Three men walk into a bar — a grifter, a bagman and a true believer. What could go wrong? Plenty if they are Donald Trump, Leonard Leo and William Barr.
For the last four years, they have been working overtime on an end run around the country’s imperfect capitalist democracy. In their brave new world, voters may cast ballots and elect representatives from the two bourgeois ruling parties, but ultra-right Catholic power brokers like Barr and Leo, in concert with secularists like Trump and Charles Koch, will make sure patriarchal class interests — cultural and financial — are protected by a handpicked federal judiciary and a president with the ultimate authority over all branches of government. Differences between these two camps are relatively inconsequential compared to their vision of a future U.S. autocracy.
The bagman. Leonard Leo is the executive vice president of the Koch-funded Federalist Society, an organization of attorneys and legal educators that promotes the careers of judges who subscribe to extreme right-wing views. During Trump’s presidency, Leo played his unofficial judicial adviser.
For two decades, Leo, a strict Catholic, has been on a mission to turn the clock back to a time before the Supreme Court granted same-sex marriage and women’s right to abortion. Today he is close to the finish line. With Senate approval of Amy Coney Barrett, the nine-person Supreme Court will consist of eight millionaires and six arch-conservatives. It has taken truckloads of money from anonymous donors to make this a reality.
Leo’s power to recommend judicial nominees and guide them through the nomination process rests on his role at the center of a network of secretive, interlocking nonprofits which are not required to make public where they get their money, how it is spent or who sits on their boards. Koch is a key source of this “dark money.”
Using this network, Leo launders donors’ contributions — almost $250 million between 2014 and 2017 — to create phony “groundswells” for certain well-groomed judicial candidates.
For instance, in 2014 Leo’s Freedom and Opportunity Fund doled out $4 million to a nonprofit called Independent Women’s Voice. Leo’s lady avatars regularly appeared on Fox News advocating for Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination. In October, they staged the “I’m With Her” rally outside the Supreme Court for Amy Coney Barrett.
The ideologue. Like Leonard Leo, former Attorney General Barr is a hard-line Catholic and a true believer in an authoritarian state, with a long history in Republican Party politics.
A veteran of three Republican administrations over four decades, he first served in Reagan’s administration and later helped former President George H.W. Bush cover-up his role in illegal arms sales in the Iran-Contra scandal as his Attorney General.
During the 1992 LA uprising that followed Rodney King’s shocking beating at the hands of four policemen, he sent thousands of federal agents to crack down on protesters. He only reluctantly agreed to bring federal civil rights charges against the responsible police.
For the next 14 years Barr did legal work for GTE, Verizon and Time Warner. That made him a multimillionaire. Today his ideology is a nice fit with his material wealth.
Barr wields the politics of Christian grievance. In his world view, religion is under attack by militant secularists. Gays are “treated with solicitude” while Catholics “are given the back of the hand.” In practice, however, he doesn’t give a damn about religious freedom — certainly not for Muslims or even liberal Catholics.
He is also a pro-life hypocrite. He refused to open the country’s doors to victims of state sponsored torture and relaunched federal executions. Before he took office, there had only been four federal executions in the last 60 years. Since July 2020, there have been eight.
According to Barr, social reforms won during the ’60s and ’70s are destroying the country; first among these are women’s reproductive rights. He calls secular culture “organized destruction” and an engine of moral relativism. The only answer to social chaos is religion and an ultra-strong state power vested in an autocratic president. As he sees it, presidents should rule as they see fit between elections, more or less with the powers of a monarch.
According to Barr, crime is the result of the country’s moral failings due to its “unremitting assault on religion and traditional values.” He peddles the idea that the country’s founders believed “free government was only suitable and sustainable for a religious people.” He lays every social ill — including suicide rates, drug addiction and gun violence — at the feet of liberal reformers.
Barr’s views and reckless acts have outraged civil libertarians, Black Lives Matter protesters, liberal Catholics, and present and former Department of Justice lawyers and career prosecutors. Thousands of Department of Justice prosecutors signed public statements calling on him to resign over obstruction of justice and witness tampering. And 20,000 “Catholics and other Christians” signed a petition in September that urged the powerful National Catholic Prayer Breakfast not to give Barr an award saying it was “a maneuver simply intended to further hijack religion for Donald Trump’s reelection.”
The grifter. When Trump took office, he needed an Attorney General who would cover his back while he sold the politics of grievance to the nation and used the presidency as a business opportunity. Barr offered his services and served him well.
A partial list of the Trump-Barr play book includes: denying the existence of systemic racism in law enforcement; attacking sanctuary cities and the Dreamers; designating Seattle, Portland, Oregon, and New York City “anarchist jurisdictions”; labeling antifa (a leaderless movement) a “terrorist organization” and floating the idea of charging them with sedition; deploying unidentified federal forces and the FBI to sweep Black Lives Matter demonstrators off the streets in Portland and Denver, and clearing Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C.
Trump found he could also rely on other conservative Catholics to defend him and pull the country rightward. Among the most notorious were Kellyanne Conway and Steve Bannon. But Pat Cipollone — his White House counsel — and Callista Gingrich, U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican, also helped out.
When evangelical voters recoiled at his policy of separating migrant families, Trump unsuccessfully zeroed in on anti-abortion forces in the Catholic Church to lift his campaign for a second term.
The struggle continues. Trump’s alliance with reactionary Catholicism was not enough to put him and Barr in power for four more years. However, the work they did together with Leonard Leo stands. And history proves that only the threat of revolution can move an ultra-conservative federal judiciary to see the light. Clearly, working and oppressed people in the U.S. have a fight on their hands, but 2020 proved we’re up to the job.
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