The Mueller report is like a legal version of a thriller movie in which three malevolent forces are attacking a city all at once. Everybody’s wondering if the three attackers are working together. The report concludes that they weren’t, but that doesn’t make the situation any less scary or the threat any less real.
The first force is Donald Trump, who represents a threat to the American systems of governance. Centuries ago our founders created a system of laws and not men. In our system of government there are procedures in place, based on certain values — impartiality, respect for institutions, the idea that a public office is a public trust, not a private bauble.
When Trump appears in the Mueller report, he is often running roughshod over these systems and violating these values. He asks his lawyer to hamper an investigation. He asks his FBI director to take the heat off his allies. He tries to get the relevant investigators fired. I don’t know if his actions meet the legal standard of obstruction of justice, but they certainly meet the common-sense standard of interference with justice.
The second force is Russia. If Trump is a threat to the institutional infrastructure, the Russians are a threat to our informational infrastructure. We knew this already, but it was still startling to see the fact declared so bluntly — that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 election “in sweeping and systematic fashion.”
It may not be bombing buildings or shooting at people, but if a foreign government is attacking the factual record on which democracy runs, it is still a sort of warfare. The Russians are trying to undermine the information we use to converse, and the trust that makes conversation possible.
The third force is Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. They are a threat to our deliberative infrastructure. Any organization needs to be able to hold private conversations in order to deliberate. Whether it is State Department cables or Democratic National Committee emails, WikiLeaks has violated privacy and made it harder for institutions to function. We’re now in a situation in which some of the worst people on earth get to determine what gets published.
The Mueller report indicates that Trump was not colluding with Russia. But it also shows that working relationships were beginning to be built, through networkers like Paul Manafort, Donald Trump Jr. and Roger Stone. More important, it shows that many of the Trumpists, the Russians and the WikiLeaks crowd all understood that they were somehow adjacent actors in the same project.
I would say that’s the report’s central importance. We are being threatened in a very distinct way. The infrastructure of the society is under threat — the procedures that shape government, the credibility of information, the privacy rules that make deliberation possible. And though the Chinese government does not play a big role here, it represents a similar sort of threat — to our intellectual infrastructure, the intellectual property rights that organize innovation.
It is as if somebody is inserting acids into a body that eats away at the ligaments and the tendons.
These forces are motivated by self-interest, but their common feature is an operational nihilism. They are trying to sow disorder at the foundation of society. The goal is not really to convert anybody to a cause; it is to create cynicism and disruption that will open up the space to grab what you want to grab. They rig the system and then tell everybody, “The system is rigged!” And therefore, all values are suspended. Everything is permitted.
As I was reading the report I thought of a podcast called “Against the Rules” by Michael Lewis. A recent episode jumps off from the way athletes are getting more vicious toward referees. But that’s not just true in sport; it’s true in society. In all societies there are rules defining good conduct, and there are supposed to be impartial, honest referees that enforce those rules and make sure the game is fair.
And today, across society, two things are happening: Referees are being undermined, and many are abandoning their own impartiality. (Think of the Wall Street regulators, the Supreme Court, the Senate committee chairmen, even many of us in the blessed media.) Things begin to topple.
The system more or less held this time. But that’s just because people around Trump often refused to do what he told them to do. And we happened to have Robert Mueller, who seems to be a fair referee.
The Justice Department has not been defended from political assault. William Barr’s news conference before the report’s release eroded any claim to impartiality and trustworthiness.
Trump doesn’t seem to have any notion of loyalty to an office. All power in his eye is personal power, and the government is there to serve his Sun God self. He’ll continue to trample the proper systems of government.
It’s easy to recognize when you are attacked head-on. But the U.S. is being attacked from below, at the level of the foundations we take for granted.