The president is a blustery hype man-turned-reality star, so dyed-in-the-wool as a consumer and producer of entertainment that he says things like “stay tuned!” about issues like health care and hurricane relief. If our politics and, by extension, our lives are inescapable theater, at least they can be something better than shitty reality TV. Maybe they could be a Scorsese movie, one with funny flamboyant bad guys who get what’s coming to them in slow-motion montage form.
Americans’ collective desire to be in a satisfying narrative, or at least one that makes sense, was on full display yesterday, when indictments against Donald Trump’s former campaign leaders Paul Manafort and Rick Gates were unsealed and a guilty plea was revealed from a former Trump campaign staffer. The news turned every casual political observer into an amateur FBI fanfiction author.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller is sending a message to Manafort, said some. Others said Trump. Some said that George Papadopoulos, because he’d been a “cooperating witness” that he must have been wearing a wire. Some said Mueller was trying to flip Manafort, or some other witness. Maybe Jared, who knows? This is a tiny part of something huge, said some. This is a piping hot bowl of nothing, with extra nothing on top, said others.
Somebody much better at iMovie than most cut together a movie montage arrest scene with faces of Trump administration figures edited onto the heads of the original characters as “To Russia, With Love” played over the scene. It was on its way to going viral before Ava Duvernay retweeted it and pushed it over the edge. Stephen Colbert did a Christmas-themed Indictment Day segment on The Late Show. This is finally going to be the thing that nails Trump, said a lot of people who want that to be true, based on very little information outside of the legal filings everybody got to look at.
Analysis of news events like yesterday’s aren’t useless. It’s nice to get a sense of how the present compares with the past, and what that might mean about the future. But getting too comfortable with a speculative vision of what’s to come, especially in an environment where information is this tightly controlled, can kneecap one’s ability to understand things as they unfold, truthfully.
No matter how tempting it is to believe what the tea leaf readers read, no matter how good it felt to see Manafort’s face tense with anger as he slapped news cameras out of his face on the way out of his arraignment, nothing is over until the handcuffs click on. Believing that this is just the beginning of a feature-length Trump White House justice porn is just setting oneself up for disappointment or worse, rejection of facts that run contrary to the fanfiction we spent yesterday spinning.
All of us know just about as much about the case as anybody else. That nobody had heard a whisper about Papadopoulos pleading guilty before yesterday is a testament to how tightly-contained Mueller’s investigation is. We know what team Mueller has chosen to share, not what some sloppy aide at a happy hour spilled within earshot of a reporter.
We should be careful of getting too comfortable with speculation, because right now we’re in the middle of untangling an old fanfiction. This one’s not as seductive as the “Mueller is a super cop, like the magical kind from a CBS procedural” narrative, but, until yesterday, it was just as entrenched in the mainstream.
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly has benefitted immensely from high expectations. Back in January, Bernie Sanders tweeted that he hoped Generals Mattis and Kelly would serve as “moderating” influences on the “racist and xenophobic views Trump has advocated.” Lots of people seemed to believe that Kelly was going to be one of The Good Ones in Trump’s army of bully sidekicks and oily liars. They believed, like Sanders, that he’d perhaps moderate Trump.
Given the benefit of hindsight, it’s not clear why anybody believed this. In the last month, Kelly’s done plenty to disprove it himself. According to emails obtained by The Intercept earlier this month, Kelly ordered that undocumented people be depicted as lawbreaking so as to justify ICE raids. That’s hardly moderating.
More famously, Kelly has, also in the last month, used the White House podium to marry his heartfelt tale of the loss of his son in combat to a blatant lie about a Florida congressman and a Gold Star family. Kelly fought back tears while smearing Rep. Frederica Wilson in a way that we can now describe as nearly Kevin Spacey-esque. Video evidence disproving Kelly exists, we’ve all seen it. But last night, Kelly sat down for an interview with with Laura Ingraham, who, like Kelly, always appears to be seconds away from screaming. Kelly refused to apologize to Wilson. He stands by that thing he made up alongside the story of his deceased son which, in that context, served as little more than a device designed to dissuade reporters from questioning him.
Kelly also insisted, during that interview, that the reason the Civil War happened was a lack of compromise, which is exactly the opposite of something a moderating influence equipped to stand up to Trump’s wildness would say. Backlash has been swift today, but Kelly was proving himself divergent from the narrative about Kelly long before he attacked three black women from the White House podium.
It’s natural to try to make sense of the slow motion explosion of the last 18 months in American history. But it’s also important to remember that seductive narratives are seductive because they make sense, because they satisfy in a way that reality often doesn’t. It felt nice to think that Kelly would be a grizzled war veteran with nerves of steel and a heart of gold whipping the White House into shape instead of a cranky, less interesting version of Trump, but here we are. And it might feel nice, for some, to imagine their least favorite member of the Trump universe perp walking into court like Manafort. But we don’t know, and shouldn’t trust anybody who pretends they do.