The conclusion of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report on his investigation of President Trump last week came as an anticlimax. Attorney General William P. Barr’s summary makes plain that although the report does not conclude that the president committed crimes, it does not exonerate him, either. Yet after month upon month of anticipation, the investigation had become so freighted that the non-release of a non-exoneration led the New York Times to headline its analysis, “A Cloud Over Trump’s Presidency Is Lifted,” while The Washington Post reported that Hill Democrats were giving up on impeachment for now.
To understand why this nonevent was so significant, we have to examine the function that Mueller’s report served for Democrats while it was being written. Because they lacked any real power to counter the trauma of the 2016 election and everything that has come since then, the idea that Saint Robert would slay the orange dragon held appeal as a salvation myth. Trump’s opponents could remain hopeful that, even though they didn’t have the means to do it, somebody else would fix the almost impossible problem of how to oust a president they viewed as illegitimate and catastrophic.
The plot line into which Democrats cast Mueller’s investigation came right out of a legal procedural. The star of this show was supposed to have been an upright lawman, who — with his impeccable credentials as an investigator, a prosecutor and a Republican to boot — would prove Trump’s villainy and deliver him to justice.
Many expressed their hope in Mueller’s investigation quietly and soberly. The journalist Garrett Graff argued for patience, writing in Wired last year that Mueller “always knows more than we think.” Others were less restrained. The prominent Twitter account @ProudResister crowed in January that Mueller’s indictments of Russian agents showed that “Trump defends Russia because he is a TRAITOR.” A market for Mueller swag sprung up, from “It’s Mueller Time” beer glasses to Spike Lee’s T-shirts reading “God protect Robert Mueller.” (Spike Lee! Defending an FBI director!)
As long as Democratic leaders could point to the Mueller investigation as reason to postpone direct conflict with the administration, there was little need for them to make politically risky moves. In August, for instance, Roll Call described the strategy of House Democratic leaders, including Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), as “let special counsel Robert S. Mueller III finish his investigation and issue a report — we’ll decide where to go from there.”
This wasn’t cowardice but calculation. Democratic leaders probably let Mueller carry the hopes and dreams of so many of their base voters because they knew that the Russia issue wasn’t much of a winner with the broader electorate. Newly released findings from the 2018 Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES) of 60,000 Americans show conclusively that a belief that the Trump administration colluded with Russia is almost entirely partisan, with fewer independents — and very few Republicans — willing to entertain that notion.
Pausing on impeachment until the Mueller report arrived gave Democrats room to appeal beyond their base in the 2018 midterm election by talking about other issues, such as health care, taxes and/cc the economy. When the report landed with no further indictments, it showed how weak the party’s hand was relative to what its base demanded.
The most loyal Democrats hoped that Mueller would save the day for two reasons. First, as the CCES data showed, they were already convinced that Trump had colluded. They expected that any fair investigation, therefore, would arrive at the same conclusion. A December 2018 Fox News poll of registered voters found, for instance, that 65 percent of Democrats (but only 13 percent of Republicans) thought it was extremely or very likely that the special counsel would find that Trump had committed impeachable offenses.
Second, they had no other options. For the first two years of Trump’s term, every federal institution was stacked against Democrats. Because they lacked any real-world levers, magical thinking — the belief that a white(-haired) knight could save the day with an ironclad report — came to the fore. And for two years, that belief sustained a number of Democrats.
Democrats may have also turned to a law-enforcement figure because there were few other institutions in the national government they trusted at all. In June 2017, Gallup reported that, with President Barack Obama out and Trump in, partisans’ trust in national institutions changed significantly. Only 10 percent of Democrats said they now trusted the White House, and only 11 percent trusted Congress. By contrast, Democrats’ trust in the courts (43 percent) and the criminal justice system (27 percent) weren’t all that much different from the figures for Republicans.
But those were the only government institutions, besides the military, that Democrats had much faith in at all. Similarly, a June/July 2018 Georgetown University Baker Center poll found that Democrats trusted the FBI at high levels — more than nonprofits! — even as Republicans trusted the bureau almost as little as they did college professors. Mueller and his investigation therefore fit neatly into a category of the shrinking set of institutions that Democrats still put stock in.
Yet the evidence shows that Mueller was never quite as respected by Americans in general as the myth required. I downloaded every polling question in the Roper/iPoll database between June 2017 and January 2019 that asked whether Americans approved of Mueller and whether they thought his investigation would be fair. Although Mueller began his appointment with nearly 70 percent approval ratings, by January, his approval hovered just above the 50 percent mark.
A lot of that support probably reflected partisanship rather than disinterested hopes for fact-finding. When poll questions didn’t identify Mueller as the special prosecutor (a tipoff to partisans about how they should answer), the most common response (an average of 37 percent across 23 polls) was that Americans hadn’t heard of him, compared with an average of 32 percent who approved. Similarly, belief that his investigation would be fair peaked early and showed a small but steady decline. Both of these trends follow the general hyperpartisan trend of contemporary politics.
Even if Mueller had concluded that the evidence against Trump was damning, it’s likely that party loyalties soon would have reasserted themselves in response (as, indeed, they have in the aftermath of the non-release of the report). A February 2018 Marist poll found that 55 percent of Americans would believe Mueller over Trump if the two disagreed, which was almost exactly the same percentage as disapproved of Trump’s presidency in that poll. Ninety-one percent of Democrats said they would have sided with Mueller — but only 15 percent of Republicans said they would have gone against the president.
The deflation of the Mueller Time myth, then, also means Democrats are falling back to reality.
Not only is there no hero to save them, but they remain in a weak position: controlling fewer states than Republicans, while their power in the federal judiciary is waning and Republicans have a lock on the Senate. Even after Democrats regained control of the House, their powers remain limited, although they have substantial leverage to block many budget and legislative initiatives. House Democrats might even be able to impeach the president (and they have no lack of grounds to do so), but the Republican-controlled Senate is unlikely to convict.
Where does this leave the country — and Democrats? Although kindled by partisanship, the Mueller myth reflected the embers of faith in the strength of political institutions to overcome the flaws of our political culture. The deepest root of that faith is the belief that the will of the people is best expressed through elections. Many observers, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), argued on those grounds that impeachment would therefore be the wrong way to get rid of Trump — that he must instead be defeated at the ballot box in 2020.
As inspirational as this plan may sound to some now, its appeal springs from the same yearning for a decisive victory that fed the Mueller myth. And it will probably fare no better: The American system is not set up to deliver massive popular rebukes to presidents. We’ve already had a ballot box defeat of Trumpism — when he lost the popular vote in 2016. Yet because of the electoral college, he still won. And even Democrats’ strong showing in the 2018 midterm election illustrated the limitations of electoral politics to repudiate Trump: They took the House but fell even further behind in the Senate. (And this all leaves aside the question of whether the president would gracefully accept an electoral defeat next year.)
Even if 2020 delivered a defeat to Trump, though, it would leave in place the conditions and institutions that brought him to power in the first place. There might be a momentary catharsis, but expecting that a single election (or investigation) can fix everything only undermines the more realistic but less exciting processes of political change — of winning over enough voters to pass policies one by one, or the more radical project of reshaping institutions to prevent future disasters. The lesson to take from Democrats’ infatuation and disappointment with the Mueller myth is that there are no heroes or final acts in politics. There is only us and a continual struggle.