The To Be Continued at the End of This Book
Living and dying for the hell of it on the Mueller report.
This is the week for dunking on people who thought the Mueller investigation would become a salvific rite that cast out the nation’s evil and bound up its wounds. Partly, this comes from exasperation or existential disgust with those for whom the response to Trumpism has always been theatrical and not political, but partly it’s just fronting. The only way to take pleasure in news that blows is to prove you knew it was coming the longest.
I slept for the first couple days after the Mueller Report was delivered to Attorney General William Barr. It was difficult to breathe, and I didn’t want to move. It would be funnier to say that I was depressed, but two alumni buddies barged into my house over the weekend, declared that they were “occupying” it and got expensively drunk before one of them stumbled and knocked me into some furniture, bruising some ribs. It could wait.
Catching up only required a few recaps of Barr’s memo, Democratic objections and Donald Trump, Jr. taking one of the world’s great third-quarter victory laps. For something that felt more like a reasonable explication of potentially pending good news, the pushback against the Trump triumphalism and #RussiaGate goose-egg takes started early and well with Ryan Cooper's throat-clearing at The Week, and other commentators have added to the list as the week’s worn on.
Their now hold on just a damn minute approach feels right, and not just because it feels better than the alternative. Hyperventilating #Resistance skeptics of the memo shouldn’t be so categorically embarrassing to be associated with that taking a criminal-pardoning suckup like William Barr at his word seems like the sober alternative. It is entirely fair to assume that the Mueller investigation, with respect to its ostensible greatest purpose, came up short, but it’s fine to wait to hear that from anyone other than a guy whose public job application to Donald Trump was, effectively, “It is my lawthought assertation that you are courtfully invisible to crimes and undetectable by crimeography.”
Dismissing the impulse to doubt the Barr memo seems like the grownup thing to do, in a lot of ways that performative DC credulity seems like the grownup thing to do, and second-glancing at shadows has earned a deservedly poor reputation via the last few years of Republican congressional investigation. “The full text will vindicate us!” sounds identical to the conspiratorial cry of people who’ve spent the last three years certain that Hillary Clinton was about to confess to ordering the Benghazi wetwork if her hearings had lasted 13 instead of 12 hours. It feels desperate and emotionally immature, a child’s longing for an adult to materialize and boss the chaos into wishes. There is no shortage of ways to feel yourself above simple desires like this.
But it seems a little dishonest. There most definitely are people emotionally whipsawed by the whims of the #Resistance, but the degree to which even they thought Mueller could do anything other than lay the groundwork for a slam-dunk impeachment seems overblown for leftist/conservative comic effect. (Even to the most neophyte eye, Republicans in the legislature weren’t going to vote on removing themselves.) The supposedly cruel dupes of the resistance are also largely creatures of the internet, where finding much dumber versions of things from real life is both normal and not terribly representative.
(It’s enough to wonder how representative they are at all. Maybe it’s the fact that Donald Trump, Jr. followed me during the 2016 election—he says hi, btw, we’re firing depleted-uranium rounds into “America’s buffest elk” right now—and over a few months my number of fake Twitter followers leapt by thousands. It’s something I keep in mind almost every time I see a Maddow Clone in the digital wild, since, like their rabidly right-wing counterparts, they often bear profiles with nearly identical follow/follower counts and use hashtags with an intensity that nobody sees outside of automated humans, or people who were accidentally taught by automated humans to tweet like them—like ducklings digitally imprinting on a pair of wellies that say #BENGHAZI on the sides.)
Even at their most histrionic, people for whom clicktivism is politics aren’t going fuck up a protest because they’re never going to go outside, and when you do meet MSNBC dittoheads who’ve bothered to commit to actions and events, the non-newbies understand that one code of rhetoric works online, and the most important part of real-world action is just showing up. And it’s not as if their core online passion is something inscrutable or esoteric in the first place. Even conceding that a Trump ouster changed nothing about this sclerotic and corrupt democracy, you’d have to have a heart of stone not to enjoy seeing everyone in Trumpworld become severely legally unhappy.
If there is a name animating this irritability with recreational resistance groupthink, it’s probably Rachel Maddow’s, and it’s not wrong. The velocity with which her 9 o’clock hour started to resemble a live-action version of Foucault’s Pendulum—sometimes elaborating on a mythology seemingly for the sake of the exercise—threatened some of the speed records set by a wistful pre-creatine Alex Jones. Eoin Higgins detailed the show's fixation on Russia early in 2017; by early 2019, it had come for the power grid. By Monday, you had Matt Taibbi’s overall condemnation of mainstream media’s stewardship of #RussiaGate as worse than its coverage of WMD's, which would have been remiss for not naming her.
