by Will Lloyd
Tuesday, 15
December 2020
Reaction
18:13

Bill Barr, midwife to the dictatorship that was never born

by Will Lloyd
Lights, camera… Barr testifying on investigations into Russian interference with the 2016 election. Credit: Getty

When liberal profile writers and essayists surveyed Bill Barr this year, they saw a danger to the Republic. While Trump was lazy, stupid, and a vain pagan, Barr, his second attorney general, was known to be cerebral, ruthless and Catholic. Here was someone who might be capable of transforming the nation, executive order by executive order, into a genuine dictatorship. Writing for the New York Review of Books in November, Fintan O’Toole characterised Barr as an “extremist”:

What must be understood about Barr is that he is not a lawyer in the political arena. He is a political ideologue and operative who happens to function through the law. 
- Fintan O'Toole, New York Review of Books

Barr’s ultimate role, according to O’Toole, was to play midwife in “the transition from republican democracy to authoritarianism.” A ‘Danger to Democracy’ was the headline on a scare-quote stuffed profile of Barr in the Guardian. 

Another long-read from the Washington Post painted a broad brush portrait of Barr as the man who filled in the blanks of Trumpism. The garrulous President talked; his attorney general acted; the constitution was maimed. You can probably guess what the New Yorker‘s Barr profile was like. Over the summer, when the Atlantic was publishing all those novella-length essays about how Trump was plotting a coup, Barr figured, naturally, as the man who would bend, then break, the law to ensure the election was stolen.

And yet this week Bill Barr left the White House, having Trump’s election fraud claims no support whatsoever.

On December 1, Barr said that the Justice Department had not turned up any evidence of fraud “on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election,” — pretty much the exact opposite of what anxious profile writers thought he would do.

In the end, the Barr saga was a miniature version of the 45th presidency. The long night of authoritarianism never fell. Instead, there was a sad, squalid, and (occasionally quite entertaining) game show occupying the White House — men like Barr were contestants, not conspirators. Some people, like Fintan O’Toole, took the game far too seriously. They should have known better.

Join the discussion


  • December 17, 2020
    All national leaders worldwide are essentially nationalists. Not one is proposing to eliminate the borders of their own country. Read more

  • December 17, 2020
    In fairness, the democrats invented the proof by repeated assertion tactic with Trump/Russia conspiracies in the face of zero evidence until even Mueller’s team was forced to face reality. It’s hardly a one sided tactic and democrats can’t complain now about it being used by the other side. Read more

  • December 17, 2020
    Wow-I love rational debate and well thought out arguments. Thats why I find Unherd so entertaining! Read more

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