Special counsel Robert Mueller will not be recommending the impeachment of President Donald Trump.
He will not be indicting Donald Trump Jr. or Jared Kushner. He will not provide startling proof that the president has actually been a Russian asset since the 1980s. And if Attorney General Bill Barr’s summary of the Mueller report is even close to accurate, Mueller will conclude that neither Trump nor any of his close aides were actively conspiring with the Russian government as it attempted to meddle in the 2016 election on Trump’s behalf.
I am not an expert on this investigation, and I outsource all analyses on whether the report is surprisingly exculpatory or still damning or whatever to my colleague Andrew Prokop, who is an expert. But whatever the substantive conclusions, Mueller has failed to play the cultural and psychological role that some liberals have expected him to play since his appointment almost two years ago.
The idea of Mueller as a kind of deus ex machina capable of rescuing the American people from the Trump presidency has taken on almost comical proportions. A recent NPR story canvassed families whose dying relatives expressed a concern that they’d never get to read the Mueller report. In Vanity Fair, Rachel Dodes wrote an ode to “Robert Swan Mueller III” (“may I call you Swan?”), the “dreamiest G-man to ever hunt for collusion.” Spike Lee — Spike Lee! — became so enamored of a former FBI director that he started saving “God Protect Robert Mueller” T-shirts:
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This conviction that The Law would eventually come down and smite Trump is, of course, broader than just Mueller. In the New Yorker last year, Adam Davidson compared the FBI’s raid on Michael Cohen (a case handled by the Southern District of New York, not Mueller’s office) to the beginning of the Iraq occupation in 2003 and the start of the subprime mortgage crisis in 2007 — instances that marked the beginning of a calamitous disaster, which one could see coming if one knew where to look.
“This is the week we know, with increasing certainty, that we are entering the last phase of the Trump Presidency,” he wrote. “This doesn’t feel like a prophecy; it feels like a simple statement of the apparent truth.”
A year later, Davidson’s prediction of a dramatic demise for the Trump presidency feels, at a minimum, premature, as journalists Jim Newell and Jeet Heer noted at the time. But what’s less interesting than the prediction is the emotion behind it, the same emotion behind Spike Lee’s “God Protect Robert Mueller” shirts and the sense of disappointment felt by some Mueller enthusiasts in the wake of the investigation’s conclusion.
All of this reflects a yearning for something, anything, to end the death loop that American democracy appears to be trapped in — for a big, dramatic blowup to fix the system’s ills. In the liberal imagination, that blowup typically takes the form of Trump’s removal from office, an event that sets us back to a path of normalcy and sane politics.
This yearning is understandable — but it is both dangerous and misplaced. Ending the Trump presidency will not fix, or even substantially ameliorate, most of the problems plaguing the American political system. They were mounting for years before he took office — indeed, they made him possible — and will continue to plague us for years after he leaves.
And more importantly, as this week clarifies, there will be no dramatic end for Trump. He will not be impeached, at least not the way the Bill Clinton was impeached, following recommendations from an independent prosecutor. He will certainly not be removed from office by a Republican Senate — that’s one prediction I am willing to make as long as Mitch McConnell is majority leader.
If he’s going to leave office, it’s not going to be because the other shoe drops, and some morsel of information about Trump heretofore unknown to the public is going to force him to resign in shame or be forced out. There’s no revelation that can do that when [gesticulates wildly to literally everything that has happened and been revealed since 2015] was not enough.
If he’s going to leave office, it will be because he loses the 2020 election, is term-limited in 2024, or dies. Barring a surprise 67-vote Democratic majority in his second term, there’s no fourth option.
Mueller was never going to end Trump’s presidency
Well, I'd like to see ol Donny Trump wriggle his way out of THIS jam!— jf (@BronzeHammer) October 2, 2016
*Trump wriggles his way out of the jam easily*
Ah! Well. Nevertheless,
At least since Donald Trump first announced his presidential campaign in June 2015, journalists and activists have been asking: Is this the scandal that finally does him in?
Would his casual description of Mexican immigrants as rapists in his announcement speech force him to drop out shortly after he jumped in? Would his attack on John McCain for being captured in Vietnam end his campaign? What about mocking a disabled New York Times reporter? Or lying and saying Muslim Americans in Jersey City celebrated the 9/11 attacks? Or proposing an all-out ban on Muslim immigration?
What about the revelation of a tape where he brags about sexually assaulting women? Or the stories from multiple women who said he did, in fact, sexually assault them? Or leaking highly classified information to the Russian government? Or ordering FBI Director James Comey to close his investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and then firing Comey when he refused? Would any of these be enough to finally bring Trump down?
As it turns out, the answer in each case was no. None of these were enough to stop Trump from winning the presidency, or to force him out of it. That’s not because none of these things should have been enough to force him out of office or disqualify him. All of them should have been enough! It is morally obscene to have a president who assaults women and wants to exclude people from the United States based on their religion. In a just world, every single one of them would have been a deal breaker.
But the sad truth is that whether or not Trump is “brought down” has at best an indirect relationship to the gravity of the charges against him. His fate depends much more heavily on how Republican leaders in Congress respond to the scandals in question than it does on those scandals’ details or severity. Trump is the American president. He can only be removed from office if a majority of the House votes to impeach and a two-thirds majority of the Senate votes to convict.
Alternatively, if the Cabinet forces him out with the 25th Amendment, he will only be gone if two-thirds of both the House and Senate want him to leave.
