One of the greatest lessons of the Trump era is one we should have learned a long time ago. The idea of a Republican establishment made up of straight-arrow, patriotic, All-American “adults” has been a myth for decades now, and it needs to be thrown in the rubbish bin once and for all. There may have been a time when most GOP officials, whether conservative or moderate, were “traditionalists” or “institutionalists” or maybe “constitutionalists,” but that time is long past. Indeed, at this point there is only one Republican among the 53 in the U.S. Senate whom you could even remotely identify as being in that mold: Mitt Romney. And he is hardly a fearless crusader for truth, justice and the American way.
Just because someone’s been around since the days when all those Poppy Bush types were running things doesn’t mean they must be benign compared to today’s culture warriors. That was a huge mistake, and no one has proved that more dramatically than Attorney General Bill Barr.
We should have known. Barr’s record was out there for all to see and he hasn’t exactly been quiet about his views. After all, he was hired on the basis of an unsolicited letter in which he laid out the case for the president being answerable to no one but the voters. Barr simply does not believe that the normal understanding of constitutional checks and balances in the American political system is correct.
David Rohde of the New Yorker has delved deeply into Barr’s history and it’s clear that although he’s been in and around Republican government circles since the 1980s, he was never an institutionalist and his views of the Constitution are anything but traditional. He grew up in the 1960s as a right-winger and believes that ever since the reforms enacted in the wake of Richard Nixon’s resignation the presidency had been rendered impotent, which he claims makes the country vulnerable to all manner of threats, both internal and external. Barr is also an extremely conservative Catholic, who thinks the whole culture has gone to hell in a handbasket because of liberal Hollywood and the media. It’s pretty clear that he’s always been a down-the-line racist, constantly excusing the marginalization of Black people as a consequence of their own alleged shortcomings.
His brain has not, in fact, been rotted by Fox News, as I and others have speculated. He’s always been this way. The problem is that Washington has never grappled with the fact that these people have been at the heart of the conservative movement from the very beginning.
Barr has eagerly demonstrated the validity of his theory that a president cannot be held accountable by the Congress, law enforcement or the courts if he simply refuses to cooperate. It’s helpful, of course, that President Trump is completely shameless and ignorant, which is not something you could expect from any other president. Time after time, Barr has acted as Trump’s consigliere, helping his friends and confidants, spinning and propagandizing on behalf of the administration, and energetically supporting the president’s authoritarian impulses.
But Barr doesn’t do any of that out of loyalty to Trump, or because Trump had ordered him to do it. He does it to advance his own views, which align in many respects with the president’s but are driven by his own ideology and cultural mindset.
Barr gave yet another of his shocking speeches this week, this time at ultra-conservative Hillsdale College. (He does this every few months and causes a mini-firestorm, after which we all shake our heads and gird for the next assault on what we thought was the rule of law.) He discussed his own far-right worldview, which he always couches in accusations that the other side (by which he means the secular left) are the real authoritarians doing the things he himself is doing. Presenting himself as the real civil libertarian is one of his most infuriatingly duplicitous poses.
He claimed that America is becoming like an Eastern European country where “you have to call your adversary a criminal and instead of beating them politically, you try to put them in jail. … if you’re not in power, you’re in jail — or you’re a member of the press.”
The smug hypocrisy of this statement by a man who serves Donald “Lock her up” Trump is overwhelming. In fact, coming from a man who has explored ways to bring criminal charges against the mayors of Seattle and Portland for allegedly failing to uphold law and order, and recently directed his U.S. attorneys to charge protesters with “sedition,” it is obscene.
Lest anyone get the idea that Barr is a man of principle, he isn’t. During Whitewater, Barr said that Clinton’s claims of lawyer-client privilege were preposterous and said, “I’ve been upset that a lot of the prerogatives of the presidency have been sacrificed for the personal interests of this particular president.” (Yes, the man who just intervened in a civil defamation case by a woman who claims she was raped by Donald Trump 25 years ago actually said that.) When George W. Bush came in, Barr argued in op-eds and congressional testimony that the president had “maximum power.” But when every right-winger in Congress was screeching hysterically about Barack Obama using “dictatorial powers” by issuing executive orders, he had nothing to say.
I think this proves that Barr’s loathing for “the left,” along with his culture war goals and old-fashioned racism, are his true north. The powerful presidency is only important if it’s used for the advancement of right-wing conservative ideology.
And as Salon’s Amanda Marcotte has recently pointed out, he is ready, willing and able to put the full force of the Department of Justice behind that cause, with his apparent commitment to helping Trump cause chaos in the upcoming election. Despite the utter hypocrisy of anyone associated with this president railing against political influence in prosecutions, Barr will undoubtedly be out there shaking his fist at anyone who tries to hold the corrupt Trump administration accountable for its crimes. For all we know, he might even be seeking to inoculate himself.
So the next time anyone tries to pass off some senior Republican who has been around politics and government for a long time as a “traditionalist” or an “institutionalist,” we had best ask what traditions and what institutions they are talking about. Most often, I’m afraid they aren’t the ones most people would define as democratic or constitutional or even American.