How Not to Argue with Bill Barr

U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr during an event with the president in the Rose Garden of the White House, July 11, 2019 (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

I’m open to criticisms of Attorney General Bill Barr, and have highlighted one or two in this space. But Katherine Stewart and Caroline Fredrickson have written an attack on him for the New York Times that seems to me a model of how not to engage in political debate. The op-ed is not persuasive, and gives almost no sense of an obligation to try to be.

The authors begin:

Why would a seemingly respectable, semiretired lion of the Washington establishment undermine the institutions he is sworn to uphold, incinerate his own reputation, and appear to willfully misrepresent the reports of special prosecutors and inspectors general, all to defend one of the most lawless and corrupt presidents in American history?

Let’s assume that this is a reasonable question: that Barr really has undermined the institutions he is sworn to uphold, etc. On that assumption, wouldn’t the most plausible explanation be that Barr has done these things without believing that he has done them? That, for example, he has undermined the rule of law while believing himself to be its servant. Yet at no point do S&F ever stop to consider this possibility. They give no sign of seeing that Barr might sincerely deny that Trump is one of the most lawless and corrupt presidents in American history, or that any intelligent person could sincerely deny it. Their assertions are taken as givens.

Their own answer to their question rests heavily on a concept of “religious nationalism” that they do not do much to explain.

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Mr. Barr has embraced wholesale the “religious liberty” rhetoric of today’s Christian nationalist movement. When religious nationalists invoke “religious freedom,” it is typically code for religious privilege.

Generally when people are using a “code,” they know that the surface meaning of what they are saying is not the real meaning. S&F offer no evidence that Barr secretly shares their own view of what religious liberty is and isn’t and is merely cynically using the phrase to conceal his drive for privilege. Nor, of course, do they mount any kind of argument that the views Barr professes to believe about religious liberty are actually wrong. Their assertions will have to suffice.

There follow a few more paragraphs about the paranoia Barr allegedly seeks to foment, which again assume that Barr is insincere and that there is nothing to justify the concerns of the supposed paranoiacs. Then we get this: “Within this ideological framework, the ends justify the means.” That’s a pretty strong claim, supported by. . . nothing. Note, however, that we are now discussing Barr’s “ideological framework,” which could mean that it’s something he actually believes rather than deploys for effect.

S&F also claim that “Mr. Barr’s constitutional interpretation is simply window dressing on his commitment to religious authoritarianism.” You can guess how much evidence and argumentative support is brought forward to justify this charge–but again, the language of “commitment” is ambiguous, as it is compatible with Barr’s believing the propositions that the authors describe and condemn as “religious nationalism.”

If an intelligent person of good will could believe any of those propositions, as Stewart and Fredrickson do not consider, they have been given no reason to lessen their belief in them. Those who come predisposed to hate and fear Bill Barr will, on the other hand, come away confirmed, at least if they are not too reflective.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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