Unchecked power is the defining goal of Donald Trump’s presidency. When he accepted the Republican party’s nomination on July 21, 2016, he declared, “I alone” can fix “the system.” The words evoke intolerant, absolutist, political concepts, particularly monarchy. “Monarchy” means rule by one. During the twentieth century, we called this dictatorship or authoritarianism. But Trump and his allies have cloaked their view of the President’s immunity, his superiority over the law, in a religious garb that springs from deeper and more sinister roots. What support could the political evocation of such themes find in the United States of America? Two speeches by William Barr, the current Attorney General, shed light on that question.
First, there’s Barr’s exaggerated notion of presidential power. In his speech to the Federalist Society (Nov. 15, 2019), the Attorney General deplores the weakening of the presidential office. The Founders, he argues, rejected England’s notion of “an overweening Parliament” or a king limited by a royal council. Instead, the Founders established “a strong Executive, independent of, and coequal with, the other two branches of government.” Independent, yes, but not isolated from, and not superior (remember: “co-equal”) to the other branches. Having set out the problem so well, he proceeds to ignore its fundamental premise: equilibrium in conflict. Barr argues instead that, by Executive power, the Framers meant more than just “carrying into effect the laws passed by the Legislature.” Indeed, the president should have “essential sovereign functions” such as foreign relations, meeting emergency situations like a plague or a natural disaster, and, dramatically, the prosecution of war. In his haste to elevate the Executive, he omits Congress’s unique ability to declare war.
Next, he itemizes what he sees as encroachment on the Executive first by the Legislature and then by the Courts. In his opinion, the Executive should have the ability to use executive orders to bypass congress and initiate something like Donald Trump’s travel ban against primarily Muslim countries. But there are exceptions. For example, in Barr’s view, Barack Obama had no right to implement DACA, thereby “refusing to enforce broad swathes of immigration law.” The independence of the president vis-à-vis congress seems to depend on who occupies the office.
The courts also encroach on the Executive when they interfere with the debate that should take place between the President (who has veto power) and the legislature. But why would the Executive, if it is “independent” as Barr defines it, even need to debate with congress ? Besides disrupting the dialogue between the president and the congress, Barr says, the judicial branch also interferes with the President’s “prudential judgment.” The courts are mired in bothersome evidentiary standards such as the preponderance of evidence or guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Some decisions draw on deep qualities of personal character: prudence, humility, empathy, foresight. It is therefore wrong for the courts to employ their desiccated formulae to undermine the personal judgment of the president who, alone, can make these judgment calls. Note that when Mr. Barr was making these remarks the president was Donald J. Trump. One would have to believe absolutely in rule by one to assign this much discretion to the presidential office when one of them could be a person like Trump. Barr abuses the concept of office to excuse the failures of the man who holds it.
At the same time that the Attorney General exaggerates the Executive he disparages the state. His reasons are not political but religious. In his speech to the Federalist Society, Barr contrasts “so-called progressives” to “conservatives.” Those on the left treat “politics as their religion” and “seek an earthly paradise.” In Barr’s view, progressives are deceived by a false, secular religion. “In pursuit of an abstract ideal of perfection,” their “deific end” justifies “whatever means they use.” Typically, Barr stigmatizes all liberals with the excesses of history’s worst examples: those who resort to “any means.” His description may fit Leninists or Stalinists, but not left-of-center Americans. In contrast to leftist, Machiavellian ruthlessness, conservatives, he intones, seek the “proper balance of freedom and order necessary for the healthy development of natural civil society and individual human flourishing.” For Barr, therefore, everything depends on your ultimate goal. Do you “seek an earthly paradise” or pursue a heaven properly located in the other world? So stark a dichotomy is wrong. The Attorney General deliberately ignores the large numbers who seek to improve conditions on earth (some call it “repairing the world”) such as the climate or the distribution of wealth or opportunity, nutrition or healthcare— ethical goals that religious leaders of many faiths have advanced for centuries.
The Attorney General elaborates on his contrast between secular and religious aims more explicitly in his speech to the Law School at the University of Notre Dame (October 11, 2019). Presenting what is actually a top-down argument, but pretending to build from the ground up, Mr. Barr asserts that the founders removed control over citizen behavior from the government and left it to the character of individual citizens. “If you rely on the coercive power of government to impose restraints [on individual rapacity], this will inevitably lead to a government that is too controlling, and you will end up with no liberty, just tyranny.” Still, “unless you have some effective restraint, you end up with something equally dangerous, licentiousness . . . another form of tyranny.”