Anecdata is bullshit of course, but I always thought getting lost was to a certain extent the point of Maddow. Nobody builds something that fundamentally elliptical by accident. Going on a James Burkean Connections jag between a regional bridge failure and a Trump construction project in Azerbaijan is a gimmick. Besides, I have it on good authority that it’s thoroughly satisfying to become unreasonably high and fall into what feels like an MSNBC fog of mostly redundant elaborations and jokes that laugh at themselves, then surface in a Talking Heads song and wonder, my God, how did I get here, before looking down and realizing that you’ve blown through 23 minutes of some of the most precious airtime in cable news to reach a point that is sometimes excellent and oftentimes:
There will be a court ruling tomorrow, and it may go one way, and it may go another way. It may include a bunch of utterly fucked brain trash we could never imagine, or it may include items we added to the speculation. We don’t know. Watch this space.
This long walk for a short question happens often enough that an understanding of its structure seeps down to people who follow the news like college basketball fans who are minted only in March. A woman I know who is almost totally news allergic once confessed in that “I assume not reading 100 current affairs magazines per week makes me the asshole” way that she rarely watched TV news but always tuned in Maddow on momentous occasions because there was a kind of whimsical thrill to seeing how long it took before the points connected, and ever since then I’ve been convinced that there are also normal people who bet on this.
Roughly 3 million people watch the show every night, of course, which may or may not be a problem. Three million people per day sounds like a lot of people, but it’s also 1/33 the number who didn’t even vote in 2016 and a million short of a decent Hallmark movie premiere audience. People also put the news on because they don’t have to look at the screen when they’re cooking or eating dinner or picking up around the house at the end of the night. It’s acceptable filler, because nobody on the screen is about to say, “Looks like the Unsub wears the victims’ asses on his face. He’s calling himself The Assface Killer.” It’s a soundtrack that gives you a sense of civic engagement and personal improvement while demanding next to nothing; if you subscribe to a newspaper, you know 90 percent of what you see on TV will appear in it in the next morning, with more detail, and take a third of the time.
If anything, the Maddow experience under Trump feels like the professional, televisual version of the true crime podcast: people riffing over Wikipedia—up curious detours and down dead ends—and if the research were the point, you’d have read Wikipedia already. Or gone to sleep to wait for the paper tomorrow. The destination doesn’t matter as much as plugging into the flow of a narrative that takes control for a while. On its own, it won’t lead to great politics, either known or practiced, but it’s a natural attraction in a media climate where 34 bewildering things happen every day, and they all pertain to 118 things you’ve forgotten about, and every one is sickening.
The danger here, as Taibbi points out on his blog, is the tendency to find complementary errors on either side of the equation and zero them out—one of “ours” for one of “yours.” Republicans make it easy. Rachel Maddow reaches 3 million people, but 25 million people get their news from local sources, roughly 40 percent of which are owned by the mendacious, right-wing Sinclair Broadcasting. The other non-insane cable news channel features a Cuomo child frowning at a paid panelist who is probably a former Trump spokesman who has also only accidentally quoted Julius Streicher twice and is currently saying, “Yes, the president committed crimes, but he didn’t do anything illegal.” The urge toward forgiveness is almost instant.
But the show should be a lot better. It should challenge and correct itself more rigorously, and do things like introduce James Clapper as someone who lied to Congress and then as the former Director of the CIA and then, after that, include, “(A job where everyone lies to Congress).” It should clip some of the speculative dilation for a guaranteed space for labor and social justice reporting. It should also suffuse the clear cold night air with the last scent of a drying honeysuckle, but whatever.
Discursive center-left toe-dips in McCarthyism don’t get any less shameful because almost everything else on TV news involves veteran wordsmiths of the Iraq War bleating the word “honor” repeatedly in front of a picture of John McCain with stigmata, and as fun as it is to see a tight 60 seconds of material on George F. Kennan in Moscow, that digression still sucks when it adds up to wondering whether Michael Cohen could have been in a room with a list of Russians that sounds like a hockey roster in a video game that couldn’t afford the licensing rights for real player names.
But, still. A lot of people aren’t watching Maddow or cleaving to a potential #RussiaGate vindication because they don’t know any better. They’re watching because they suspect it doesn’t get any better, in a country that punted on punishing the bad guys since they can remember, and in a TV news climate that sucks almost the whole ass. Wanting to indulge the notion that one person can take you on a journey that explains an entire saga you can’t possibly chronologize, and at the end of it the worst president and one of the worst human beings in living memory might be threatened with jail, makes sense. It’s the most normal thing in the world.
Image via WikiMedia Commons.