Why do I find the summary of the Mueller report by Attorney General William Barr to be something of a relief?
Firstly, I’m relieved as an American that a serious and dogged prosecutor deemed it impossible to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the president of the United States had knowingly conspired with a foreign government to undermine the integrity of the 2016 presidential election. It’s not exactly a high bar, I know, but we have been failing to reach the lowest bars lately, so count me a happy person. I’m glad, simply, that the worst doesn’t appear to be true. I prefer my presidents not to be traitors.
Second, we were able to hold an independent inquiry into a serious question of electoral malfeasance and see it to a conclusion, without Mueller being fired, or the inquiry blocked, or stymied. When push came to shove, the Congress protected Mueller, despite an avalanche of abuse and propaganda directed toward him. And the president didn’t fire him, which, let’s be honest, we were all fearing he would. We ducked that particular constitutional crisis.
More to the point, in what was an inevitably fraught political moment, Robert Mueller conducted himself impeccably. How thrilling to hear absolutely nothing from him. I don’t even know what his voice sounds like. The lack of leaks or grandstanding; the efficiency and obvious rigor of the process; the resistance to becoming the Resistance: Mueller single-handedly showed that the norms of liberal democracy and the rule of law can be upheld even as most of the political actors, especially the president, have been behaving like bit players in a banana republic.
Give it up for old-school WASP Republican values! And in this, Mueller is someone we should study if we want to see how to oppose this president effectively. You can’t out-tweet or out-insult the clinically narcissistic and characterologically disgusting. You cannot beat him at his own game. But you can consistently refuse to take his boorish bait and maintain your own standards of conduct. You can calmly stare down a bully, and you can let your actions speak louder than your words.
In a world of endless distraction, Mueller kept his focus. It is hard not to see the inquiry as an epic cultural and moral clash between the honorable American and the irredeemably ugly one; between the war-hero public servant and a draft-dodging liar and thug; between elegant, understated class and fathomless, bullhorn vulgarity. In a liberal society, it really does matter more that the rules are fair than that any side wins. Mueller walked that line — and did not fall off it, as, for example, James Comey did.
Above all, I’m grateful Mueller did not find a clear-cut case of provable treasonous criminality either on the president’s part or his family’s. The reason I’m relieved is that, however grave the crime, Trump would almost certainly have gotten away with it. In our current politics, there is simply no way for this Senate to convict Trump of an impeachable offense. And so there was always a real danger that this entire ordeal would end with an obviously proven high crime and misdemeanor, a thereby unavoidable impeachment process, and then an inevitable failure to convict in the Senate. And so Trump would become an openly criminal president, a walking inversion of the rule of law, leverage impeachment into his reelection, and our slide into strongman politics would have accelerated still further.
The other lesson to learn is that Trump would happily obstruct justice even if he knew he was as innocent as the driven snow. It’s his core instinct. He’ll always act guilty — whether he’s guilty or not. He cannot see the process of an inquiry as a way for the entire system to examine and fix itself — let alone exonerate him. He instinctively recoils from any independent challenge to his control. Letting the law take its course would require a modicum of appreciation of a liberal society, and an understanding that the world doesn’t simply revolve around him. And he is clinically incapable of either.
And so if Trump is charged or accused of anything, he has the identical reflex. Always deny. Always lie. Always undermine. Never concede. Accuse your opponents of doing exactly what they accuse you of. Even if you’re innocent. This is the Roy Cohn playbook, and it’s damaging when even a real-estate developer deploys that kind of tactic, but in a president, charged with the faithful execution of the laws, it’s potentially fatal. But it will also mislead others, as it may have in this case. Most people tend to assume that someone who is acting incredibly guilty probably is a little guilty. But that misses the particular mind-set of this particular president.
None of this is to say this is over. No one apart from a handful of people have read the actual report, which is over 300 pages. Bill Barr’s understanding of presidential power (he comes close to believing it’s absolute) makes his interpretation of whether Trump obstructed justice highly unreliable. When we get to read the report — and the detail in the narrative will matter a lot — we’ll find out more. I suspect it will be more damning than most Republicans now believe, but less definitive than many Democrats hope. Which is, to my mind, a pretty sweet spot — at least compared to all the alternatives.
An Idea for a Saner World
Here’s an idea that speaks volumes about what is wrong with our culture, and how we can still ameliorate it: intergenerational care. As explained by Institute for Family Studies editor Ashley E. McGuire, think of the idea as daycare for kids, but with seniors added to the mix:
Whereas once multiple generations of families lived together or in very close proximity and shared the duties of caring for young, old, and sick alike, now those who need care are tucked away in care facilities with their generational peers. The breakdown of the nuclear family and increasing familial migration has only accelerated this phenomenon.