These are easier bars to clear with a Democratic House than when Paul Ryan was speaker. But there are 52 Republicans in the Senate. The hope that revelations from Mueller would force Trump out of office was thus premised on a belief that Mueller would find something sufficiently more shocking that every previous revelation about Trump that at least 19 Senate Republicans would feel compelled to vote for removal.
When phrased like that, this hope feels ridiculous — because it was ridiculous. It was never about what Mueller could or could not find. It was always about raw vote totals, and the votes were simply never there.
End the presidency, save the world
Until 2015, the problems our democracy confronted were mounting but largely faceless. Trump gave them a human form. He illustrates the US’s susceptibility to demagoguery and to the influence of billionaires seeking to deregulate their own businesses and cut their own taxes. He won with the assistance of one of America’s most broken and anti-majoritarian institutions (the Electoral College) with a congressional majority bolstered by gerrymandering and the underrepresentation of left-leaning urban areas.
He shows how America’s thermostatic electorate, constantly responding to one party’s electoral success with a dramatic swing to the other side, can undermine democratic responsiveness by catapulting a party with a deeply unpopular agenda into office. And he shows how dangerous the presidency’s extraordinary war powers can be in the wrong hands.
So it’s no wonder that his presidency has proven a breeding ground for fantasies of his regime’s demise that range from the responsible — see my colleague Ezra Klein’s case that Trump should be impeached for being ridiculously bad at his job — to the conspiratorial and preposterous (see Louise Mensch’s claims that Trump’s impeachment and arrest are imminent and that the “Marshal of the Supreme Court” had informed the president his impeachment was coming; or Jamie Kirchick, who even before Trump’s presidency was musing about a military coup unseating him).
Humans, as the late literary critic Frank Kermode argued in his book The Sense of an Ending, crave narrative structure. “We are surrounded by [chaos], and equipped for coexistence with it only by our fictive powers,” he writes. We can’t see the world as a sequence of events, one right after another, with no end or resolution in sight. “To see everything as out of mere succession,” he observes, “is to behave like a man drugged or insane.”
We can’t see what’s happening to American politics as just a succession of events that, in themselves, mean nothing. They have to be leading up to a climactic Götterdämmerung in which our slate is wiped clean. This is the yearning behind bold predictions of the Trump administration’s collapse — that made Mueller such a symbol of liberal hopes.
Spend less time fantasizing about the system blowing up and more time thinking about how best to muddle through
So where does this leave us? Everything feels horrible, Trump is still in office, and he’s not going anywhere.
The glib answer is that if you don’t want Trump to be president, you should make sure he loses the 2020 election. He’s the favorite at this point given the strength of the economy and the advantage that incumbents normally enjoy, but incumbents sometimes lose and Democrats have a number of strong candidates.
But a Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders or Kamala Harris presidency obviously isn’t going to wipe clean the system’s problems single-handedly. The maladies remain, as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) noted as the Barr summary was about to drop.
He can stay, he can go. He can be impeached, or voted out in 2020.— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) March 24, 2019
But removing Trump will not remove the infrastructure of an entire party that embraced him; the dark money that funded him; the online radicalization that drummed his army; nor the racism he amplified+reanimated.
To borrow a quote that 2020 hopeful Pete Buttigieg likely knows well, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
Absent a revolutionary shock to create a radically new political order, the best we can do is just muddle along.
What does that look like? An unsatisfying litany of heavy political lifts, most of which will fail, and each of which on its own would only mildly improve matters if adopted. We should abolish the filibuster and Electoral College and eliminate midterm elections by having the House, Senate, and president serve concurrent four-year terms. We should adopt the Fair Representation Act to end gerrymandering and move toward proportional representation. We need a robust right to vote in the Constitution, public financing for elections, and more transparency for corporate and nonprofit political spending.
These seem like ambitious reforms, and in all likelihood most of them will fail, leaving us in a perhaps mildly better version of the morass we’re in now. Even in the extraordinarily unlikely event we make them all happen, a number of core problems in our politics will remain. You can’t legislate away negative partisanship, and you can’t entirely prevent corporations and the wealthy from exerting some degree of oligarchic power without trampling on freedom of speech.
And if those changes are not enough, then getting Trump frogmarched out of the White House certainly won’t be. Ejecting him cannot and will not suddenly cure our political dysfunction. The problems in our democracy don’t suddenly disappear when he’s no longer in the White House, any more than they would’ve disappeared had he narrowly lost in 2016 rather than narrowly won.
“This is increasingly my fear: that there is no principled alternative to muddling through,” the political writer Will Wilkinson mused back in 2010. “But muddle we must.”
I understand the yearning not to muddle, for a big, climactic finish to both the Trump presidency and the American national nightmare. But if muddling through is to lead anywhere, we ought to be prepared for it, and prepared to make the most of it, rather than thinking a deus ex machina like impeachment will blow the whole thing up in a stroke.
The truth is the Trump years will likely end with a whimper rather than a bang — just as the conclusion of Watergate did not lead to a cleansed and more ethical politics, and just as the financial crisis did not usher in a new era of ethical banking.
Part of the pain of those crises came from Americans as a people expecting too much out of them, expecting a greater transformation than was actually on offer. If the collective liberal reaction to the Mueller report is a sense of disappointment, I hope that in turn it generates a clearer sense of the problems that gave rise to Trump, and the discipline, the vision, and, most importantly, the patience to tackle them.