When former FBI director Robert Mueller was appointed in 2017 to head a special counsel investigation into “Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election,” the lawyer, ex-Marine, and archetype of WASPy rectitude and morality swiftly became a sort of folk hero to Democrats desperate for an avatar of the old order to bring a unhinged and lawless president to justice. And there were real reasons to hope that Mueller might oblige, as his dogged team steadily indicted a rogue’s gallery of goofs, con artists, goobers, and Trump-world hangers-on.
But our heroes are bound to disappoint. In April, Mueller released his report, a presentation of attempted foreign interference in an American election and, more pointedly for the opposition, a carefully parsed litany of presidential wrongdoing, much of it arising from the fact that the entirety of the administration and the campaign that birthed it seemed incapable of telling the truth even when lying offered no advantage.
The report, at more than 400 pages, also severely taxed the intellectual abilities of both the Washington press corps and members of Congress, few of whom seem to have made it past the executive summary. Since Mueller did not indict the president, Democrats decided to haul him back to Washington and put him on TV. They imagined a new Army-McCarthy hearings moment, with America’s new top detective crying have you no decency! at the bad orange president before a rapt nation. The sheer force of the moral outrage would send the edifice of Trumpism crumbling to the ground.
What about the edifice’s foundation, though? The entire Mueller imbroglio represents a strange and recursive fantasy, to have a figure of decency from a past era return to the country’s stage in an attempt to restore the very conditions that produced the crisis that he was tapped to manage in the first place.
It did not go off as planned. “A weary old man with a warning,” went the headline of a Washington Post article about the Congressional testimony of special counsel Robert Mueller last week. “Mueller’s Labored Performance Was a Departure From His Once-Fabled Stamina,” said the New York Times. The Post did a follow up: “House Democrats are struggling to figure out their next move against President Trump after their highly anticipated hearing with Robert S. Mueller III fell flat[.]”
The entire Mueller imbroglio represents a strange and recursive fantasy.
There is a temptation to do serious media criticism here: that American journalism — at least where domestic politics are concerned — prefers prognostication and speculation to reportage. Bootlessly predicting how the diner-goers of America’s vast, sleepy heartland will receive the latest eructations out of Washington will get a journalist on the cable shows a lot faster than diving into the footnotes. But the Washington press corps is a lost cause, rendered increasingly irrelevant by Trump’s garish disdain and professionally immune to criticism or self-reflection. The only thing that makes supposedly objective reporters drop the guise faster than a boring and disappointing hearing is mild criticism of one of their own.
Besides, the headlines are not wrong. The hearings were boring. Mueller did seem old, out of his depth, weary, and confused. After years of breathlessly hyping Mueller, MSNBC’s house conspiracy theorist, Rachel Maddow, made a swift pivot to a secondary character — his deputy and right-hand man, Aaron Zelby, heretofore unknown to the audience out in TV-land. “Mueller’s performance today,” she announced, “puts a spotlight on the man who was sitting next to him and not speaking today, his deputy, Aaron Zebley. He's described now as the deputy special counsel. We’re now told that he ran the day-to-day operations of the investigation and the rest of Mueller's staff.”
We’re now told. By whom, exactly? She went on to call Mueller a “distant figurehead figure,” a characterization “revealed today by his sort of surprising affect.” We’re a long way from “It’s Mueller Time.”
Democrats sought a deus ex machina to drop in from space and sweep Trump into the dustbin of history or, better yet, a jail cell.
This surprise — far more than the predictable editorializing around superficialities like performance and demeanor — reveals the devastating inadequacies of both straight political journalism and their counterparts in the partisan press. People who have normal jobs will not be surprised by the figure of the distant and inattentive boss, the old guy in the suit who speaks in big-picture generalities and platitudinous boilerplate but cannot describe in any detail how the widgets roll off the production line or how Jane over in payroll gets the direct deposits into everyone’s bank account every other Friday. (That a Nancy Pelosi, or a Rachel Maddow for that matter, are themselves precisely such figures, presiding over staffs of harried underlings desperate to make sure the boss doesn’t step in it in front of the cameras, is a perfect ironic counterpart to the whole charade.)
What disappointed Democrats and their media interlocutors was, in any case, not so much that Mueller proved to be an inept prosecutor as that he proved inept at playing one on TV. What they have sought and desired, since the moment they lost Ohio, Wisconsin, or Pennsylvania and realized the gig was up, is a deus ex machina to drop in from space and sweep Trump into the dustbin of history or, better yet, a jail cell. There is an irony here as well: Trump himself was originally imagined as a sort of divine contrivance, descending a golden escalator to smash up the GOP and hand an easy victory to Hillary Clinton. They have at each inflection point placed their hopes in a singular external force to deliver them from this rude break with normalcy, even after their decisive House comeback in the 2018 midterms.
But Trump cannot be defeated by some j’accuse moment in a hearing room, because he cannot be beaten on television. He is television, the brutal, stupid American id: a stupid demiurge of shameless, mugging attention addiction, who can turn any grotesque, pie-faced pratfall into ratings. That House Democratic leadership imagined they could bully this shambolic vulgarian into early retirement by conducting a colloquy with a laconic, gray-faced retiree suggests a group who are as collectively deluded as any QAnon dingbat scouring the internet for signs and portents of the ever-arriving, apocalyptic reckoning with all the villains and malefactors of the great satanic world order.
The comparison is apt, because a defining feature of American political life at the moment is an anticipatory belief in a semi-divine savior figure combined with a conspiratorial belief that there exists a deep counter-narrative to the stories we are told in public. On the Republican side, these hopes and aspirations have largely funneled into Trump himself, who in his grand, grandstanding manner at least appears to wield power on behalf of his constituency, even if this is largely illusory and frequently dissipates due to his boredom, forgetfulness, and inattention.
Democrats, by contrast, not only refuse to wield power, but are averse even to seeming like they might do so, leading to a series of improbable hopes cast in the direction of external legal actors, and it’s worth noting that this wasn’t just Democratic talking heads and Twitter personalities who engaged in such delusions, but the actual heads of the party establishment. It would be lovely to imagine that with this absolute and definitive failure of strategy, the party might actually try to function as an opposition in anticipation of a chance, however slim, to govern again in 2020. But I don’t imagine they will, and I eagerly await the next half-baked hero they’ll cook up only to watch them, too, bomb at the box office.