It’s Not About Russia

Women's March protestors. Oakland, January 2019.

Teeth have been gnashed and garments rent across the liberal world ever since the release of the special counsel’s report. For more than a year, American liberals had been living in hope and expectation that Robert Mueller would deliver unto them a magic bullet, a neatly packaged means of removing the stain on the national escutcheon that Mr. Trump represented.

But the long-hoped-for fireworks turned out to be a damp squib dropped, for good measure, into the dead zone of the Friday afternoon news cycle. And the lamentations began…

Ever since the last presidential election, the good people at MSNBC have made something of a cottage industry out of beating to death even the smallest tidbit of information relating to the question Mr. Trump and his notional connections to Russian meddling in the US political process.

From Morning Joe for the early risers to The Eleventh Hour for the night owls, MSNBC was on message all day long and without relent. The proposition that Mr. Trump had shamelessly and knowingly conspired with Vladimir Putin and his various flunkies was taken as a premise, a lens through which any new revelation relating to either side could be viewed, coloured, and fit into place.

To be clear, and pace Mr. Trump’s effusions to the contrary, the release of Mr. Mueller’s report does not show that this was not the case. It is, in fact, unclear what the report shows since the only people directly familiar with its contents are Attorney General William Barr, a soulless Republican apparatchik, and his immediate staff.

For informational purposes, Mr. Barr and his staff put out a four-page summary of Mr. Mueller’s 300 plus page report, which is like distributing a minute long GIF to explain an entire season of Game of Thrones.

Mr. Barr is also being rather cagey about what parts of the report will be distributed to whom and on what schedule. This only serves to inflame the already raw feelings of liberals who see this as a further element of the conspiracy.

This feeling is intensified by the fact that Mr. Mueller declined to deliver an opinion on whether Mr. Trump had committed the predicate offence of obstruction of justice, apparently on the grounds of not being able to know what thoughts guided his actions.

That a veteran federal prosecutor would exhibit this degree of forbearance must strike even more moderate observers as odd, given the extent to which prosecutorial work is devoted to precisely that (and given Mr. Trump’s numerous cack-handed attempts to address the topic).

The result of Mr. Mueller’s failure to provide the requisite means for a cleaning of the Augean stables was taken as an opportunity for Mr. Trump, who certainly has not read the report even if he has actually seen it, to demand the punishment of everyone who ever did him wrong. His loyal factotums at Fox, joined in the chorus, gleefully noting Rachel Maddow’s “flailing” viewership in the wake of the submission.

In more reputable journalistic circles, it would have been hard to miss the triumphal smirking of those like Jeremy Scahill (he of the repeated assertions that the Russian connection was a “nothingburger”) and his colleagues at The Intercept. Scahill and his colleagues have been very diligent in skeptically assessing the liberal fascination with Russian.

A thorough perusal of the posts and podcasts from Mr. Scahill’s site shows a rather more even-handed approach than that taken by much of the mainstream liberal media, even while it was clear that he and his fellows remained unconvinced.

Still, it hardly promoted the cause of responsible journalism for Intercept co-founder and perennial gadfly Glenn Greenwald to appear on Fox under the auspices of the now wholly discredited Tucker Carlson to trumpet his rightness in this matter. And, of course, he too is only speculating.

Mueller’s report itself remains a cipher. But there are some conclusions worth drawing here. The hopes invested in, and the response to, the report among liberals in the United States illustrates at least as much about them as it does about Mr. Trump. His election was humiliating, a disgraceful incidence of the American public’s unwillingness to choose the obviously more qualified candidate (and a woman to boot), further abetted by historical anomaly that is the Electoral College.

It was as if the electorate had lost the confidence of the liberal leadership. Their response was like that of the baseball team ten runs behind: swing for the fences. To them, the Mueller Report represented the biggest hack of all.

The fact of the matter is that one doesn’t need a grand slam to get back in the game. Often times, small ball is a better route. There are numerous concurrent investigations of Mr. Trump in progress, both at the federal level and, probably more alarmingly from his long term perspective, in places like the Southern District of New York (to which presidential pardon power does not extend).

Irrespective of what might or might not be in the Mueller Report (and it will be some time before this information is generally available), the faith that it would provide the “knock it out of the park” moment was always misguided.

Placing the onus of so much hope and expectation on the report was a mistake for a number of reasons. In politics, it is generally better to be a pessimist. That way, at least when you’re wrong it’s a pleasant surprise. But also, and less speculatively, because optimism too easily reframes judgments as facts.

The obsession with the idea that Mr. Trump and the Russians engaged in some sort of concerted action always overlooked a possibility that is at least as likely, to wit, that this was a case of two groups independently pursuing a goal that both wanted.

At least as plausible as the conspiracy theory is the view that a synergy developed between Mr. Trump’s attempt to secure a better TV deal via a failed run for the presidency and Mr. Putin’s project (as described with exceptional clarity by Timothy Snyder in The Road to Unfreedom) of converting competitor states into the sort of authoritarian kleptocracy that his has built in Russia.

Sometimes it happens that people want the same thing. They may even talk to some of the same people in order to make it happen. But without an actual agreement, of which there is no direct evidence currently available to the public, the whole affair remains a series of unfortunate events rather than an actual crime.

Mr. Trump is certainly a bad person. His racism and misogyny (which he makes no attempt to hide) make this clear. There is also a good deal of evidence, both circumstantial and historical, that he is corrupt. The prospect that his grip on power is going to be impeached away is a fantasy.

Twenty per cent of the electorate thinks he’s a great guy. A large part of the rest of the Republican electorate has allowed itself to be convinced that any Democrat, no matter how conservative, is the narrow edge of the wedge of revolutionary Marxism. For those reasons alone impeachment is simply not on the table.

On the Democratic side, the infatuation with the judicial solution to the problem of Mr. Trump illustrates the fundamental pathology of American liberalism. The party’s panjandrums fear change, particularly of the sort that vaulted disturbers of the accepted order such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar to power.

They would prefer to rely on the traditional nostrums of the American party system, fighting over suburban white “independents” with a politics that does not threaten to upset that cash flow from major donors. The idea of building a party from the grassroots, one that (so to speak) dares more democracy is looked upon with roughly the same enthusiasm as an approaching colonoscopy.

But even this is probably not necessary. The combination of investigations and the capacity of Mr. Trump and his cohort for utterances ranging from the politically unfortunate to the openly repugnant provides the centrists in the party with precisely the strategy that they need.

It is not simply a matter of waiting, as many Democrats assumed prior to HRC’s failed presidential bid. It is rather a matter of a long march through the institutions, conducted with the knowledge that Mr. Trump is a past master at focusing news cycles on his own mendacity and incompetence. Only the Democrats could make a mess of this.

Photograph courtesy of Thomas Hawk. Published under a Creative Commons license.