Reading Marc Fisher and Sari Horwitz’s extraordinary article comparing the lives of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and President Trump made me realize that the war between the two men is not just a struggle over the fate of this presidency. It is a battle for the soul of America, because each of them represents a recognizable American archetype.
Mueller was born to wealth and attended elite institutions — St. Paul’s School, Princeton University, the University of Virginia School of Law — but felt compelled to serve his country. During the Vietnam War, when most of his classmates were avoiding the draft, he volunteered for the Marine Corps and earned numerous decorations leading a rifle platoon in fierce combat. Returning home, he became a prosecutor and eventually ran the Justice Department’s criminal division. In the 1990s Mueller went into private practice. It was lucrative, but he hated it. Watching the spike of drug-driven murders in the District of Columbia, he volunteered to become a line prosecutor in the U.S. attorney’s office. It was as if a retired general had volunteered to serve as a private in wartime.
Later, as FBI director under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, Mueller became the embodiment of the old-school G-man who only wore a white shirt with a red or blue tie — never a blue shirt, because that would signal dangerous frivolity. He “avoided the limelight” and “frustrated his speechwriters by crossing out every ‘I’ in speeches they wrote for him. It wasn’t about him, he told them: ‘It’s about the organization.’ ”
Mueller embodies the ideals of probity, service and self-sacrifice that trace back to the Pilgrims who came to America in search of a “city upon a hill.” The Puritans preached devotion to the Almighty and had nothing but contempt for vanity and luxury — no blue shirts for them. Over the centuries, their religious fanaticism leached away, leaving behind in American culture a residue of obligation to serve not just God but also mankind.
Their spiritual offspring included Mueller’s fellow St. Paul’s graduate Charles “Chip” Bohlen and the other “Wise Men” who created post-World War II U.S. foreign policy. Their credo was Luke 12:48, a favorite Bible verse of the Kennedys: “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.” They felt an obligation to serve — and not boast about it. World War II heroes such as George H.W. Bush and Robert J. Dole were notoriously reticent to talk about their wartime experiences. Mueller just missed being a baby boomer, but he has a Greatest Generation ethos.
Trump is Mueller’s opposite in every meaningful respect save that he was also born to privilege. He has much in common with the land promoters who bamboozled English immigrants into coming to the New World in the 17th century with fanciful tales of riches — what Trump would describe as “truthful hyperbole.” He is the kind of charming con man who peddled patent medicines in the 19th century and then, in the 20th century, penny stocks and time-shares. These scofflaws and scammers were the inspiration for the phony duke and dauphin in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” Jay Gatsby and the Wizard of Oz.
Trump combines the hedonism of the 1970s with the bigotry and sexism of the 1950s: the worst of both worlds. His consciousness was not raised in the 1960s, but his libido was. He did not take part in the civil rights or antiwar movements and won five draft deferments — including one for “bone spurs” — so that he could devote his life to the pursuit of women and wealth. He later said that fear of catching a sexually transmitted disease was “my personal Vietnam.”
Trump is the embodiment of what Christopher Lasch in 1979 called the “new narcissist” who “praises respect for rules and regulations in the secret belief that they do not apply to himself”; whose “emancipation from ancient taboos brings him no sexual peace”; and whose “cravings have no limits,” because he “demands immediate gratification and lives in a state of restless, perpetually unsatisfied desire.” A product of the “me decade,” Trump is a “me first”— not “America first” — president whose speeches are full of exaggerated or falsified self-praise.
Mueller is the best of America; Trump the worst. All you need to know about the diseased state of today’s Republican Party is that it reviles Mueller and reveres Trump. Hitherto the champions of personal responsibility and rectitude, Republicans have embraced a culture of self-indulgence that they denounced when it was symbolized by Trump’s fellow draft-dodger Bill Clinton. This shift in the tectonic plates of the culture may long outlast the current administration.
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