But there’s another, equally disturbing answer to this question, one rooted in a deeper worldview articulated by Barr and even by Trump himself: The idea that the political enemy is so ruthless and existentially threatening that employing extraordinary and extralegal means to crush that enemy is justified.
Barr gave a shocking interview to CNN late Wednesday that left zero doubt about his intentions. Barr refused to denounce Trump’s suggestion that people should try to illegally vote twice (by mail and in person), supposedly to test vote-by-mail’s validity. Trump brazenly repeated this on Thursday.
Barr also repeated his frequent claims that vote-by-mail elections have been riddled with fraud and that a foreign power could fabricate thousands of mail ballots. Both are utter nonsense. But in saying them, Barr is telegraphing his willingness to legitimize Trump’s eventual effort to try to invalidate untold numbers of mail ballots, which Trump has already told us is coming.
Meanwhile, Barr is party to another extraordinary move: Trump just approved a memo declaring the intention to restrict federal funding to Democratic-led cities designated as “anarchist jurisdictions.” Barr will determine which cities earn this label.
This is being widely denounced as illegal, and it may go nowhere. But let’s focus on its stated rationale: A city will be designated as such if it has “permitted violence and the destruction of property” and “forbids the police force from intervening to restore order.”
The idea that these officials have deliberately allowed violence and restrained police from restoring order is crucial. In reality, officials are working amid extremely complex, fast-moving conditions to balance the restoration of order and public safety with respect for civil liberties and peaceful assembly, while (ideally) avoiding abuse of the awesome powers of state violence.
Sometimes this fails, with tragic consequences that run in both directions. But this isn’t a mere choice between “restoring order” and “choosing to allow maximum disorder to run rampant.” This is even true in Seattle, Wash., where the police-free zone was an attempt at a good-faith mediated solution to getting this balance right that got scrapped when it became untenable.
But the obliteration of these complexities is central to the larger argument that Barr — and Trump, in his un-intellectually grounded way — is making.
A declaration of war on ‘the left’
Trump’s reelection case is premised on not just on the idea that Joe Biden and Democrats are too weak to control leftist violence. It’s also that they are willingly allowing those forces to run rampant, in the full knowledge that they are out to destroy the very possibility of civil society itself.
Both Trump and Barr have delivered major speeches spelling out this worldview. Commemorating Independence Day, Trump likened his own struggle against “the radical left, the Marxists, the anarchists” to the struggle to defeat fascism in World War II.
Trump is at war with the left, to rescue civil society itself. He recently declared: “We’re saving the world from a radical left philosophy that will destroy this country.”
For his part, Barr, speaking to the Federalist Society last November, infamously declared that “it is the left” that poses the true threat to the “rule of law,” through a “scorched earth, no-holds barred” war against Trump.
Barr also voiced support for a strong executive, unshackled by oversight and legal nitpicking, declaring that it has delivered glory at moments of great national struggle against fascism, communism and “Islamic fascism,” which elevates the war on terror into an epic civilizational showdown. As Laura Field details, Barr belongs to a movement of “reocons,” or authoritarian reactionary conservatives.
Indeed, Barr is drawing on a long tradition of “anti-liberalism,” which is hostile to liberal democracy in part precisely because it doesn’t cast politics as a perpetual emergency struggle against an overarching enemy, and instead values proceduralism and compromise, which sap the moral will and decisiveness of the polity.
Barr did not explicitly declare the war against the left akin to the war with fascism. But Trump has. And by labeling the left an existential threat to the rule of law alongside a paean to the glory of the executive unfettered at times of crisis, he creeps right up to the precipice of this claim.
The real lawless extremist is Trump
Yes, Barr sometimes mouths pieties about the Constitution. But as Tamsin Shaw points out, this is hollow: For Barr, the executive unbound to exert the will of the (selectively imagined) polity amid crisis is an ideal, a justification to support “lawlessness,” in this case, Trump’s.
In our current moment, that crisis has to be invented or largely exaggerated to justify that lawlessness: The left is the real threat to the rule of law. Democratic officials struggling to balance profoundly difficult competing imperatives are deliberately encouraging civil breakdown.
So what Trump and Barr are doing is grounded in a worldview of sorts. But their ideas are extreme and based on fabrications, and they’re being used to justify Trump’s attacks on the very possibility of civil society.
To wit: Barr will rely on the specter of purely fake mail-vote criminality to legitimize Trump’s invalidation of countless mail ballots to illicitly hold power. Barr will help Trump use fabricated claims about “anarchist” cities to punish them with the state.
Meanwhile, Barr will help delegitimize an official accounting of foreign sabotage of the 2016 election to create cover for another round of it on Trump’s behalf. Barr’s grotesque exaggerations of the leftist threat help give Trump justification for urging right-wing vigilantes to take matters into their own hands, lawlessly.
So let’s be clear on who the real lawless extremists are here. They aren’t Biden and Democrats. They’re Trump and his enablers.