The beauty of day care for old and young is that it works perfectly for both. Seniors have the time and patience for kids that harried parents often don’t. And young children often delight in the company of the old and can learn from them. The young haven’t quite learned to dismiss the old yet, to look past them as if they were not there. For almost all of human history, this generational mixing was routine; it gave an important dignity to old age, and a huge advantage to parents for the successful rearing of children round the clock. We’ve broken that pattern in late modernity, but of course we can re-create it in new ways if we try. Intergenerational day care is one adaptation, I guess.
When I was a kid, my elderly grandmother, widowed at a relatively early age, came to live with us in her late 60s. She was grappling with the beginnings of Alzheimer’s, but until a nursing home became a necessity, she added a whole other dimension to family life. She was the seventh of thirteen children from the west coast of Ireland, a devout Catholic who had once been a cleaning lady for priests. From her childhood to mine was a whole universe of distance, and without her right there every day, I think that inheritance would have been far easier for me to forget.
Children can absorb a huge amount from the elderly. My grandmother was a glimpse into an older, enchanted order. For her, ghosts were as real as her grandkids (and she’d happily terrify the pants off you); the saints were on constant alert for various and sundry requests throughout the day; every item on the news would evoke the same startled gasp of shock and then a tut-tut-tut; cups of tea were in an eternal return of sorts, always about to be made, sipped, too hot, too cold, or just finished. She was from another world — and yet so close.
She had a carelessness about her, a somewhat irresponsible assurance that God would put everything right, don’t you worry, Our Lady has it figured out. She was forever whistling to herself, or humming a hymn, and her favorite had the rather mindful lyrics: “Lord, for tomorrow and its needs, I do not pray. But keep me, hold me, love me, Lord, just for today.” I found her a little irritating at times, to be honest, a little embarrassing in public with her broad Irish brogue, and a little scary (especially when I was a kid and she took all her false teeth out). But her presence has stayed with me decades later. I remember a particular bad patch in my childhood when I was adjusting to a new school and could not sleep. She brought me tea, of course. She tried singing hymns to me. And then, when it seemed I’d never nod off, she actually got into bed next to me, in her long pajamas, and just stroked my head.
You simply cannot get this from an iPad. You cannot get it from your peers. And there is an odd equality to the relationship between the very young and the very old that I felt in that sleepless bedroom. Each get to see in one another the end and the beginning of life. That gives each perspective and respect as well as mutual curiosity — and the time to explore it.
In a saner world, this would be at the center of our politics: the simple repair of human bonds, broken by capitalism and modernity and loneliness. But we can make it saner. And this kind of idea is a start.
I have to say I’m happy that Jussie Smollett will not be going to jail in the face of what seemed to me an excessive 16 felony charges for his faked “hate crime” non-incident debacle. There are too many young black men in jail already, and if a plea deal can help someone avoid time in a case where no one was actually hurt, unless you count beating yourself up, great. Alternative prosecution arrangements are a good thing, in general.
But what makes absolutely no sense is that Smollett is still refusing to accept responsibility and apologize for the hoax. In fact, he still appears to be outright lying. Here is the full statement: “I have been truthful and consistent on every level since day one. I would not be my mother’s son if I was capable of one drop of what I’m accused of. This has been an incredibly difficult time. Honestly one of the worst of my entire life. But I am a man of faith and I am a man that has knowledge of my history and I would not bring my family, our lives or the movement through a fire like this, I just wouldn’t.”
But you did, Jussie, you did. And it matters that you take responsibility for what you did. Anything else is pure Trump post-truth insanity. Or at the very best, Joy Reid–level weirdness. It’s bad enough, as Rahm Emanuel pointed out, that Smollett is “walking around with no sense of contrition, no sense of remorse.” But it’s worse that he is insisting on an alternative, false reality and demanding others accept it as well. Even now he’s clinging to “his” truth and bathing himself in self-pity.
For the NAACP still to nominate Smollett for an entertainment Image Award this Sunday is, well, surreal. And the host of the awards show, one Anthony Anderson, actually hopes Smollett wins: “I’m happy for him that the system worked for him in his favor because the system isn’t always fair, especially for people of color.” I’m happy too. But notice how the logic of identity politics can all too easily launder and enable a simple, and still perpetrated, lie.
P.S. I had a brain fart last week defending a recent post on the U.S.–Israel relationship, and conflated one critic’s point about U.S. assistance to South Korea with Bret Stephens’s similar but different point about U.S. assistance to Germany and Europe. Apologies.
I’ll be on Real Time With Bill Maher tonight.
Otherwise, see you next Friday.