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Bill Barr and the Authoritarian Impulse

December 5, 2019
Bill Barr and the Authoritarian Impulse
Show respect. Or else. (OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)

1. Bill Barr and the Po-Po

Ask any conservative and he’ll tell you how terrible government workers are.

They’re lazy and stupid. They have no idea what it’s like in the private sector where results are all that matters. They’re politically motivated and they’re choking off this country’s life-force and we should never, ever, trust them.

You have to hold the government to accountability, always.

Unless the government operation is one that’s issued a fire-arm and the authority to kill people.

Those guys you can trust completely. And anyone who questions the cops is a snowflake who doesn’t care about law and order and blah blah blah.

This worldview predates Donald Trump by several decades and probably goes back to the summer of 1968. If not before.

Where does it come from? I had always assumed it was rooted in latent racism. But Bill Barr has helpfully demonstrated that while racism may play some part, a latent sympathy for authoritarianism is part of it, too.

Here’s what Barr said earlier this week:

I think today, American people have to focus on something else, which is the sacrifice and the service that is given by our law enforcement officers. And they have to start showing, more than they do, the respect and support that law enforcement deserves―and if communities don’t give that support and respect, they might find themselves without the police protection they need.

I mean, that’s not a threat, exactly.

Oh who are we kidding: It’s absolutely a threat. The top law enforcement officer telling the American people that if they don’t show proper “respect” then maybe the cops won’t protect them?

He’s basically one step away from issuing a Code Red.

Let us stipulate that many police officers are diligent, skilled professionals. Do we need to feel “grateful” for them? I mean, they weren’t drafted. They get paid. There are great pensions. But whatever. I respect anyone who does a difficult job well. I respect electricians and guys who hang drywall and surgeons who are good at their jobs.

And let us also stipulate that there are bad cops. I don’t want to rehearse the entire litany. Here’s one very, very minor example, if you need it.

But bad cops shouldn’t color your overall view of law enforcement. There’s bad people in every line of work: journalists, priests, contractors.

No, what should make you deeply distrustful of law enforcement in America is the manner in which the entire system—from line officers to supervisors to prosecutors to the unions—not only doesn’t aggressively prosecute the bad cops, but goes out of their way to protect them.

It would not be unfair to say that, as an organizational matter, law enforcement approaches bad cops roughly the way the Catholic bishops have treated priest sex abusers.

(Except that, as a percentage matter, there seem to be a lot more bad cops than there are bad priests.)

Which is what makes bad cops a systemic problem.

America’s top law enforcement officer ought to be concerned with trying to address this problem. Instead, he is consciously trying to make it worse.

This is as deep a corruption as anything Donald Trump has done. And the truth is, you can’t really blame Trump for it.

2. Feared, Beloved, Belittled

One of the troubling things about Trump supporters is how they pivoted from insisting, during the campaign, that he was Superman with amazing powers that would Get the Best Deals and Make America Great Again.

And then, as failure after failure piled up from Trump’s administration they pivoted to lamenting how no one could ever achieve anything given the terrible powers arrayed against him.

There seems to be no cognitive dissonance here, no sense of accountability. No belief that Hey, he said that only he could deliver and now he’s not delivering and we’re suppose to just blame someone else?

No. Instead, Trump’s defenders insist that he has to be graded on a curve. That no one else could possibly do better.

(It is a funny parallel that this precise attitude took over Obama’s defenders who went from insisting that he could change the level of the seas to arguing that it was unfair to expect him to be the Green Lantern.)

Which brings us to foreign policy.

Let us stipulate that being loved by foreign leaders might be nice, but being feared/respected is better.

Donald Trump is held in total, open contempt.

By our allies, that is. Not by our enemies. Our enemies laugh at his jokes and smile and they fact that they all seem to be getting everything they want from America suggests that it isn’t because they’re afraid of him.

Whose fault is that?

Maybe our allies are bad, uncooperative people. Maybe our enemies are crafty and devious.

Maybe it’s not Trump’s fault.

But the results speak for themselves. And whatever he’s doing isn’t working.

So you could try something else. Or you could make excuses for him.

3. Kamala

This is a very smart piece by Peter Hamby that is well worth you time:

Kamala Harris’s announcement speech in Oakland, her hometown, was both a signal of her enormous potential and a living portrait of what the 2020 Democratic electorate is supposed to look like. It was also, in hindsight, the launch of a national field experiment in how to squander a vast reservoir of political goodwill. . . .

The crowd was into it. The press praised it. There was a long way to go, but it felt like a good start. After all, could Joe Biden pull a crowd this big? But Harris left out something vital, a missing ingredient that would come to define her candidacy and the sputtering campaigns of too many Democrats running for president: a message. Why Kamala Harris? What was the story of her campaign? . . .

An unfortunate byproduct of Twitter’s chokehold on elite discourse is that it forces otherwise smart people to focus so deeply on niche arguments and savvy takes that we often forget things that used to be rather obvious in politics. Among them: Winning campaigns have a message. It’s not a complicated or sexy piece of analysis, but the four Democratic front-runners—Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg—have all defined for voters and the media why they are running for president and what separates them from other choices on the ballot. Regardless of ideology or background, they can answer the question in a tidy and easy-to-understand fashion. No other Democrat besides Andrew Yang has done so. The front-runners have organizing principles. They get attention without relying on “moments.” They can raise money. Their policies, personality, talents, and biography all gel together in a way that makes sense. Their ability to explain why they are each running for president gives them a permanent safe harbor— an ability to change the subject, to go on offense, to ignore the utter smallness of Twitter, and to beat into the brains of voters an uncomplicated framework that they can carry with them to the caucus precinct or ballot box come Election Day.

Harris failed to do any of these things.

Read the whole thing.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.