Students of the modern conservative movement often date the recent supercharged radicalization of the Republican Party to the rise of Newt Gingrich and the Republican Revolution in the early 1990s. It's true that the GOP went seriously off the rails during that period and the craziness has been picking up speed ever since. But in reality, the conservative movement has been radical from its beginnings, starting with the anti-communist crusade after World War II all the way through Goldwater to Reagan, Gingrich and now Trump. Now it has finally shed all trappings of a sophisticated political ideology, culminating in this surreal parody of a presidency in 2019. The conservative "three legged stool" of small government, traditional values and global military leadership has completely disintegrated.
But one aspect of that earlier conservative movement has continued to chug along with its long-term project to transform the U.S. into an undemocratic, quasi-authoritarian plutocracy. That would be the group of far-right lawyers who started the Federalist Society, with the goal of packing the judiciary with true believers, along with a certain group of Reagan-era legal wunderkinds who came to believe that the GOP could dominate the presidency for decades to come. They developed the theory of the "unitary executive," originally advanced by Reagan's odious attorney general Ed Meese ( recently awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom) which holds that massive, unaccountable power is vested in the president of the United States.
Attorney General William Barr was one of those lawyers, along with White House counsel Pat Cipollone, former appeals court judge Michael Luttig and others who encouraged Barr to take the job, particularly after his famous memo declaring that what any normal person would see as obstruction of justice doesn't apply to the president. (In a nutshell, Barr agrees with former President Richard Nixon, who said, "If the president does it, it's not illegal.")
Barr is described as supremely confident in his beliefs, which is to say that his overweening arrogance is not an act put on someone who is overcompensating to hide insecurity. He believes in this theory and when it became obvious that former Attorney General Jeff Sessions was not long for the job, Barr and his legal cabal appear to have seen the clueless and corrupt Donald Trump as a perfect instrument to test their theory, and perhaps set legal precedents that would enable future right-wing presidents to use the full power of the presidency to dominate American politics without regard to democratic norms or congressional checks and balances. Indeed, they had been setting the stage for such a man for decades.
It's also obviously the case that Barr, and perhaps his Reaganite cronies as well, are suffering from the malady known as Fox News Brain Rot, the symptoms of which are an extreme susceptibility to absurd right-wing conspiracy theories and an inability to believe anything that contradicts them. (Barr once said that there was more evidence for the bogus Uranium One charges than the Russian interference in the 2016 election, which confirms the diagnosis.)
That is the toxic combination of views has the Attorney General of the United States running all over the world seeking evidence to back up a ridiculous conspiracy theory in which Ukraine, the "deep state," the Intelligence agencies of Italy, the U.K. and Australia, Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee all conspired to frame Russia and Donald Trump in the 2016 election. They call this an investigation into the "origins" of the Russia investigation, which is also being handled by the Department of Justice's inspector general and special counsel John Durham, appointed by Barr.
Barr's personal intervention is outside the boundaries of the normal procedures, but that is yet another example of his "unitary executive" theory: He works for the president and the president has the power to assign him to any task, including being an international man of mystery. So far, Barr appears to be coming up goose eggs with the foreign intelligence services. The Wall Street Journal reported that he is "sparking discord in several foreign capitals, going outside usual channels to seek help from allies in reviewing the origins of a U.S. counterintelligence investigation begun during the 2016 presidential campaign."
On Thursday night the Times set the political world aflame with a report that Durham has officially opened a criminal investigation into the matter. No one is sure what basis there is for this, but reports over the past week or so suggest Durham's team is focusing intently on the people Donald Trump often rails against in his public statements, including former FBI agent Peter Strzok and possibly high-level intelligence community personnel such as former CIA chief John Brennan and former director of national intelligence James Clapper.
The timing of the story is obviously designed to counter the very bad news coming out of the House impeachment investigation in the House on a daily basis. This isn't surprising. We've been expecting that Senate Judiciary Committee chair Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., would hold parallel hearings into the origins of the Russia investigation, as promised. Graham is now balking because the Senate rules would require that he allow Democratic participation. (The fact that the Senate Intelligence Committee has released two substantial reports on the 2016 election, making clear that they came to the same conclusions as the FBI and the intelligence community regarding Russian interference on Trump's behalf, also complicates matters for him.)
So Graham has been reduced to introducing a meaningless resolution saying that the House is being unfair, obviously hoping to appease Trump and keep his homegrown followers happy. According to the Daily Beast, it's not working. In fact, TrumpWorld wants Graham to call House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff to testify before Graham's Senate committee, which would be a serious violation of congressional norms. He seems reluctant for the moment, but who knows what he'll be willing to do as time goes on?
So for the moment the task of bringing the Fox News alternate-universe conspiracy theory to the mainstream falls to Barr and Durham. They have both reportedly been to Ukraine in recent weeks, presumably searching for that elusive "DNC server" that Trump constantly babbles about. Maybe they will manage to delight the Trump base by trying to prosecute some FBI and CIA personnel. Barr seems willing to push the boundaries beyond anything we could have imagined, so that's not as outrageous as it sounds.
The only remedy for this is for Congress to reassert its own prerogatives and impeach the president and, if necessary, his henchmen. If they fail to hold him accountable for the vast abuse of power and corruption of his office, the precedents will be set and the "unitary executive" will become the working model for all Republican presidents, just as Barr intends. The next one will no doubt be more efficient at using it than Donald Trump.