With AG Bill Barr as His Shield, Trump Enters New Phase of Authoritarianism

Interview with Jason Stanley, Jacob Urowsky professor of philosophy at Yale University and author of How Fascism Works, conducted by Scott Harris

In the latest outrage from the White House, President Trump’s Attorney General William Barr intervened to reduce the Department of Justice sentencing recommendations for his longtime friend and adviser Roger Stone who was convicted of lying to Congress and witness tampering in the Russia investigation. Under Barr, the Department of Justice is also reportedly opening up a review of the criminal case against Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pled guilty to lying to the FBI in December 2017.

Since the U.S. Senate acquitted Trump in his impeachment trial, the president has used the power of his office to fire many of those who testified in the House about his misconduct in the Ukraine extortion scandal and to protect his political allies. In response, more than 2,000 former Department of Justice officials are demanding Barr’s resignation and the national Federal Judges Association has called an emergency meeting to address concerns about Barr’s and Trump’s  intervention in politically sensitive cases.

Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Jason Stanley, the Jacob Urowsky Professor of Philosophy at Yale University and author of five books including How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them. Here, Stanley assesses the Trump regime’s rapidly escalating attack on the rule of law in the U.S. and explains why he believes now is the time for mass protest to resist the nation’s dangerous slide toward authoritarianism.

JASON STANLEY: You know, I’m not a legal authority, but I’m a concerned American citizen. I am a scholar of fascism. I see, I study regimes across the world where the constitutional protections break down, and it’s kind of frighteningly rapid here. What’s frightening or what’s disturbing is that there’s not even a nod towards saying, “This is normal” or presenting it as a normal way or hiding it behind protocol. The president is openly ignoring other branches of government and he’s kind of taking over the judicial system. And if you look at Poland, if you look at Hungary – countries that have been essentially taken over by anti-democratic illiberal forces, they have appropriated the justice system and taken over the judiciary. And when Republicans talk about the number of judges they have, that’s not democracy. Judges are not supposed to belong to a party.

So what’s happening is the very party that told us that judges shouldn’t legislate and that deficits mattered – now they are a minority party that got a minority of the popular vote and they’re crowing about the fact that they have appointed partisan judges. And they don’t even make any bones about it. So I’m worried about the Republican party. I am worried about Trump. He’s taken over the Republican party and we need conservatives. We need conservatives back. We need conservatives who believe in the rule of law, who want to push conservative ideas in a democratic forum, in debate with an opposition. And that’s what we’re losing. So we’re veering into a one-party state and the one party is defined by its loyalty to Donald Trump.

In the first instance, we need some honest conservatives back to say, okay, this is a liberal democracy. We need to have an opposition. We need to respect the rule of law. We need to respect institutions and we need to push our conservative ideas in a framework of debate and discussion with representatives elected by people with different views and come to compromise. That’s what we’re losing and what we’re going to have is a set of policies that are the favored set of policies of a minority of the country. We’re going to have those policies implemented by highly partisan judges who have strong loyalties to one political party and a strong inclination to tilt the the wheels of justice in favor of a president and his family.

SCOTT HARRIS: Professor Stanley, I recently read a quote from you where you said, “Mass protests are urgently needed to push back against the betrayal of democracy by Donald Trump and the Republican party.” It’s a paraphrase. But tell us about what you’re thinking in terms of street protests and their role in this current crisis.

JASON STANLEY: The way authoritarianism works is you see what you can get away with and then you push further and that’s what I’m concerned about. The president is not being constrained by his party. He’s being enabled by his party. You know, ideally I’d like to see Republicans take control of the situation and push back against the authoritarianism. But they’re not doing that because they’re getting everything that they want. So they’re handing it over, handing over power to the president and his family. So we need from the American people to recognize that democracy is very fragile. It takes a huge amount of work to defend democratic institutions all over the world. You see democracies, the fragility of democracies. You see what happened in Venezuela. You see what happened in Brazil. These are situations where authoritarians have way too much power – or Russia, democracies being manipulated and eroded to give authoritarians immense power and you don’t have a huge amount of time to stop it.

So peaceful, nonviolent mass protest are ways people have to demonstrate their concern. And we see that with democratic erosion in countries like India where we saw a large protest against the proposed changes in citizenship laws to favor Hindus over Muslims. And I’d like to see more of that democratic spirit in the United States. It’s required to send a message to representatives, to send a message to the government that the American people, regardless of whether we’re Republicans or Democrats, regardless of whether we’re conservative or liberal, care about the rule of law. Barr ridicules the civics lessons with which we were brought up and has an entirely fictional alternative history of what the founders intended. According to him, the founders were really afraid of an overzealous parliament and not of a monarchical president. It’s a dangerous slide into a kind of banana republic.

Subscribe to our Weekly Summary