The United States was founded on pluralism, diversity and tolerance as core principles, even as these principles were found inapplicable to displaced Native Americans and Africans brought to America against their will. Yet even if honored in the breach, the US Constitution envisions a dynamic and evolving public square, where people of all faiths or no faith, or creeds, or national origins were to be accorded equal dignity; and the public square has expanded over the centuries to include women, LGBTQ people and racial minorities. The Constitution distributes and limits power, through a multi-branch federal government of checks and balances, an independent judiciary, and state and local authorities.
It is said to be a government of laws, not of men. That was the plan.
What has proven remarkable is that two men, Donald Trump and William Barr, enabled by a pliant Republican cadre in Congress, have found the cracks in the structure. The unseen gaps that require goodwill to hold the whole creaky structure together in some semblance of a democratic republic.
Trump is an impulsive autocrat by temperament who assumes that the country exists to nurture his endless grievances and makes policy choices apparently based on what will most enrage the people he hates. Barr is the theoretician, who creates an apparent superstructure of legality to the chaotic stew of intolerance and division. In shockingly short order, pluralism, diversity and tolerance have been supplanted by fierce sectarianism, division and an authoritarian focus on control of the streets steeped in race hatred, intolerance of dissent and a focus on putative moral decay that can only be repaired through denial of basic rights.
Trump wants to rule, to help his friends and hurt his enemies. Any theoretical, moral, or religious basis underpinning his vision is as risible as his posing with an upside-down Bible after Barr cleared protesters away from the White House with teargas. But Barr poses the multiple dangers of the true believer, combining religious zealotry with a view of executive power and an obsessive focus on state authority that combine to provide a recipe for repressive theocracy.
I have no doubt that Barr is as sincere in his strict Roman Catholic faith as Trump is indifferent to any sort of faith outside the gratification of his own ego. He believes that secular values lead to moral decline, exploding “illegitimacy rates,” “the wreckage of the family” and the “homosexual lifestyle.” He sees the nation as one in grave moral peril, not because of the moral exemplar of his boss, but because of socialism and secularism.
If Trump loses, the US would be “irrevocably committed to the socialist path.” Socialism, he believes, is inherently godless and therefore amoral, which must be stopped by a Trump victory. Of course, this is not the case; unlike Marxism, which had atheism as a core principle, there are plenty of Christian socialists — and Jewish socialists, for that matter — and there is nothing about an equitable division of wealth that somehow negates religious belief. Indeed, one could argue its fundamental basis in Christian teaching.
But Barr’s Catholic beliefs and reflexive fear of “the socialist path” lead him to the ironic conclusion that Trumpism is necessary to prevent moral collapse. The challenge presented to America, in Barr’s view, is “whether the citizens in such a free society could maintain the moral discipline and virtue necessary for the survival of free institutions.”
He has said: “The problem of excessive freedom is licentiousness — the unbridled pursuit of personal appetites at the expense of the common good. This is just another form of tyranny — where the individual is enslaved by his appetites, and the possibility of any healthy community life crumbles.”
Licentiousness is defined as being “promiscuous and unprincipled in sexual matters.” Barr seems to not recognize the irony in invoking the necessity for a Trumpian crackdown on freedom, when the “appetites” and “licentiousness” of Trump have had such devastating effects on the nation.
Barr is not thinking about Trump’s behavior. For Barr, self-government requires moral values; these values must rest on a transcendent moral order; and that moral order can only be based on “a transcendent Supreme Being.” In sum, “free government was only suitable and sustainable for a religious people.” And that religion comes from “the classical Christian tradition.” Thus, Christian values must be public values, and secular values threaten democracy. Furthermore, these values must not only be inculcated by parents at home. They must be taught in public schools.
As Barr puts it: “Education is not vocational training. It is leading our children to the recognition that there is truth and helping them develop the faculties to discern and love the truth and the discipline to live by it.”
He does not address the issue of teaching Christian ethics to Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, or atheist children. His vision of religion in the public square is binary: either moral, Christian, and orderly; or depraved, godless, and anarchic.
In such a Manichean world, the re-election of Trump is an existential necessity and what is done to get there is irrelevant. Mail-in voting is “playing with fire,” even though he could identify only a single instance of voter fraud through voting by mail, which has existed for decades. The Justice Department’s policy of not taking any prosecutorial action with political consequence within sixty days of an election will no longer be applied. The door is open to an “October surprise,” or even a post-election surprise, to try to tip the election to Trump.
Barr’s view of power is similarly hostile to the sometimes messy pluralism and tolerance that is at the core of a diverse democratic nature. He subscribes to the “unitary theory of the executive.” The entire executive branch is there only to carry out the will of the President. When the President says that “I can do whatever I want with the Department of Justice,” Barr agrees. All prosecutorial discretion is up to him. The Attorney General and his subordinates are merely his “hand.”
The President also has plenary power over the rest of the executive branch. He can overrule the scientists, order the military into the streets, give out and take away security clearances, make eleventh-hour Supreme Court nominations, separate children from their parents, endorse the virtues of injecting bleach. It is all up to him. There is little role for Congress, whose subpoenas can be ignored, and the role of the judiciary is highly circumscribed as well.
With just a few weeks left to the election, the flaws of our system have been laid bare. The tension between religious freedom and separation of church and state has been definitively resolved toward a highly sectarian agenda in public life, enforced by a radical Trumpian agenda.
The tension between order and liberty has been resolved to allow armed supremacist militias to march unimpeded, while Black Lives Matter is denounced as a threat to the country, and its protests are violently dispersed. Opposition to a divinely inspired set of values is not merely wrong, it must be suppressed because it threatens the Barr-Trump vision of unitary, concentrated power, enforcing an agenda of right-wing tribalism.
Our Founders assumed a measure of good faith and moderation in our leaders to keep the ship of state afloat. Barr and Trump have shown us how easy it is to send that ship to the bottom.
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