA base’s irrational fears of violent oppression by the Biden Administration, and to demonize the federal government as a whole.
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Don’t Say This
Do not expose persuadable people to right-wing imagery.
Do not create, share, or even comment on, any content that includes the language of the original attacks. Their language is designed to evoke specific images in people’s minds.
“There is no such thing as an IRS strike force! IRS agents don’t carry automatic weapons. It is ludicrous to think they would invade your business!”
This causes people to involuntarily visualize an IRS strike force with automatic weapons invading their business! It’s the “don’t think of an elephant” problem. Whether you are arguing for or against their narrative, exposure to their language makes people visualize those images.
The same is true for the following social media content. It all evokes the exact images that we don’t want in people’s heads.
Do not validate right-wing assumptions.
When we try to defend ourselves against attacks on their terms, we run the risk of giving credibility to their underlying assumptions. Those assumptions are often attempts to frame good things as bad and bad things as good.
“It’s really not that many new people. The IRS will only be adding X new agents because X people will be retiring, plus it’s spread out over ten years.”
Our response validates the framing that having a lot more IRS agents is a bad thing. We don’t believe that. We don’t need to apologize for hiring people we genuinely need.
“Less than 3,000 IRS agents are armed enforcement officers.”
This validates the framing that there is something wrong with having IRS agents that carry guns. We don’t believe that either. We don’t need to apologize for having people whose job it is to enforce the law.
They know these attacks are B.S. from the start. Their only mission is to make us waste our precious “air-time” spreading their attacks to a larger audience. We have to ignore them and remember our mission: to expose persuadable people to our narrative.
Un-framing the IRS
Our stories have to get persuadable people to see situations from our perspective and judge us and our opponents based on what we believe constitutes right and wrong. In attack situations, they should also function as a counter-narratives, ones that fundamentally contradict the opposition’s narratives without repeating them.
The IRS does important work, without which our country could not function, but they are seriously understaffed and in dire need of modernization. This funding is a great investment. We’ll get back more than five times what we spent. It will lower inflation, make it easier and cheaper to pay our taxes, improve customer service and speed up tax refunds.
Republicans have starved the IRS of funding for years and now they are trying to demonize and incite violence against hard working public servants. Why? Because they don’t want the IRS to be able to do its job. Republicans gave the super-rich and global corporations a massive tax cut. They want to help their rich friends break the law and leave you with the bill.
This doesn’t actually address or refute the claims in the original attacks. It doesn’t have to. It provides a totally different way to see the situation and (hopefully) provokes our opponents to defend themseves on our territory.
THAT is how you play offense.
Portray the IRS and taxes in positive ways.
We believe these things and others should too. We shouldn’t let the anti-government, anti-tax crowd scare us away from saying them.
“People want a government that works, and it can’t work without the IRS. They don’t just collect, they distribute the revenue that pays for everything from national defense to Social Security and Medicare, from schools to highways to cancer research.”
“When we pay our taxes, we are investing in the American people, in a better life for all of us: a functional government, a caring society and a successful future.”
Make the case for investing in the IRS.
Eighty billion dollars is a lot of money. Make sure people know that we have plenty of great reasons to invest that much in the IRS.
“This is a great investment. It literally pays for itself. Every dollar we invest in the IRS brings in $5 to $9 in revenue.”
“We can help bring down inflation by collecting the hundreds of billions of dollars rich tax evaders owe to the American people.”
“This will make it way easier to file your taxes, get support and get your refund on time. They’re going to make it so everyone can free e-file directly with the IRS.”
Use the term “investment” instead of “spending” wherever possible. It implies that we will get back more than what we put in.
“The IRS is tragically understaffed. They still have more than ten million unprocessed returns from 2021, and can only answer one out of every ten customer service calls.”
“This will pay for desperately needed modernization. They still use fax machines, and computers from the 1980s.”
They literally run on COBOL.
Make the debate about crime and fairness.
Democrats and Republicans alike believe that paying your taxes is an important part of what it means to be a good citizen. What really bothers people is when the wealthy and corporations don’t pay their fair share.
“Most people believe that paying your taxes is a patriotic duty. It’s about living up to your responsibilities to your fellow Americans.”
“The super-rich and multi-national corporations have far too many ways to skip out on their tax obligations. But it’s not just cheating. Tax evasion is a crime.”
“We believe that people should obey the law. It’s a question of fairness. When people don’t pay their fair share, they leave the rest of us holding the bill.”
“When business owners commit tax evasion, it gives them an unfair competitive advantage over business owners who obey the law. That’s just wrong. It’s time we cracked down on white collar criminals and stopped penalizing honest business owners for obeying the law.”
Use terms like “white collar criminals” and “guilty of tax evasion” more than “cheating on their taxes.” Helping people cheat is bad. Helping people commit crimes is much worse.
Once again, we’re on the side of fairness and the rule of law.
Make the right-wing defend themselves on our terms.
We would love to see Republicans try to explain how they are not doing the things we accuse them of here.
“Republicans are always doing the bidding of the super-rich and global financial elites. They slashed their taxes and helped them commit tax evasion by cutting the IRS’ enforcement budget to the bone. Since 2010, their ability to audit the super-rich is down 80%.”
“When Republicans fight funding for the IRS or traffic in wild conspiracy theories, it is because they don’t want the IRS to be able to do its job. What they are really saying is that people who commit white collar crimes should be able to get away with it, while the rest of us law abiding citizens pick up the bill.”
“I can’t believe that Republican party leaders are inciting violence against their own government employees. These people are accountants. They’re tech support. They sort paperwork, do data entry and answer phones in customer service call centers. Your lies are endangering their lives.”
The Bottom Line
If we respond to their claims, we simply amplify their portrayal of us. Our best response is to completely reframe the debate: get people to see it from our perspective and force the Republicans to defend themselves on our terms.
The IRS is tragically understaffed and in desperate need of modernization. The new funding is a great investment. It will pay for itself many times over. It will reduce inflation, make it easier for people to file their taxes, drastically improve customer service and help people get their tax refunds faster.
Paying your taxes is about living up to your responsibilities to your fellow Americans. When you skip out on your fair share, you are screwing over the law-abiding citizens who get stuck paying your bills. It’s also a crime.
Republicans gutted the IRS budget to help their white-collar criminal friends get away with tax evasion. Now they are inciting violence against public servants. They should be ashamed of themselves.
For the many, many reasons why it is a bad idea to post, share or comment on content containing right-wing attacks, see my previous newsletter:
Part 1. They light dumpster fires. We have to stop adding oxygen.
For more on this attack and where it came from, I recommend:
Behind the lie of ‘87,000 armed agents’: How an obscure factoid was bent into a popular GOP talking point from Grid News.
You might also enjoy this delightful satire from the always hilarious Alexandra Petri, also of the Washington Post:
Farewell, Mother. I am off to join the IRS army!
Thanks, as always, for reading. I hope you are able to use this in your work and your activism!
I look forward to your feedback and ideas.
Reframing America is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.