Two stories appeared in the last week that, initially, did not make a ton of sense. One involved former Attorney General William Barr, the United States’ foremost enabler of Donald Trump’s corrupt behavior and indulgence in conspiracy theories, criticizing Trump for having tried to overturn the 2020 election on the basis of conspiracy theories. The other involved the Toyota Motor Corporation (?) seemingly signaling its approval for that same coup attempt.
Barr’s remarks were made in an interview, published by the Atlantic, with political reporter Jonathan Karl. In Karl’s piece, Barr portrays himself as a beleaguered defender of nonpartisan integrity who in December 2020 almost single-handedly shut down the Trump White House’s effort to nullify election results on the basis of speciously interpreted or nonexistent evidence of voter fraud. According to Barr, Barr’s Department of Justice looked into all of the fraud allegations that had been surfaced by Trump’s personal attorneys and/or fringe right-wing media figures and determined judiciously that they lacked merit. Then, apparently, Barr walked right into the White House and told Trump what the what was. Thank God (apparently) for William Barr!
This was confusing because Barr spent nearly the entire duration of his term in office busily launching or canceling investigations and prosecutions on the basis of shoddy, conspiratorial arguments that coincided fully with Trump’s personal and legal interests. He used the months before the 2020 election, for that matter, telling the press that he agreed with the president’s claims that massive-scale voter fraud was potentially imminent. Of all the Trump officials who’d had previous careers in elite circles, Barr seemed to care the least about his mainstream reputation, berating the media with MAGA talking points from his official lectern and using the DOJ so instrumentally to benefit Trump that some of its top officials resigned.
Yet in his exclusive interview with Karl—one of the mainstream political press’s leading figures—Barr seemed almost desperate to portray himself as an independent operator who’d shut down a deeply troubled president for the good of the country. The Atlantic has been the go-to magazine for Trump veterans, like James Mattis and John Kelly, who want to try to rehabilitate themselves after leaving the administration. But Barr, unlike Kelly or Mattis, had never previously acted like someone who cared about his reputation with the kind of people who know what’s in the Atlantic. Last summer, he even had some of them tear-gassed by mounted police officers. (Rude!)
What, then, was this formerly shameless apparatchik attempting to rehabilitate? The story about Toyota published by money-in-politics gumshoe Lachlan Markay for Axios provides a clue as to what might be going on here. Markay’s piece was about the corporations who’ve donated since Jan. 6 to those Republican members of Congress who voted against formally certifying Joe Biden’s victory.* A number of companies, after the deadly riot at the Capitol on that day, said they would no longer donate to the congressional election “objectors” who’d triggered the violence by circulating misinformation and encouraging a “Stop the Steal” rally on the National Mall; Toyota announced at the time that it was “assessing” its donation patterns in light of the “horrific” events. That assessment apparently concluded quickly, because Toyota has since donated a total of $55,000 to 37 different Republicans who voted to deny Joe Biden the presidency—far more money, and to far more election objectors, than any other company.
Toyota, as a somewhat upmarket non-American brand, presumably doesn’t want to associate itself in the public mind with the Q-crazed white nationalist mob that bashed its way into the Capitol. Its behavior, and Barr’s, is more easily explained by the desire to return to business as usual—the hope that the general public can be nudged back into perceiving the Republican Party as something besides the party of Trump and the wolf-head shaman guy.
In this light, Barr isn’t trying to salvage his own reputation, but that of the long-running Republican effort to consolidate power via just-nominally-legitimate-enough tactics like extreme gerrymandering, judicial nomination blockades, and money-soaked PAC favor-trading. That’s a project in which he (and Toyota, which has nonunion manufacturing plants in Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Texas) has long taken part.
In the Atlantic piece, the timing of Barr’s break with Trump over election fraud is credited to a push by then–Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. McConnell is the Rosetta stone that connects and explains the Barr and Toyota stories, in that he was trying to get Barr and others in the party to pull their support for Trump because he believed that the president’s alliances with fringe theorists and violent gangs would not only fail to reverse the outcome of the election, but that they would fail in a way that would damage the GOP’s national brand. This fear turned out to be borne out not just by the Republicans’ double loss in the Georgia Senate races but by the deluge of post–Jan. 6 donation freezes by corporate PACs.
McConnell’s behavior before and after the election—and, by extension, Barr’s—makes sense under a framework in which the best of all worlds is a Republican-controlled government that doesn’t depend on the erratic and self-sabotaging personality of Donald Trump. Until Election Day, the pair made their best effort to sustain the second-best option, namely a Republican-controlled government that did involve Trump. (McConnell may not want to use his time and resources getting Donald Trump and his criminal friends off the hook for encouraging Russian military intelligence to sabotage Hillary Clinton’s campaign, or trying to blackmail Ukraine into smearing Joe Biden. But he’ll do it if he has to; it’s the political version of getting the toilet plunger.) Once Joe Biden had routed Trump in the popular vote and securely beaten him in the Electoral College, though, McConnell (and Barr) concluded that getting the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers angry about imaginary Chinese Communist ballot interference isn’t (yet!) a sustainable way to seize power within the larger context of public opinion and the court system. At that point, they abruptly discovered the importance of the integrity of legal evidence, and set their sights on a post-Trump world in which they would obstruct Biden’s agenda for two years, retake control of Congress with the help of aggressive gerrymandering and voter suppression laws, and aim to win the Electoral College in 2024 behind someone less volatile and unpopular than Trump.
For all McConnell’s supposed strategic savvy, though, there’s a hole in that plan large enough to drive a Trump 2024 campaign tour bus through. In Morning Consult’s most recent poll, Trump’s favorability rating among Republicans was over 80 percent, and nearly 60 percent of GOP respondents said he should play a major role in the party going forward. Trump, meanwhile, is a single-issue guy these days, and that issue is the purported illegitimacy of the Biden presidency. As soon as Karl’s Atlantic story hit the wires, the ex-president released a statement attacking McConnell and Barr, whom he described as “a disappointment in every sense of the word,” for their failure to address an exhaustively enumerated list of various debunked 2020 theories. On Saturday, he appeared at a rally in Ohio to endorse a right-wing candidate who’s already running against Republican Rep. Anthony Gonzalez because Gonzalez voted to impeach Trump after Jan. 6. (On Tuesday, the Daily Beast reported on a right-wing super PAC that’s already started spending big on advertisements targeting Gonzalez and the other handful of Republican Trump critics who are up for reelection in 2022.)
Toyota said in a statement to Axios that it did not believe Republicans should be judged “solely based on their votes on the electoral certification,” which is actually a nice way of summarizing McConnell’s position as well. The problem for the car manufacturer, the Senate leader, and everyone else who wants the old “normal” conservative movement back is that it’s the exact opposite of the belief held by the only person whose opinion counts.
Correction, June 30, 2021: This piece originally misspelled Lachlan Markay’s last name.