Any day now, Robert Mueller, the special counsel overseeing the investigation into possible Russian interference in the U.S. election, will submit the report of his team’s findings to Congress. Many people online will tell you that, thanks to months of investigative journalism and copious leaks from Congress, we already know many of the findings that will be divulged therein, and can predict what will happen when the report is released. I mean, come on, can’t everyone? When the Mueller report is finally released, as everyone knows, the special counsel will reveal himself to have been in league with President Trump the entire time, and that his mission was to investigate and take down a global ring of child predators prominently featuring Hillary Clinton.
You may feel smug about your foreknowledge of the contents of Mueller report, but surely not more so than the deep believers in QAnon — the elaborate, amorphous, 4chan-based conspiracy theory that holds that Mueller and Trump have been secretly plotting to take down a ring of wealthy, powerful pedophiles. Any day now!
There are many lessons to be learned from Donald Trump’s surprise victory in 2016, but my favorite is the questionably comforting knowledge that all human beings, regardless of their political persuasion, can attain a baseline level of self-deceiving stupidity. For most of the last few decades, widespread conspiracy theories have emerged almost exclusively from the right wing of American politics — but in the wake of Trump’s election, just as QAnon metastasized on the right, a portion of the same Democrats who would scoff at the right-wing fever swamp was quickly overtaken by increasingly wild wishful thinking. How could Donald Trump win an election? An unfortunate number of members of the party of moderation and logic and science settled on elaborate, yarn-and-corkboard theories of shadowy Russian meddling. Many formed a picture of Trump directly conspiring with Putin to hack voting machines, or commanding an army of bots to distribute fake news.
A cohort fueled by obsession, ambition, and addiction to posting found the possibility of vast conspiracies between a still-Communist Russia and a much-smarter-than-he-seems Donald Trump too enticing to resist. Their preferred outlet was Twitter, which has an outsize influence on national and international affairs, because it is where media people and obsessives hang out and where politicians and celebrities go to be seen. Case in point: a December 2016 Twitter thread from a political and economic consultant named Eric Garland, which elaborated in robotically colloquial slang an extensive secret history of the election that somehow involved President Obama deploying “game theory.” The thread was nonetheless endorsed by people like Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter David Fahrenthold, who broke news of the Access Hollywood tape, and Brian Stelter, whose media-scolding CNN show is called Reliable Sources.
Mother Jones editor-in-chief Clara Jeffery described it as the “single greatest thread I have ever read on Twitter. And in its way a Federalist Paper for 2016” — a comment so inscrutable that the Cray supercomputer I tasked with analyzing it encountered a fatal error and subsequently melted down.
At that point, anyone with access to Google, Wikipedia, an elementary-school chart plotting the three branches of the U.S. government, and a vague notion of the Cold War became some sort of authority on Trump’s alleged collusion with the Russian government. The age of the Mueller conspiracy theories had begun. BuzzFeed termed these amateur investigators “blue detectives,” accurately tagging them as the next step beyond internet-native conspiracy theorists trying and failing to solve immense mysteries with virtual corkboards and digital yarn.
Garland’s unhinged, try-hard, aggravating, LOLspeak-y, overly colloquial screed — which, taken as a prose piece and not as a slapdash conglomeration of tweets, is nigh unreadable — was just the start of unfounded theorizing masked by a veneer of professionalism. New Hampshire literature professor Seth Abramson gained a large following by using similar threads (and by claiming that he was a professor of law despite, uh, not being that). He also aggressively baits for shameless retweets, as if they could have any actual effect on the investigation. (To be fair, those retweets do have an effect on the book deals, guest columns, media appearances, podcasts, and Patreon fundraising drives that the blue detectives rely on to sustain their work).
Among the Twitter-centric celebrities to emerge in this new environment, in which Twitter-using #resistance members yearned for a credible explanation for the Criminal Cheeto’s rise, were Louise Mensch, an English politician, and Claude Taylor, a former Clinton administration staffer. The two often teamed up and ran half-baked theories about Russian collusion on their blog, Patribotics. The pair was hoaxed on at least one occasion into posting details of a criminal inquiry that did not exist.
Mensch was a font of many ridiculous assertions, but perhaps most famous was her claim that former Trump campaign chairman Steve Bannon might be secretly sentenced to death for espionage, and had been paving the way for Russian interference in the election since 2010. “My sources say the death penalty, for espionage, being considered for @StevenKBannon,” she wrote. “I am pro-life and take no pleasure in reporting this.”
Of course, this was all happening in tandem with growing concern around the actual role of Russia in the U.S. election, and the subsequent appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller, who was tasked with investigating ties between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives. Mueller’s assignment acted as a Rorschach test for those concerned with Russia, or really anything that might involve the president stepping down. Unlike the Twitter pundits feeling things out in real-time, Mueller has said little and often only in court filings. The secrecy with which he and his team operate means that Russiagate conspiracy theories went unsubstantiated and unrebutted. In the beginning, his appointment almost served as validation for the blue detectives.
Mueller’s investigation was both highly secretive and highly visible, an irresistible combination to conspiracy-prone minds of any political persuasion. In the silence, the Mueller-centric cottage industry of Twitter conspiracies, podcasts, YouTube recaps, and Etsy merch filled the void. These things served as a fun way to pass the time, like celebrity gossip and sports shows in the off-season — “anything could happen and we will now list every single one of those things.” It became a 24-hour story when Mueller’s camp actually came out of its bunker to push back on a BuzzFeed story about its supposed findings.
The reality of Russian interference, as far as we credibly know it, is less clear-cut than the most extreme Mueller conspiracists would have it. There is a there there, but it is not the Manchurian Candidate operation that the Twitter Woodwards and Blogspot Bernsteins might hope. Certain Trump operatives had direct, cooperative relationships with Russian representatives during the election — but we largely know about these relationships by now. Steve Bannon is not, and was not, a Russian spy. In fact, the biggest problem for Trump may not be the collusion charges initially pursued by Mueller’s investigation, but the extent to which the president attempted to obstruct that investigation.
As the Mueller report has come closer to fruition, the authority of most of these blue detectives has fallen off from influential highs, just as QAnon has become less and less visible on the various platforms on which it flourished. Maybe it’s because certain theories — or rather, statements of fact, like Mensch’s announcement that Bannon and Giuliani were headed to the guillotine — never came to fruition. Maybe it’s the ever-dwindling chances of a smoking gun appearing to show Trump the door or force Congress to take action. Maybe the jailing of Trump affiliates like Michaels Cohen and Flynn, and the indictments of Trump confidantes like Roger Stone, who was tied to WikiLeaks, has provided enough catharsis. Maybe the #Russiagate theory became so convoluted that it became impossible to keep track of unless you were reading every single tweet and blog post, and who has the time? Maybe there are simply more urgent and pressing issues, impacting more Americans, to get mad about online — child separation, health care, foreign policy, Supreme Court appointments, the looming 2020 presidential campaign.
The release of the Mueller report will not make the blue detectives disappear, but their dwindling ability to hold attention indicates that even the most professional-presenting conspiracy theorists eventually wither. Unlike QAnon, which invented evidence and reasoning out of thin air, the Russiagate stuff had at least a tenuous connection to facts and reality, and the blue detectives were eventually forced to cede ground.