I see the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump similar to watching the movie Godfather III. The official entertainment is in the Senate chamber, much like the stage of the Sicilian opera house, surrounded by pomp and circumstance. The outcome on the stage is not in doubt. However, the important political action is up in the balcony with the cannolis and out on the street, as the enemies of Don Corleone are eliminated, out of sight and out of mind. Behind the Trump operatic curtain a similar well-designed intrigue is under way.
Trump has become the daily entertainment in American politics. A classic American opera. l watch the Senate proceedings because they are first-rate theater. But going forward, my attention will be focused behind the curtain on Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Attorney General William Barr.
Why have the three most important individuals in the president’s administration hooked their political futures to this opera? After all, none of them were Trump supporters before the 2016 election. None of them have given a favorable review of Trump’s personal conduct as a private citizen or while in office. None of them cares what happens to Trump after he leaves the White House or about his place in history. None of them will support a Trump national political dynasty featuring his children or son-in-law.
Those who believe the conduct of these three, along with countless others who remain invested in the Trump administration, is based on blind loyalty to the Republican tribe or the need for personal power and recognition are wrong. Moreover, the motivation for the big three and others within Trump world springs from an ideological vision well beyond loyalty to one man.
There is a concerted movement to turn President Trump’s highly flawed presidency into a political juggernaut for decades to come. Behind the curtain, the groundwork has been laid for a Christian conservative coalition, based on the legal, social and religious right wing fringes of both Catholicism and Protestant evangelical thought. I am not proposing an outlandish conspiracy theory with no evidence. I am simply following the path of bread crumbs left by the vice president, secretary of state and attorney general.
First, Pence has staked out his core beliefs on numerous occasions: Christian, conservative and Republican, in that order. According to Richard Land, president of the Southern Evangelical Seminary: “I do not know anyone who is more consistent in bringing his evangelical Christian worldview to Public policy.” There is a quiet confidence that if Trump blows up during his presidency or even if he survives for eight years, Pence will be ready to inherit the Trump political base and the White House.
To a conservative evangelical, this means a glorious return to the Christian values upon which they believe America was founded. To a secular Democrat, this sounds like descent into the dystopia of The Handmaid’s Tale as a theocrat assumes the presidency.
Next, consider Pompeo. Before entering politics, he spent much of his career running a struggling Wichita, Kan., aviation company. The billionaire, conservative Koch brothers have their headquarters in Wichita and supplied financing for Pompeo’s business interests before urging him to enter politics. According to the Center for Responsible Politics, from 2010 through 2016, Pompeo received more campaign funds from the Kochs’ network than any other candidate in the country.
In 2016, Pompeo followed the Kochs’ disdain for Trump, after the brothers announced they could support any primary candidate other than Trump. After all, Trump seemed destined to lose the election and the Kochs had donated over $100 million to Tea Party and conservative candidates. Following the election Pompeo changed his allegiance to Trump after his close friend Pence was able to recommend him to head the CIA. When Rex Tillerson was dismissed as secretary of state, Pompeo took his place, in large part because his views on Iran were aligned with the president.
Like Hillary Clinton, Pompeo is a secretary of state deeply involved in politics. He has higher political goals that are more in touch with the Koch money machine and Pence than with Trump. In fact, he may be the most conservative, ideologically driven secretary of state ever to serve. His positions on gay rights, abortion, human rights and climate change are often expressed on the job and closely dovetail with the goals of a post Trump Christian Conservative Coalition.
The last path of breadcrumbs leads to the curious case of Barr. A wealthy lawyer with little left to prove, many were surprised when he auditioned for the AG position by submitting an unsolicited legal memo to the Justice Department in June 2018. The letter elaborated on his long-held position that a president’s Article II constitutional powers renders him essentially immune from accusations of obstruction of justice.
After replacing two weak candidates for attorney general, Barr has become both “Sword and Shield” to the president (See the New Yorker profile by David Rohde, Jan. 20). However, Barr’s interests in executive power and longstanding concern about the role of religion in civic life have little to do with supporting Trump as an individual. In 2016, he gave over half a million dollars to Republican candidates and only $2,700 to the Trump campaign. His vision is to build a strong foundation, post Trump, that will support many decades of Christian, conservative governments in which the executive is given unrestrained presidential power.
Not far from the White House is the Catholic Information Center, run by the arch conservative Catholic group, Opus Dei. Barr is a member and has served on the center’s board. He is also a longtime member of the Federalist Society, with a mandate to shift the American judiciary to the right.
This past October, Barr gave a speech at the Notre Dame Law School to make a case for ideological warfare in America. In essence, he blamed the spread of “secularism and moral relativism” for the increase in every form of social pathology from the loss of family values to mental illness to drug use. He believes that only a return to Christian religious precepts can save the country.
The conservative Christian ideologues in the Trump administration are thrilled when those of us who oppose Trump get caught up in the day-to-day opera orchestrated by a pathological liar and self-serving narcissist. Concerned Americans would do better to look behind the curtain and discover the agenda that they have in mind for our political future.
Gary Stout is a Washington attorney.