The perverse paradox of the Mueller report

Trump is exceptionally skilled at separating people from their outrage, and one of his most common rhetorical tricks is his use of repetition as incantation. Whether it’s “U-S-A” or “Lock her up” or “No collusion, no obstruction,” his catchphrases have the effect not only of imposing his version of reality on audiences with blunt-force insistence, but also of lulling them into complacency. The refrains here function in the way refrains usually do: They become so familiar as to stop being questionable. And the Mueller report, so long in the making, has succumbed in its own way to that dynamic. A document making similar claims about a different president would be eye-popping; this particular report, however, about this particular president, simply confirmed that Donald Trump is the same person the American public—his supporters and his dissenters alike—has known him to be all along: venal, self-absorbed, unprepared. The report was metabolized accordingly. As MSNBC’s Chris Hayes summed it up on Thursday evening, it “isn’t a bombshell so much as a compendium and confirmation of who the man is and how he conducts himself.”…

And on it goes. The shock mingling with the gah. Trump’s “on both sides” reaction to the horrors of Charlottesville. The arrest of Roger Stone. Jeff Sessions’s firing as attorney general. Last summer, The New York Times published the results of an extensive investigation into the accumulation of wealth that had helped Donald Trump first to become very rich, and then to star in a reality show whose theme song contains the lyrics “Money, money, money, money—MONEY,” and then to leverage the fame that resulted into a successful bid for the presidency of the United States. The Times’ report was a journalistic indictment of Watergate-level proportions. And yet it came and went over the course of little more than a day, barely putting a dent in the fickle American attention span. The problem, once again, wasn’t that the report wasn’t shocking—it was!—but rather that it wasn’t, in a deep sense, surprising. It confirmed a thing about Trump that was already part of the story about Trump. It revealed a particularly perverse kind of twist: The history of corruption convened a kind of impunity in the present. And the paradox was replicated, in its way, on Thursday, as Americans made sense of a report that contained so many shocks and so few true surprises. The matter wasn’t that the Mueller report was “fake news,” in that other Trumpian refrain. It was instead something both simpler and more menacing: It was old news.

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