Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Bill Barr's Autocratic Theology

At Slate, Dahlia Lithwick interviews Donald Ayer, longtime Republican and Deputy Attorney General under George H.W. Bush, about the views of Attorney General Bill Barr:

You’ve known Bill Barr for a long time. And I think you’ve said that he took this job because there are things he wants to get done, that he has a fully realized worldview, both in terms of his view of the unitary executive, presidential power, an unbounded presidency. That’s part of it. There is another part of his worldview, which I think is a quasi-religious worldview. And I wondered if you’d be willing to talk about that a little.

I’ve spent some time lately reading some of the things he has written. He is a strong, believing Catholic, and that’s obviously a personal thing for him. And I don’t have any comment on that obviously. But one of the things that’s apparent when you read his various writings on the subject of executive power—the narrative he tells there for the country relating to religious belief is very similar and very parallel to his sense with regard to executive power. On executive power, he concocts a very wrong view that the founders actually intended the president to be a virtual autocrat. Never mind what you learned in eighth grade or high school about separation of powers and all of these ways that the different branches check each other, the checks and balances and all of that. Bill Barr’s view is that the founders intended a very strong executive who would be essentially immune from a whole variety of things, and that that reality was the reality in our country for the first almost 200 years. Well, that’s just utter hogwash.

But the key point is that in the ‘60s, or maybe the ‘70s, as he said, accelerating after Watergate, that all just went down the drain and we started attacking the executive in various ways. This is basically backward. The power of the president has gone into its ascendancy in the past 50 years. But that’s his view on that. And his personal role that he’s assigned himself is to restore that autocratic vision of the president.

Well, the same thing, on parallel way, is true of his views on religion. He sees the founders as people who were very concerned that Americans would remain a pious country of churchgoers whose strict religious moral views would govern them. And I guess he thinks that was the dominant story in our country, even though everyone else knows that our country was essentially created as a result of the rationalism, the enlightenment, the rise of empiricism and understanding of the world as a real physical place that had rules of its own.

But Barr sees the founders as focused overwhelmingly on piety and adherence to traditional Christian morals. And again, on a parallel with his views on autocracy, gosh, golly, gee, that went to hell in a hand basket starting in the ‘60s, with all the things that happened in the ‘60s and things that have happened since. And so again, his role that he sees for himself is to restore that. And a good microcosm of that, if you want to just think of one image, is Bill Barr ordering federal law enforcement people into Lafayette Park to clear out the park, so the president, the most vulgar, irreligious national leader we have ever had, could stride across Lafayette Park with a Bible in his hand and wave it at the camera in front of St. John’s Church.

So Barr has got this role for himself as a restorer of these worlds that never were. And essentially the only way he can perform that mission is by keeping Donald Trump happy. So that’s what we’re seeing now. We’re seeing him do whatever it takes to get Trump reelected and to keep Trump thinking that Barr is the guy who he needs to help him accomplish all this.

Sometimes I despair. We like to think if we educate people enough, they will have some understanding of how things are and how they used to be. But Bill Barr is by the  usual definition very well educated, and quite well read in the history of the US and its founding, but he is utterly and completely wrong about every historical question that matters to him. We simply can't expect the average American to be as well read as Barr is on these subjects; so how can we expect anyone to have a clue about American history and what it means now? 

Between those on the left who think the American Revolution was really a defense of slavery, and those on the right who think it was all about Christianity or autocracy, where are we? If the level of knowledge that Bill Barr has about the past is not enough to change his mind about it, is there any way to change anyone's mind?


G. Verloren said...

Between those on the left who think the American Revolution was really a defense of slavery, and those on the right who think it was all about Christianity or autocracy, where are we?

One of those things is not like the other.

The American Revolution wasn't "a defense of slavery" in spirit or intent, but it absolutely did defend the practice, even if only indirectly. Taking power away from the British crown, and giving it instead directly to the slaveowning colonial merchants, all but guaranteed that slavery would persist far longer in America than everywhere else in the Empire.

Even if you wanted to argue that the Revolution itself was ostensibly spiritually on the side of abolition (based on the language of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, etc), the simple fact is that after the revolution slavery became stronger than it had ever been before in the colonies.

And we're not talking very long after the revolution, either! Just look at the American response to the Haitian Revolution, which began in 1791, only four years after the signing of the Constitution.

It was a revolution by the common people of a colony against the authority of a king, based directly on all the principles of the American Revolution itself, invoking the principles of liberty and the equality of all men...

...and the overwhelming response of the "Founding Fathers" of America was horror and violent reactionary opposition, shaping a brutally hostile national policy toward Haiti that would last for the next two centuries, and result in orchestrated efforts to intentionally impoverish and exploit millions for generations to come.

If the Revolution didn't seek to defend slavery, it still managed to do so in stark contrast to the steadily growing abolitionist sentiments of the British Government of the same era. It is indisputable that had the revolution not happened, slavery in America would have ended decades if not half a century or more sooner.

David said...


I would be less concerned with interpretations of the American Revolution than with the fact that Barr has dangerous, autocratic, and theocratic ideas and is in a position to pursue them with effect. He doesn't need to have his mind changed; the forces that support him need to be defeated.

As for changing minds, I'd like to find a way to turn millions of voters away from such ideas as that the world is controlled by George Soros, that Trump is a paladin fighting the Satanic-pedophilic cabal, and that unpleasant scientific news is merely a hoax designed to control people and take away their guns.

Rincon said...

I'm sorry, but I don't think this has anything to do with Barr's understanding of the founders or the American Revolution or what he or anyone else has been taught about history or knows or doesn't know about current affairs. What we see today in Barr and the Trump Republican party in the era of Fox News is a triumph of an ideology in the political arena in the face of silent consent by Republicans who know better and abetted by the generations-long weakness of the Democratic party.

To quote David Frum, "If conservatives become convinced that they cannot win democratically, they will not abandon conservatism. They will reject democracy." That is what Trump and Barr are doing now (for their idiosyncratic reasons).

That is what is at stake in the Nov election. Be forewarned that a defeat of Trump in November will not win the battle ... it is just the start as long as political power in the US is distributed as it is in the Senate and Electoral College. It would be one thing if that pulled us toward common ground in the political center. But it has been exploited by the Republican party to pull us apart over the past ~40 years.

Frum notes that "Hillary Clinton won the counties that produced 64 percent of the nation’s wealth. Even in Trump states, Clinton won the knowledge centers, places like the Research Triangle of North Carolina." The 64 percent do not have all of the right answers for this nation. But if the 36 percent can rule, this nation will not hold together in the modern world.