The Long March of “General” William Barr
US Attorney General William Barr is frequently criticized for corrupting his office to protect President Donald Trump. But something more sinister than personal fealty is at work, because Barr is a true believer in a theory of presidential power that, if implemented, would destroy America's constitutional order.
NEW YORK – The death of George Floyd, an unarmed and handcuffed black man, at the hands – or, more accurately, the knee – of a police officer in Minneapolis ignited massive protests across the United States against systemic racism and police brutality. It also spurred a growing number of people outside the US to confront the legacies of racism and inequality in their own countries. Donald Trump’s administration, however, is doing no such thing.
Instead, the Trump administration has continued – even accelerated – its effort to hollow out America’s institutions in favor of a nihilistic populism. Its ultimate goal remains unchanged: to create a full-fledged illiberal regime in the US.
No one is more committed to this dream than William Barr, Trump’s attorney general. Barr may not have the foggiest idea who Antonio Gramsci was; Trump almost certainly doesn’t. But Barr’s lust for power and Trump’s feral cunning seem to have led the two men to intuit the Italian Marxist philosopher’s theory of cultural hegemony: the idea that the ruling class gains society’s consent to the status quo by ensuring that a country’s institutions embody and promote a legitimating ideology.
Schools, courts, religious institutions, and the media, for example, can play a powerful role in in the internalization of norms, values, and beliefs. Trump, Barr, and US Republicans more generally have used all of these institutions. But, in response to the ongoing protests, the Trump administration has gone a step further, deploying law enforcement and even the military to advance their ideological ends.
On June 1, Barr – who, it is said, relishes the “general” in his job title – ordered the expansion of the protective perimeter that had been set up around the White House. Officers fulfilled that mission – which involved clearing peaceful protesters from Lafayette Park, the site of many important protests in America’s history – using tear gas, smoke bombs, pepper spray, police batons, horses, and riot shields.
Trump then waddled across the emptied park in order to be photographed awkwardly holding a Bible in front of St. John’s Church. Barr stood proudly nearby, alongside a real general, Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who, after a tidal wave of criticism, subsequently expressed regret for having participated. “My presence in that moment and in that environment,” Milley acknowledged, “created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics.” In fact, it was worse than that: the stunt called into question the US military’s 240-year-old tradition of remaining strictly apolitical.
Subscribe to Project Syndicate
Enjoy unlimited access to the ideas and opinions of the world's leading thinkers, including weekly long reads, book reviews, and interviews; The Year Ahead annual print magazine; the complete PS archive; and more – all for less than $2 a week.
Trump insists that his politicization of the military is a matter of upholding “law and order” – a phrase that harks back to Richard Nixon, another tough-talking US president with autocratic aspirations. Though the demonstrations have been mostly peaceful, Trump claims that using force against protesters is actually an “act of compassion,” because it supposedly “saves lives.” Antonio Gramsci, meet George Orwell.
Former senior US military leaders see through the Trump administration’s deceit and have condemned the Lafayette Square stunt. General James Mattis, Trump’s own former secretary of defense, said this “abuse of executive authority” made “a mockery” of the US Constitution. Over 1,000 former justice department officials published a letter requesting an internal review of Barr’s handling of the protests.
But both Barr and Trump are as committed as ever to their pursuit of illiberal cultural hegemony. Trump has demonized protesters, including by touting the absurd conspiracy theory that a 75-year-old protester whom police were caught on camera shoving to the ground was an “Antifa provocateur.” He also attempted to deploy 10,000 active-duty troops in the streets of Washington, DC, to “dominate” the demonstrators, whom he calls “thugs.”
Likewise, Barr has played up the violence, claiming – without any evidence – that “far-left extremist groups” are stoking it. And he actually did deploy his own “army”: federal correctional officers – trained in quelling prison riots, not managing peaceful protests – who wore black clothes without badges or other insignia.
There is, however, a key difference between Trump and Barr. The former is a reality-TV autocrat content to think that pretending to be strong makes him strong, even as he hides in a bunker and behind an impossibly high security fence. (Having been born in Russia, I am all too familiar with a president who hides behind high walls that are supposed to symbolize power, but actually betray the state’s fear of civil society.)
Barr, by contrast, is a determined apparatchik. While Trump asserts that his authority is “absolute,” Barr is dedicated to carrying out the “long march through the institutions” – in the words of Rudi Dutschke, the 1960s German radical leader who studied Gramsci’s work – required to make that claim true. This has meant, for example, undermining Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, and forcing federal prosecutors to drop their case against Trump’s first national security adviser, General Michael Flynn. His latest assault on democracy is the dismissal of US Attorney Geoffrey Berman, a Manhattan-based federal prosecutor who has investigated several of Trump’s associates.
Barr has not corrupted his office and chipped away at executive accountability and transparency merely out of personal loyalty to Trump. His motivations are ideological. As a staunch proponent of the theory of a unitary executive, he wholeheartedly subscribes to the view that a president’s power is all-encompassing. By this logic, Trump has the right to gut any investigation into his actions, and congressional oversight of the presidency should be severely curtailed. Barr’s “chilling vision of unchecked presidential power,” as the journalist Damon Linker calls it, is akin to that of Carl Schmitt, the Nazis’ favorite legal philosopher.
General Barr is thus a true Gauleiter. And, under Trump, he has been given the ultimate opportunity to implement his ideology, whatever the consequences for America’s constitutional order. I suspect that even Gramsci would be stunned by how openly Barr has deployed the “apparatus of state coercive power” to enforce “discipline on those groups who do not ‘consent’” to Trump’s – and Barr’s – own hegemony.