Barr None: Ignorance of the Law is a Powerful Offense
...in both senses of the word.
Bill Barr yesterday gave a full-throated defense of racism yesterday while denying that it was racism.
In that interview, he acknowledged that the police treat Black people differently but claimed it did not stem from racism and claimed that even Jesse Jackson is more afraid of Black people, then asked if we would call Jesse Jackson racist (for this reason that he just made up).
In the same interview, Barr made what would be, for any other USAG, the extraordinary claim of denying any knowledge of specific laws that would make it illegal to vote twice (as Donald Trump had urged Republicans in North Carolina to do):
I said it would be an extraordinary claim for anyone else, but for Barr, this modus operandi is exceedingly normal.
He gave a very similar answer when asked in front of Congress and the world if the president had the authority to move election day.
Alan Rappeport @arappeportBarr says "I haven't looked into that question, under the Constitution" when asked if the President has the power to move Election Day.
As I noted at that time, in that thread:
It's not that Barr doesn't know what the Constitution says about it and it's not that he's saying he will look into it. He's making his official position that he doesn't know the specifics, and therefore what anyone wants him to do about it is a matter of opinion.
Bill Barr’s official position on all matters of law as they pertain to things Donald Trump wants to happen is a profound shrug. Doesn’t know, doesn’t care, hasn’t and won’t look into it.
We should understand that Barr’s Socratic defense of Trump — wherein the only thing he knows about the law is that he knows nothing — is the position of the chief enforcer of the law under a dictator. The literal meaning of a dictator is one who makes laws by speaking: “What I say, goes.” There’s no value in knowing what is written when it might be countermanded by the one who speaks, and insofar as we have operated as a nation of written laws and it’s valuable to keep up that pretense, there is a profound positive value in not knowing.
We should bear this in mind when looking at the substance of the order Trump signed yesterday to cut off “anarchist districts” from the support of the federal government:
The pictured excerpt in that tweet explains how they will decide which parts of the country will receive this punishment. There are five items listed, but the first four are just gloss there to help provide implicit justification. The fifth one is the one that matters:
(v) any other related factors the Attorney General deems appropriate
If you say, “I will smack you only under five specific circumstances” and the fifth circumstance is “I want to smack you,” then it doesn’t matter what the other four say; that fifth one is the only one that matters. The others are window dressing to provide the illusion that some objective determination is being made.
To be clear, I’m not saying that if they defined their terms better it would be just fine for them to declare whole cities to be literal outlaws, beyond the pale of society and outside the rules and responsibilities of federal law. This measure, which is both an act of retaliation and a power grab, would be an authoritarian move regardless.
But the criteria used — or rather, the elaborately concealed lack of criteria — are themselves an authoritarian power play, another step in the direction away from a world where the law is something anyone can learn and use to a rule where the law is what Trump says it is, and his enemies have no power to “play by the rules” or “go by the book” because nothing written down matters.
A commentator named Frank Wilhoit once observed that conservatism consists of one principle: that there must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.
Trumpian conservatism, which is a pure dictatorship supported by a lot of legalesque, bureaucratish fluffery, is a very narrow form of that, where the in-group consists of Trump and anyone he wishes for the moment to protect, the out-group consists of literally everybody else, and the law consists of whatever he’s said recently that might be interpreted to protect him or hurt anybody he wishes, for the moment, to be hurt.
To that end, he is aided by Bill Barr, the nation’s chief legal enforcer who has made it his job to insist publicly, loudly, and often that the law is a mystery, unknown and unknowable.
Does the law in any way constrain Trump? Well, he hasn’t looked into it.
Does the law protect Trump’s enemies? Well, he doesn’t know the specifics.
But when it comes to protecting Trump or binding — or better, harming — Trump’s targets, this appalling lack of knowledge never prevents him from taking action.
Bill Barr’s professed ignorance does not reveal him to be a dope nor a dupe. He’s not making foolish mistakes. He’s destroying the meaning of terms like “racism” and erasing the existence of the law as a fixed thing, in the service of the absolute power of his chosen master and probably, in his mind, ultimately in the service of conservatism.
Ignorance of the law, it is often said, is no defense. Because the law cannot be allowed to bind Trump, of course, it’s been offered as a defense many times over the course of his so-called presidency: “He can’t be expected to know that.”, “He’s new here.”, and “He doesn’t know how we do things.” has been used to excuse blatantly illegal acts every year he’s held the office.
It is, however, in the hands of an Attorney General, a powerful offense, in both sense of the word. It’s a potent offensive weapon for advancing authoritarianism, and as a grave offense against the very principles of the rule of law.
The damage Barr can do and abet Trump in doing for the next four years or more is incalculable, if they’re not stopped here and now.