Ignorance of the Law is Just the Beginning

If knowledge is power, and the only true knowledge is knowing that you know nothing...

Bill Barr, in front of Congress and the world yesterday, answered “I haven’t looked into that question, under the Constitution,” when asked if the president has the power to move election day.

The Constitution is not a very long document and it doesn’t address very many topics; those it does address, it doesn’t say much about. I could reproduce the text of the part dealing with elections here without meaningfully affecting the length of this article, not because I have it memorized or because I keep a copy of the Constitution handy but because in this day and age we’re always thirty seconds away from having the answer to any question of the sort of “What does the Constitution actually say about _____?”

So when Bill Barr tells you that he hasn’t looked into a question under the Constitution, especially when the question is one of basic civics that has been in the news and one that someone who has devoted so much of his life to the government and particularly to protecting the powers of the presidency should know, we have to understand that he is not saying “I’ll look into it and get back to you.”

Rather, he is telling you that his official position is and will remain a resounding, “Well, I don’t know about that.”

This kind of careful, studied ignorance has been a hallmark of the Trump regime since the early days. “He’s not from Washington, he doesn’t know how we do things.” has been put forward by his proxies as a legal defense.

In recently released interview excerpts, Trump offered “It hasn’t crossed my desk.” as a reason for not bringing up the Russian bounties in a call with Putin.

If you watch the segment, you will note that he’s not making the claim that he hasn’t heard of it, and as Holly Figueroa O’Reilly notes he was briefed on the issue at least as far back as February.

Just as Barr wasn’t claiming that he’s never considered the question of how election day is set or that no one has ever told him it’s not under the executive purview, Trump is arbitrarily carving out a specific set of circumstances that would constitute actionable knowledge so that he can continue to cry ignorance of the subject even while he’s actively discussing it.

Donald Trump, a man who needs to believe he’s the smartest guy in the world, who brags about “the brain thing” and “the gene thing” and says he has one of the greatest memories in the world, has absolutely no problem with claiming to be ignorant of something because he has learned that ignorance is a shield, ignorance is a kind of power.

What gangster doesn’t understand the concept of plausible deniability? Trump with his particularly malevolent genius doesn’t even care about the plausible part; it’s deniable if he denies it. If he says he doesn’t know about something and you want to argue with him about it, you’re going to get frustrated and you’re going to look emotional and foolish, and even if the portion of the audience outside his base can tell he’s lying it isn’t going to change anybody’s mind.

Claimed ignorance – of the law, of circumstances, of what people under him are doing in his name – is not just an excuse in Trump’s world. Ignorance is the best policy. GOP Congressional leaders claim ignorance of his tweets, as did Attorney General Barr, even as he’s complained about them. He also claimed not to know that the Department of Justice – his department, the one he runs – has held Trump’s tweets to be official policy statements.

The correct response when Trump or Barr or any other man in a position of power claims shocking ignorance of something simple and easy to learn would be to say, “I do not find that credible.” and move on, or perhaps, if one is conducting an interview, “Well, you know about it now.”

We should understand above all that this pose of ignorance is strategic and that it goes beyond dodging any single question in the present. Its intended purpose is one of ongoing insulation, of preserving a free hand for later.

It’s the same impulse that leads to answers like this one, where Barr refused to rule out the use of tear gas on peaceful protesters:

It’s not that he has a specific use case in mind when he says that. It’s that he would prefer to exist in a world where the question is open and unsettled, so that should it arise that he or someone connected to him wants to tear gas a crowd, they can do so. A world in which it is understood affirmatively that he can and will gas anyone he wants at any time would be best, but a world in which doing so merely causes an argument about whether it’s appropriate in this case is a world in which the gassing can still occur unimpeded.

Trumpism, at its core, is Know-Nothingism. The Know-Nothings, in the mid-1800s, were a political movement formerly know as the Native American Party. That’s “native” as in “born here”, not as in indigenous. The Know-Nothings were far-right, nationalistic xenophobes, much like Trump’s party is today. The nickname came from the secrecy around their organization, which required members to say simply “I know nothing.” when asked about their activities, beliefs, policies, etc.

They, too, peddled bizarre conspiracy theories involving fearmongering around immigrants and supposedly sinister forces from far-off places; in their case, it was that the pope in Rome might seize control of the United States government by sending waves of Catholic immigrants who would vote under his orders.

Trump’s modern Know Nothing Party does not rely on such secrecy. It operates blatantly, brazenly, and in the open. The power that comes from daring people to act and knowing that no one will is equally intoxicating to him as the power to deny knowledge of what is plain and obvious and known, knowing full well no one can make him admit otherwise.

But his Know-Nothings, too, proclaim their ignorance in defense of a vision of far-right nationalistic “nativism”. The Know Nothing stance allows them to prop up fringe conspiracy theories and conspiracy theorists – devil-fighting doctors and QAnons alike – and then say “Well, I don’t know anything about that.” when questioned about specifics.

We should remember that the original Know-Nothings were not defeated through people debating their claims of ignorance, but by being voted out of power. Historians attribute their decline in large part to their voting bloc splitting over slavery, but regardless, it was their losses at the ballot box that broke them as an organization. They could not survive without access to the levers of power.