Sunday, 8 Dec 2019

Opinion | Bill Barr, the Man From 1980

In two recent speeches, one at Notre Dame and the other before the Federalist Society, Attorney General Bill Barr infuriated people already infuriated with him by issuing extended attacks on contemporary liberalism.

The first speech, a defense of religious liberty and religious conservatism, attacked the “growing ascendancy of secularism and the doctrine of moral relativism” and decried the “immense suffering, wreckage and misery” unleashed in “the new secular age.”

The second speech, a defense of presidential power, attacked the anti-Trump Resistance — congressional and judicial, not just activist — for undermining legal norms and participating in “a steady grinding down of the executive branch’s authority,” reducing the presidency to a state of weakness that frustrates its constitutional purposes.

Barr’s critics regard these speeches as inflammatory because of the sharpness of their partisanship. But from the perspective of their intended audience, conservative elites, they’re mostly striking as exercises in reassurance. The Trump era has been understood, reasonably, as a moment of discontinuity for the American right — a moment when the expiration of Reaganism became apparent, when the alienation of movement conservatism from its voters was exposed, when the diagnoses and prescriptions of 1980 were decisively rejected even if no new synthesis was yet apparent.

What Barr’s speeches presuppose, basically, is what if it wasn’t? What if everything you believed before Trump, you can still believe today?

In the Notre Dame speech, this reassurance manifests itself in a restatement of the assumptions that have guided organized religious conservatism since the 1960s: that the chief threat to religious faith comes from secularizing elites; that the great moral debates of our time pit Christian rigorists on the right against moral relativists on the left; that religious conservatives and limited-government conservatives can be natural allies because the welfare state is an ersatz religious institution that crowds out private charity and churches.

Many of these broad analytic strokes still apply to the contemporary scene. The hostility of elite cultural institutions to traditional Christianity is an enduring fact of American life. Barr’s account of liberal-led legal harassment of conservative religious institutions is accurate. The connection he draws between the weakening of religious practice and the working class’s social crisis is contestable but entirely plausible.

But there’s no attempt in the speech to address the recent trends that complicate religious conservatism’s ’70s-era vision — even though those trends helped make Barr’s boss the president of the United States.

For instance, there’s no mention of the extent to which conservative lawyers already won a series of battles against the harder sort of secularism — even liberal jurisprudence today is less strictly secularist than in the ’70s — and it didn’t matter much to the cultural erosion of their faith.

There’s no mention of how much of that erosion has happened under administrations friendly to conservative Christianity, and therefore probably reflects internal weakness, division and scandal more than pressure from outside.

There’s no reckoning with the tension between the G.O.P.’s religious and libertarian wings, the clear support of many religious conservatives for the welfare state that official conservatism decries — or the extent to which Trump won the Republican nomination by running against the familiar critique of big government that Barr recycles in his speech.

And there’s no acknowledgment that a familiar tag like “moral relativism” may be a poor fit for a woke progressivism whose moral fervor is increasingly the opposite of relativist — but perhaps a better fit for a religious conservatism that has demonstrated an embarrassing, at times self-discrediting moral flexibility in its support of, well, Donald Trump.

If these and other issues complicate the thesis of Barr’s Notre Dame address, a similar accounting of trends in presidential power makes the thesis of his Federalist Society speech look totally implausible. Again, his theme is reassurance: reassuring legal conservatism that its Reagan-era vision of an executive unduly constrained by an overreaching Congress still applies to the presidency of 2019.

But it obviously, obviously doesn’t. The presidency and its powers were, indeed, weakened substantially in the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate, which is part of why conservatism at the time reasonably sought their reassertion. But since Reagan and especially since 9/11 there has been a dramatic re-expansion of the imperial presidency, with a successful consolidation of sweeping presidential powers over war making and a more contested attempt to claim new powers over domestic policy — both of which have advanced under Democratic and Republican presidents alike.

Barr does acknowledge, because he must, the increasing abdication of Congress from its policymaking duties. But he claims that the legislature has nonetheless expanded its power over the executive, by replacing policymaking with an “abuse of the advice-and-consent process” that holds up and harasses and sometimes rejects many presidential nominees.

But the change in the advice-and-consent process reflects the weakness of Congress, not its overweening, presidency-constraining strength. An imperial presidency, by its nature, raises the stakes for presidential nominations and appointments: The fact that the president can go to war without congressional authority makes Defense and State Department nominations more fraught; the fact that presidents are constantly pushing the envelope on immigration policy or health care regulations turns Health and Human Services and Department of Homeland Security nominations into a battlefield. But all of this is happening because the presidency is more powerful than ever, leaving the people’s branch reduced to fighting over which viziers our czar gets to empower or have whispering in his ear.

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Barr is probably right that the Trump presidency has been weaker than its immediate predecessors, more constrained and hamstrung and impeded; he’s certainly right that Trump has had unusual difficulties in getting nominations through. But this weakness reflects his boss’s extraordinary incompetence at least as much as it reflects the machinations of the Resistance — though, of course, this isn’t something Trump’s attorney general can be exactly expected to admit.

He should be expected, however, to accurately describe the general drift of law and politics and culture, rather than soothingly telling audiences that little has changed since 1980 and that, Trump notwithstanding, the contours of conservative ideology can remain substantially intact.

There are two ways to read Barr’s inaccurate-but-ideologically-reassuring portraits of our politics — these twin attempts, as Damon Linker puts it, to achieve the “full assimilation” of the Trump presidency into “the conservative movement and the story it tells itself” about the world. One, which Linker partially endorses, is more alarmist: If conservatives believe that even today’s presidency is much too constrained and that secular elites can be blamed for all our problems, then we should fear an authoritarian cascade on the right, and expect a post-Trump quest for an American Constantine who can restore the presidency and the one true faith alike.

The other, which I’m drawn to by my own obsession with decadence, would emphasize futility instead. A conservatism that constantly reconverts itself to the worldview of the Reagan era isn’t poised to claim sweeping, authoritarian power, in the service of religious revolution or any other cause. It’s poised for repetition, gridlock and failure — ever-imagining itself seizing the initiative, but really letting itself be carried backward, a boat against the current, into the world of Bill Barr’s youth and past.

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