To escape the tyranny of licentiousness, Barr invokes moral law which he claims is based on natural law, the visible manifestation, in his view, of divine law. This would serve as the foundation for the absoluteness of his conception. Any abandonment of the moral law, as disseminated by religion, harms society. Human freedom, then, would be subject to authoritative interpretation of divine law, not by the people or by their representatives, but by experts in religion. Consequently, he attacks what he calls “modern secularists” for their “moral relativism,” which, by definition, is not absolute. Individuals who deviate from the moral law should, in his opinion, have to suffer the consequences. Unfortunately, secularists do not allow individuals to pay the price of their wrong behavior because, he says, the state cushions them. By weakening moral restraint, the state actually enables bad behavior. Therefore, in Barr’s view, the state acts against the moral law which flows downward like grace from God, not, as the Founders saw the system they established, upwards from the sovereign people. If we did not have popular sovereignty why would the Framers have guaranteed the people the freedom to seek redress of grievances against the government and reserved to the states and the people all powers not specifically assigned to the federal government as specified in the First, Ninth, and Tenth Amendments? Barr is wrong about our constitution. His hierarchy of moral, natural, and divine law is not political philosophy, it is theology. Worse, it is also political.
When China’s Xi Jinping got himself voted president for life, Trump joked (March 3, 2018), “I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot some day.” Later, on July 22, 2019, in China, and pretending to be the only president ever to tackle delicate trade issues, Trump joked “I am the Chosen One.” Following the “I alone” statement, this pattern is not random. These are not jests—especially to the Evangelical component of his base that is prone to believe in them. The President can later deny that he meant them, but receptive ears hear them with gratitude and faith. Always credit the President’s rapturous exclamations over his later efforts to walk them back. They are far closer to his actual meaning than the revisions scripted for him by a circle of advisers in charge of damage control. Nor is Trump alone in his belief that he is chosen. Caleb Parke of Fox News wrote two articles (May 13 and June 25, 2020) that identify religious leaders such as Franklin Graham, who either share the President’s delusion or helped foster it in the first place. Widespread among Evangelicals is the idea that God appointed Trump to save the country. Parke lists prominent members of the government who agree, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Energy Secretary Ben Carson, and former White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
How does this relate to William Barr? The hierarchy of moral to natural to divine law did not spring from his own head. It dates from the Middle Ages and includes an element not even he dares acknowledge. Without saying so, Barr is reading royal theocracy, better known as the divine right of kings, into our constitution. Here is the theory. Just as the universe has one Creator and one providential Ruler, just as reason rules the soul, and the heart the body, so should one divinely guided power rule the world: the emperor (in the early days) or the king. Less scholastically, there was this maxim: “The law of the land is in the breast of the king.” This unitary principle does belong to our constitution when applied to the carefully defined Executive, but not when carried any farther, as Barr does. When blended with Trump’s so-called jests about being unique and ruling for life and exploiting the religious overtones of being the chosen one, the threat of a supposedly divinely guided monarchy gets way too loud for this American’s ears. If you want to know what spirit animates our country, let’s go back to Thomas Paine: “In America, the law is king.”
Has this monarchist infection gone beyond the inner circles of Trump’s cabinet or the very committed Evangelical base? Consider what happened in July, 2020, when the Republicans abdicated their responsibility to define a program for the coming administration, should their candidate win the election. The pandemic prevented the Platform Committee from meeting in person, but not from deliberating. Instead, like faithful serfs to a lord or like good subjects of a sovereign, they said that if had they met, the RNC “would have undoubtedly unanimously agreed to reassert the Party’s strong support for President Donald Trump and his Administration.” Really? “Undoubtedly unanimously?” This is intellectual bullying. It allows no room for dissent or even doubt. The party assimilates its goals to the notions of its head, like the limbs of a body. This is monarchy, especially when the president is assumed to be an instrument of God or, as Barr puts it, a defense against godless, secular, moral relativism.
Since we, the people, have the power, we should employ it against this monarchical threat to our republic and vote these deluded people out of office.