No one is sad that you’re gone. Not the left, who will never forgive you for misrepresenting the Mueller report and exonerating President Trump. Not the hard right, who will never forgive you for betraying their spray-tanned god in the hour of his greatest need. And not the reasonable, rational centrists, either, who thought you were one of them until you showed them that you weren’t.
But all of us who have followed your bizarre second career as attorney general are left pondering one, impenetrable question: Why?
Why did you do it? Why did you even take this job, knowing the kind of man you’d be working for? And why did you then surprise the Washington establishment by not only carrying water for this amoral troll but contorting the truth, eroding the integrity and independence of the Department of Justice, indulging Trump’s basest authoritarian instincts, and even being held in contempt of Congress along the way?
The sycophancy went right to the end. Even Barr’s resignation letter is a gigantic kiss on Trump’s posterior, lauding “the many successes and unprecedented achievements you have delivered for the American people.” Though I guess we can chalk that up to Stockholm Syndrome.
There are many theories for how Barr went from respected, establishment conservative to devoted foot-soldier in the army of Trump, willing to scorch the very earth if necessary. I suppose we’ll have to wait for the memoir (or perhaps the speech to the Federalist Society) for the answer.
Liberals love to point out what they see as Christian conservative craziness. Charismatics like Trump’s “senior adviser” Paula White speak in tongues and summon angels from Africa to guarantee a Trump victory. (Here’s a remix.) Evangelicals believe the thrice-divorced, serial adulterer Trump to be literally chosen by God.
But it’s worth remembering what’s at stake in these battles, which roughly 40 percent of Americans (30 percent conservative evangelicals, 10 percent conservative Catholics) believe themselves to be fighting. Crazy or not, roughly three-quarters of evangelicals say the Rapture will take place during their lifetimes. Conservative Catholics and Protestants alike believe that the last 60 years of movement toward gender equality, racial equality, and LGBTQ equality have threatened the very foundations of American society, that America, once a Christian nation, now stands either literally possessed by demons or fallen into the arms of Satan.
And perhaps most profoundly, since these beliefs about the world are fundamentally tied to beliefs about the self, what’s at stake is not only the public but the private as well. If it’s OK for two men to get married, the Bible (or dogma, or tradition) isn’t literally true, and my father may not be not awaiting me in heaven when I die. I may not be saved from the sin I believe I have committed. All that I have taught my children may be based on a lie.
Because William Barr presents himself as an intelligent, sane human being—unlike, say, Paula White—it may seem strange to link him to such extreme beliefs. But he has espoused them himself, in public, many times.
In a 1995 essay, largely reiterated in a 2019 speech, Barr stated that American government should not be secular but instead should impose “a transcendent moral order with objective standards of right and wrong that… flows from God’s eternal law.” This is the 800-year-old doctrine of Natural Law, which holds that principles of Catholic religious faith are not simply religious dogmas but actual “objective standards of right and wrong.”
For example? Barr wrote that “Decades ago, we saw the barriers to divorce eliminated. Twenty years ago, we saw the laws against abortion swept away. Today, we are seeing the constant chipping away at laws designed to restrain sexual immorality, obscenity, or euthanasia.”
As a result, Barr continued, “since the mid-1960s… we have lived through thirty years of permissiveness, the sexual revolution, and the drug culture…. We have had unprecedented violence. We have had soaring juvenile crime, widespread drug addiction, and skyrocketing venereal diseases.”
(Most of these statements are factually incorrect, and of course they omit other developments, like the civil rights movement and historic advances in science—but never mind.)
As a result, Barr wrote, “we are going to have to do more than joust around the margins. We must reenter the fray in an effective way; take the battlefield and enter the struggle.”
That is exactly what the Trump administration, and Barr’s service to it, represents.
Look at what has happened. The Supreme Court has been remade, with two or perhaps three extreme Christian fundamentalists now on the bench for decades (Justice Barrett, in particular, has written similarly of Natural Law and the mission public figures have to implement it). The entire federal judiciary is now stocked with 220 life-tenure judges selected by another Christian fundamentalist, the Federalist Society’s Leonard Leo.
And while many of the religious right’s most beloved changes will soon be undone—massive support for religious schools, a free pass to electioneer from the pulpit, restrictions on abortion and contraception, the legal erasure of transgender existence, and special rights for religious people to refuse service or equality to gay people—they did get written into law for a little while at least.
Now who’s crazier: the religious extremists who invented absurd theological rationales for their pragmatism, or the left-wing purists who voted for Jill Stein in 2016?
It’s no exaggeration—indeed, it’s probably an understatement—to say religious conservatives like Barr believe themselves to be at war for the soul of America. They are also quite correct that their form of conservative, white-dominated, male-dominated, Christian-dominated America is on the wane, even if the reasons are less war than demographics. And whether Trump was hand-picked by Jesus or not, the reality is that his presidency enabled the religious right to win many battles in that war.
Nor is this a purely rational process. Once Trump is seen as a force for good, those who oppose him begin to look evil. In Barr’s words, Trump suffered “a partisan onslaught… in which no tactic, no matter how abusive and deceitful, was out of bounds.”
And so it makes sense to bury and distort the Mueller report and instead investigate the investigation itself. It makes sense to help crooks like Michael Flynn and Roger Stone escape punishment. It makes sense to turn the Justice Department into what Trump always thought it was supposed to be: a law firm for the president, like Rudy Giuliani without the hair dye.
None of this even had to be some conscious, Machiavellian scheming. Barr is a believer who has said, publicly, that his purpose on the planet is to re-establish “God’s eternal law.” Once that cognitive Rubicon is crossed, there is no rational decision-making anymore.
And when, finally, Trump’s jig was up, Barr quit dancing and left the building. All the work that Barr could do had been done; he knew Trump’s was now a lost cause. And he knew that he could exit, with a modicum of grace, knowing that he had helped restore God’s law in America.
When you put it that way, it all seems worth it.