Wednesday, 17 Apr 2024

Opinion | Collusion Was a Seductive Delusion

On a bitter night nearly two-and-a-half squandered years ago, Donald Trump was duly elected the 45th president of the United States of America. His victory was a political scandal, a democratic emergency and a moral shame — but as Robert Mueller seems to have concluded after a definitive investigation, Mr. Trump’s win was not the illegitimate product of a treasonous conspiracy.

There was no collusion. The president was not a Manchurian candidate. And we can’t lay the blame for this whole thing on Vladimir Putin.

Indeed, the truest horror in Mr. Mueller’s finding is that we did not need Mr. Putin to be pulling the strings. We know now that under our shambolic democracy, a man as unfit as Mr. Trump really can legitimately acquire all the terrifying powers of the presidency without being controlled by a foreign puppet master.

[Farhad Manjoo will answer your questions about this column on Twitter on Tuesday at 2:30 p.m. Eastern: @fmanjoo.]

The second true horror concerns a historically wasted opportunity. In the years we’ve spent chasing the fantastical ghosts of collusion, we have all but ignored the structural weaknesses plaguing every corner of the American establishment, from its political parties to its news media to its tilted economic landscape and, most important, the unfair machinery of its democracy.

Mr. Mueller's indictments show that Russian agents interfered with the 2016 election by sowing discord on social media and hacking and disseminating Democrats' emails. Yet it now seems wiser to point to our intrinsically American shortcomings, more than Russian interference, for Mr. Trump’s victory. And in rushing to blame Russian collusion, we have wasted time and political opportunity that we might better have spent reckoning with how to prevent a Trump-like catastrophe from happening again.

I’m spelling all this out starkly, because in the spinning to come, it will be all too easy to lose yourself in misdirection. If you are a liberal, you might be especially tempted to give in to the aggrieved and embarrassed #resistance-tweeting punditocracy now throwing up endless reasons for downplaying Mr. Mueller’s finding: We still haven’t seen the whole report! The attorney general is a toady! Don’t forget about all those other investigations of all those other crimes!

These are all important points. But don’t overlook the headline finding. Like the Trump victory itself, Mr. Mueller’s no-collusion conclusion should leave a mark. It lands like a rotten egg on a political and media establishment that had gone all-in on its own self-serving — and wrong — theory of the case. Before we embark on yet more investigations, it is worth examining, now, why the collusion fantasy proved so irresistible to so many of us — and what we all might have done with our time instead.

Here’s my theory: Collusion was a seductive and convenient delusion. For many Americans, the simple truth that Mr. Trump really had won was too terrible to bear. The ease with which a racist, misogynist, serial con man had slipped past every gatekeeper in American life suggested something deeply sick at the core of our society.

In particular, Mr. Trump’s win pointed to tectonic failures within the mainstream news media, whose leading brands had fanned the showman’s rise with copious television coverage; indulged his every gimmick with yet more attention; and elevated his opponent’s trifling email-management kerfuffle into a scandal of world-historic import.

Mr. Trump’s win also pointed to the failure of our political parties. After years of playing footsie with extremists, the Republicans created an environment in which a racist demagogue could swallow them whole.

Democrats, meanwhile, dismissed the economic and social unease roiling their ranks and nominated a deeply unpopular candidate who lacked any novel vision for American life. And then she forgot to campaign in Michigan.

There were other minor factors in this American tragedy: Jim Comey’s grandstanding; the tech giants’ inability to appreciate or curb the chaotic powers of their new communications platforms; our collective innumeracy regarding polling; and a naïve failure to appreciate the profound fragility of our national enterprise.

Finally there was the plainer constitutional failure. You didn’t need a two-year federal investigation to determine the single most important lesson of the 2016 race: America does not treat all its voters, and all of its votes, equally. Across the country, the voices of thousands and possibly millions of people were suppressed. Millions more votes went essentially uncounted, because the perversities of the Electoral College elevate a few thousand votes in the Midwest over a few million in California.

It’s true that we have begun, belatedly, to shine a spotlight on many of these deep-rooted problems. But the Mueller investigation sucked up all the political energy. For many in the political and media establishment, the possibility of collusion offered moral expiation for collective complicity. Rather than begin the hard work of addressing what had actually gone wrong, many of us were swept up in social-media-fueled feedback loops looking for an instant fix: The orgiastic pee tape would turn up and clear up the whole funny misunderstanding.

From here, the story of 2016 looks rather straightforward: Mr. Trump was the corrupt, misbegotten choice of a citizenry mired in partisan mistrust, seething with racial grievance, informed by a beleaguered and fracturing news media, and laboring under an economic and political system that had long ceased functioning for all but the wealthiest of its citizens.

His victory pointed to a systemic failure. In the end the only golden shower that mattered was the one soaking American democracy — but it’s been raining so long and so hard that we’re just about content to ignore the storm.

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Farhad Manjoo became an opinion columnist for The Times in 2018. Before that, he wrote the State of the Art column. He is the author of “True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.” @fmanjoo Facebook

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