Forty-five years ago, after Watergate resulted in Richard Nixon’s resignation, even Republicans joined in the ritual sermonizing about how the episode proved the primacy of law. No doubt even in those days there was ample pretense beneath the piety—of course Democrats were gloating and Republicans were plotting payback. But the very fact that they bothered to pretend revealed a basic respect that American political culture was on the level.
These days, the one point on which warring sides all seem to agree is that American political culture in the Trump era is fundamentally not on the level. The real conspiracy was between Democrats and the media to promote a bogus narrative against Trump. Or the real conspiracy is Barr’s bland summary of Mueller’s findings—instead of turning over to Congress the actual report—and his refusal to pursue an obstruction case against his boss, despite Mueller’s view, as Barr described it, that the evidence points in both directions and “does not exonerate” the president.
The Trump-Russia episode proves the primacy not of law or even of politics, both of which are designed to reconcile conflicting values and lead to resolution. It shows the primacy of psychology, in which current events represent a nonstop Rorschach test—what does it look like to you?—and virtually no factual assertion can be embraced at face value. In this prism, the main purpose of argument is to show fidelity to the home team, and not to settle a matter but to keep it going.