No indictment? No collusion? In the wake of the Mueller investigation report this week, many of my progressive friends are reliving the trauma of election night. This can’t be true. It can’t have happened.
Like that night, they are desperately looking for a conspiracy — some reason why the unthinkable happened. Anything to get away from the fact that America really did elect a (hopefully unwitting) fascist game show host for its president.
And to make matters worse, Trump and his spokespeople are already magnifying the extent of their victory. It’s not enough that Mueller appears to have concluded there isn’t enough evidence to prove Trump’s team colluded with Russia to swing the election. No, Trump, his press secretary, and the now fully subservient Republican Party are claiming the report fully exonerates the president — even though the summary specifically states that Mueller’s investigation did not exonerate Trump and leaves open the question of obstruction of justice.
The administration’s exaggerations add a bit of calculated insult to injury — reminiscent of the president and Sean Spicer lying about the size of the crowd at Trump’s inauguration. He won the friggin’ presidency. Why lie about the details when the truth is already a victory? Because it makes the Democrats even crazier, distracting them from reality and focusing them on a phantom menace.
I get it. I, too, was traumatized on election night. But rather than pretending it didn’t really happen, I recorded a monologue for Team Human — “The Trump Opportunity” — in which I argued that we get over the seeming tragedy. Whining and screaming and protesting may be the wrong tack, I suggested. Spending the next four years amplifying Trump’s negatives could backfire, I worried, given the way our personality-driven media landscape works.
Instead, I offered (to much critique), we should see this bizarre presidency as an opportunity for labor activism and social justice. “The red state that we’re now in may provide an opportunity for a worker’s economy,” I argued, “as long as we’re not afraid for the Republicans to get credit for some of it.” My idea, at the time, was to leverage the widespread urge for a genuine populist revolt to the advantage of the poor and disenfranchised. Promote and support programs for mutual aid, local economic recovery, and worker ownership. Just start doing it, without labels, and let people eventually recognize this is the progressive agenda.
Instead, many Democrats insisted on using Trump’s frequent lying as an excuse to claim that his presidency was also somehow false. My contacts in the Democratic establishment were interested in my help only insofar as I could offer them ways of undermining Trump’s popularity with average Americans. What they failed to realize was that Trump is the only star of this reality show. The harder he’s attacked, the more audience empathy will be generated. We are human beings, after all, and identify with the protagonist. We love contemptible characters — from Richard III to Tony Soprano — as long as we experience them as under attack. The more Trump is assailed for who he is, the more beloved he becomes.
Just as Trump’s administration became something of a cult, with subordinates taking increasingly daring and untenable positions in order to win his approval, the anti-Trump movement has become a cult of conspiracy psychosis. The idea that progressives could actually work with, through, or even against this guy to advance their agendas was labeled “collaboration,” and they surrendered to the wild hope that someone would uncover his illegitimacy. He’s not our real father, right?
So, in comes Robert Mueller, whose quiet authority gave regressed Democrats the dignified parent onto whom they could transfer all that usurped authority. He uncovered plenty of malfeasance by Russia and plenty of corruption in Trump’s campaign — but he couldn’t quite put things together as neatly as a criminal case required or the conspiracy theorists imagined. Might Mueller’s report still contain leads or even evidence of collusion? Sure. But is fixating on this possibility the best hope for achieving positive change — or simply mitigating the damage — over the next few years?
As I write this, the analysts on NPR are trying to parse the word “established” in the summary statement, hoping that just because Mueller can’t establish collusion doesn’t mean it isn’t there. And my Twitter feed is still reading like Alex Jones, with Kirsten Gillibrand pleading, “Sign the petition now to stop the Trump administration from burying the truth!”
This is not the path to victory in 2020, nor even for incremental progress in the here and now. No, the Mueller report should be used instead as an opportunity to reset the progressive agenda to something other than undermining the legitimacy of the Trump presidency or uncovering his treasonous acts. Like Trump said, he can shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and pay no political price. That was a big hint.
It’s time for everyone, from the Democratic candidates and progressive pundits to Rachel Maddow and the New York Times, to focus on the real, even existential issues that have been largely ignored in the forensics game show that has been masquerading as current events for the past two years. We are busy playing our own version of reality television while the planet dies, poverty grows, immigrants suffer, and children everywhere wonder why the adults refuse to act like grown-ups.
Not everything is about Trump. Unless we insist that it is.