Robert Mueller’s report landed with a thud. There had been indications, almost from the moment that that the special counsel submitted his findings to the Department of Justice on Friday afternoon, that the report would not live up to the expectations that hopeful liberals, progressives, and anti-Trump conservatives had placed in it for 22 months.
By Saturday morning, the worried whispers that Mueller recommended no indictments in his probe’s central focus – allegations of a conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign to steal the 2016 election – had become an audible groan of anguish and disbelief.
The wait was agonizing, but it seemed like this was going to be easy. President Trump is so venal, so corrupt, so unamerican that his rule must have been imposed on us by the intrigues of a hostile power. Mueller, the square-jawed paladin of justice, would expose the dark conspiracy and America would be saved from the illegitimate rule of the Siberian Candidate.
It was always worth investigating Possible Russian intervention in the 2016 election, and it still is. The Director of National Intelligence James Clapper announced that Russian operatives were actively trying to influence the election even before the vote. The Central Intelligence Agency presented credible evidence to Congress of a coordinated effort by Russian intelligence to swing the election in Trump’s favor a month before his inauguration. Those reasons alone made the Mueller investigation inevitable; the firing of FBI Director James Comey the following May made it imperative.
But that doesn’t explain Muellermania. For almost two years, liberals, progressives, and anti-Trump conservatives hung on the Special Counsel’s every silence, read the tea leaves in redacted briefs, and waited with bated breath for the moment of truth that would validate their hopes and dreams – Mueller Time! The disappointment, the shock, the horror! that, after all this time this unlikely hero, a latter-day Elliot Ness, would not plunge the sword of justice into the Trump administration’s sordid Russian heart is about something else. Something much darker.
Muellermania was never about Trump, or Russia, or collusion. The likelihood that the investigation would find clear, explicit, indictable evidence of Trump campaign coordination with Russia was always remote, and the prospect that the straight-arrow, by-the-book, politically-conservative Special Prosecutor would stray even a micron from the narrow focus of his mandate was unlikely in the extreme. Rather, it was – and is – a defense mechanism that has allowed Americans of all political inclinations to repress the darkest parts of our national id, and to abdicate responsibility for the mess that is America today.
We projected our collective guilt for the election of the most corrupt, incompetent, narcissistic leader in American history (and that is saying quite a lot) on Vladimir Putin, the cunning Svengali of the East. The forces that brought Trump to the White House could not be American, after all, if they were Russian. So we repressed all of our atavistic racism, greed, tribalism, and selfishness embodied in his administration, satisfied that our political institutions are fundamentally benevolent, and that we – Americans – are decent, civilized people.
We repressed our complicity, but the collapse of this one great cultural-psychological defense heralds the return of the repressed. The strangely depressed tone of the liberal and moderate media and the immediate, manic mobilization of other defenses are the symptoms of its arrival. Rachel Maddow, the Washington Post, our social media friends cling obsessively to the faintest hopes that the full report, not yet released by Attorney General William Barr, will reveal impeachable, indictable crimes. We take heart in Mueller’s ambiguous conclusion that, although he does not recommend any further indictments, this does not fully exonerate the president.
These are only fantasies of denial.
We need to recognize that Trump won this round. Even if damaging details do come out later, even if any of the other probes turn up evidence of crimes and corruption: it doesn’t matter. The big probe, the great heroic quest did not produce an indictment. That is what voters will remember when they go to the polls; that is what Trump will hammer home again and again. The only thing that will matter will be the climax of the story, not its denouement. And that gives Trump an enormous advantage going into 2020.
But if we recognize that Trump has won this round, perhaps we can start thinking of ways to win the next one – and that will require us to face our repressed secret and recognize that the existential crisis now gripping America it is not just about Trump, or Putin, or Russian interference – it’s about something deeper and darker in America.
Now comes the hard part.