Following Barr Down the Rabbit Hole

Tenniel, “The Trial of the Jack of Hearts”


I haven’t quoted the Alice books for a while, even though in the past I have turned to them many times to capture America’s fractured politics. We are now so far down the rabbit hole, however, or so deep into the looking glass, that Lewis Carroll is must reading.

On a general level, we have become only too familiar with Trump’s Tweedledum/Tweedledee and Humpty Dumpty tactics for handling his enemies. More on that in a moment. First, however, I want to discuss how Attorney General William Barr has taken a page from the trial that concludes Wonderland. When it comes to legal investigations, he is verdict first, facts afterwards.

Although numerous legal pundits were hoping that Barr would prove to be an institutionalist and restore credibility to a battered Department of Justice, increasingly he appears to be the “Roy Cohn” the president has always wanted—which is to say, a lawyer who will fight doggedly with whatever ethical and unethical tools are available on behalf of his client. Given that the Attorney General is supposed to be the people’s lawyer rather than the president’s, this is wildly inappropriate.

To set the scene in Wonderland, the Jack of Hearts is undergoing a jury trial for having stolen the Queen’s tarts. Before any evidence has been presented, we see the King of Hearts asking for a verdict:

“Consider your verdict,” the King said to the jury.

“Not yet, not yet!” the Rabbit hastily interrupted. “There’s a great deal to come before that!”

“Call the first witness,” said the King; and the White Rabbit blew three blasts on the trumpet, and called out, “First witness!”

Another reversal comes later:

“Let the jury consider their verdict,” the King said, for about the twentieth time that day.

“No, no!” said the Queen. “Sentence first—verdict afterwards.”

In the case of the Mueller investigation, it now appears that Barr was always prepared to conclude with an innocent verdict while dispensing with whatever facts the Mueller uncovered. Then, unlike every previous special presidential investigation (Watergate, Whitewater) he would refuse to let Congress—especially Congressional Democrats—see the evidence that had been gathered.

Maybe Barr will surprise us but there’s every indication that he’s out to whitewash Mueller’s findings.

When it comes to Democrats, on the other hand, Barr is more than ready to deliver a guilty verdict before fully considering the evidence.

Trump and his extreme right supporters have long been claiming that the FBI illegally “spied” on the Trump campaign. From what we already know, the FBI began looking into the campaign when it became aware of suspicious contacts with the Russians, first through Carter Page’s interactions, then through campaign aide George Papadopoulos boasting about them to an Australian diplomat, and finally through the Steele dossier. Although many have noted that the FBI would have been derelict if it hadn’t checked out such activity, Barr used the word “spying” in yesterday’s testimony—and this assessment comes before an Inspector General’s investigation into the matter has been concluded.

Lest there be any doubt about how he operates, Barr has repeated rightwing talking points about the Clinton Foundation and the Uranium One Affair, even though Hillary Clinton has been cleared on both counts. Again, it has been a guilty verdict independent of any evidence.

We long for a principled Republican to stand up and say, as Alice does, “Stuff and nonsense! The idea of having the sentence first!” So far, however, all we hear is the Queen of Hearts shouting, “Lock her up.”

Trump, it appears, has found ways to escape all accountability, at least so far. In part, he has done so by accusing the Democrats of whatever he himself is guilty of, thereby making their differences appear to be a case of Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Consider Alice’s first encounter with the quarreling brothers:

“I know what you’re thinking about,” said Tweedledum: “but it isn’t so, nohow.”

“Contrariwise,” continued Tweedledee, “if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic.”

The logic reduces both parties to two quarreling boys, neither of whom can be taken seriously. Commentators calls this “bothsiderism.”

Where’s the impartial arbiter who will stand up and say, “Stuff and nonsense”? Trump’s Humpty Dumpty ploy has made this all but impossible.

In Looking Glass, Alice can’t win an argument with the giant egg because he determines what reality it. At one point, he throws her into confusion by his use of the word “glory”:

“I don’t know what you mean by “glory,'” Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!'”

“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,'” Alice objected.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

At the moment, our own Humpty Dumpty is claiming to be master and his supporters find the sensation exhilarating. After all, anything is possible for those who can make the rules to suit themselves. Trump’s arrogance has spread to his Cabinet, to members of Congress, and to his supporters at large. Attempts to introduce logic and convention are dismissed out of hand.

At the end of Wonderland, Alice grows in stature and the cards are reduced to annoying but ultimately harmless irritants. She has been wandering in the realm of nonsense but awakes to a world in which logic prevails. Would that Trump’s supporters would wake up.

Further thought: Will all the GOP’s horses and all the GOP’s men be able to reassemble our egg-shaped president, or their own party, if ever he goes smash. The spectacle has us on the edge of our seats.

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