I spent much of Thursday watching cable news’s reaction to the report’s public release, which means mostly that, if I have somehow wronged you or your family in the past, you can now consider yourself thoroughly avenged. But it also means that I have passed several strange hours watching pundits engaged in that most modern of activities: grappling with revelations that manage to be at once outrageous and … thoroughly predictable. Shocked, but not surprised. It might be the defining emotion of the politics of 2019, and it lurks, among the shaded legalese, in the Mueller report. The person leading the American government lies, with regularity and impunity? It’s outrageous, but widely known. His agents do the same, on his behalf? Scandalous, and also a bit tedious. The White House, populated by several beneficiaries of nepotism and headed by someone whose mentor was a lawyer for the mob, has a dull tint of corruption? Shocking! But no longer surprising.
Trump is exceptionally skilled at separating people from their outrage, and one of his most common rhetorical tricks is his use of repetition as incantation. Whether it’s “U-S-A” or “Lock her up” or “No collusion, no obstruction,” his catchphrases have the effect not only of imposing his version of reality on audiences with blunt-force insistence, but also of lulling them into complacency. The refrains here function in the way refrains usually do: They become so familiar as to stop being questionable. And the Mueller report, so long in the making, has succumbed in its own way to that dynamic. A document making similar claims about a different president would be eye-popping; this particular report, however, about this particular president, simply confirmed that Donald Trump is the same person the American public—his supporters and his dissenters alike—has known him to be all along: venal, self-absorbed, unprepared. The report was metabolized accordingly. As MSNBC’s Chris Hayes summed it up on Thursday evening, it “isn’t a bombshell so much as a compendium and confirmation of who the man is and how he conducts himself.”
Because of that—and because the special counsel’s investigation into the workings of the Trump campaign had led to indictments and convictions that were revealed in real time, rather than in the report—Mueller’s findings were treated, on Thursday, not only as a work of legal inquiry but also as a work of cultural mythology. (Or, as CNN’s Jake Tapper put it, “This document now goes from being a legal document to a political document.”) Who would determine The Narrative™ that would shape the report’s afterlife as a work of living history?
Tucker Carlson, on his Thursday-evening show, engaged in his own attempt at mythmaking. The Fox News host took a gleefully desk-bound victory lap over the Mueller report, reveling in it not so much as a win for the president but as a defeat for other members of the media. “The Mueller report is probably the single most humiliating thing that has ever happened to the White House press corps in the history of this country,” Carlson said, with his signature blend of rage and ennui. The soliloquy that followed—which shifted from mockery of the “hysterical children” of the press to a lengthy suggestion that the Mueller report’s very existence has prevented the success of the Trump presidency—was illustrated with a series of caps-locked chyrons: LEFT STRUGGLES TO ACCEPT MUELLER REPORT FINDINGS; LEFT DEMANDS YOU STOP LISTENING TO AG BARR; OUR LEADERS WORSHIPPED MUELLER FOR YEARS. The longtime Fox anchor Brit Hume joined Carlson on the air: “Some of us, such as those of us here at Fox News, don’t have this collusion dog doo all over our shoes, and never did,” Hume said. “So we look at this and we think to ourselves, ‘Well, I guess we sort of sized that up properly.’”