Last week when Special Counsel Robert Mueller III submitted his report, yet another event that was supposed to be the beginning of the end for Donald Trump came and, to a large extent, went with little immediate impact. We don’t yet know much about the Mueller report, other than that the special prosecutor recommended know more indictments. The extent to which the report will be made public is also not yet known, but we have already seen most of the political class digging in to their existing positions. This should surprise nobody, as it has long been the case that despite the hopes of many, the report was not going to have much of an impact.
The Mueller report is an important historical document that scholars will study closely in future decades, but as a political document it was always going to going to have a limited impact. Based on the indictments and information we have learned in the 20 months of the investigation, it is clear that Trump had, at the very least, an untoward relationship with Moscow that should make any American, regardless of party, deeply concerned. It was also clear that even if the report had called for indicting the entire Trump family, Trump’s Tweets about “witch hunts” and “no collusion” were going to be believed by the third or so of the American people that are now his praetorian guard.
The Mueller report, and the great and misplaced hopes many invested in it, is further evidence of how one of Trump’s greatest assets as he seeks to turn the US into a semi-democratic kleptocracy, has been the relentless optimism of so many of his critics. I know this first hand as I was one of those optimists for some time. When Donald Trump first announced his candidacy in May of 2015, I assured my concerned friends and family that he would be out of the race by the Fourth of July. When that deadline came and went, I confidently predicted he would be out of the race by Labor Day in September, then Thanksgiving in November and then the New Year. I also appeared on a global television network a week or so before the election of 2016 and announced “this election is over. Hillary Clinton will be the next President of the United States.” After that, I decided that Trump was here to stay and rethought his resiliency and appeal.
After the election, much of the pundit class still believed Trump would change once he became president-he didn’t. As the 2018 election approached, we were told everything would change if the Democrats took back the House. They did, and while we have seen some investigations, little has changed. We were also told that once the Mueller Report dropped, the Trump presidency would begin to unravel. This relentless hopefulness on the part of Trump’s critics has allowed him to become stronger as his opponents cling to deus ex machinas in the form of the electoral college, saner Republican voices, the midterm elections and Robert Mueller. The remaining deus ex machina is the 2020 election, but believing that the US is still a country where free and fair elections are conducted and where the outcome of elections are unequivocally recognized is also a sign of hopefulness that is increasingly divorced from the reality of politics in the US.
A major reason for this is that the American political class is so steeped in the mores and culture of our politics, that is has a limited ability to recognize the extent to which those mores have collapsed and that the culture has changed. The American people, not just the political class, are so persuaded, despite centuries of history that show the contrary, that the US is a country where democracy is stable and eternal, that we are unable to recognized democratic rollback when it could not be more blatant.
Therefore, many of us largely continue to see Trump as the product, albeit an aberrant one, of a democratic system, while ignoring all the signs that is no longer the case. The constant drumbeat of white supremacy that defines the Trump administration, the complete failure of the Republican Party to evince any concern over the relationship between Trump and Moscow, the weaponization of access to the vote are among the many indicators that the old system has collapsed and is in the process of being replaced by something much more nefarious and venal.
Crafting a peaceful, lawful and impactful strategy to combat that change is extremely difficult, but it is impossible as long as so many Americans labor under the illusion that we are one report, one election or one congressional investigation away from going back to the relative normalcy of the decades preceding the 2016 election.
Photo: cc/Ted Eytan