The Lure of the Fan-Service Scandal

These sagas are powerful tools for motivating a base or keeping it frothed up, but they don’t usually work well as tools of persuasion.

A MAGA hat on fire.
Jessica Rinaldi / The Boston Globe / Getty

About the author: David A. Graham is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

Perhaps, one of these weeks, Special Counsel John Durham will crack open serious wrongdoing in the probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election. This is not that week.

But following a Friday filing by Durham, a Justice Department attorney appointed in 2019 to investigate the investigation, many right-wing outlets insisted it was, and pilloried the mainstream press for giving the filing short shrift. Eventually, the mainstream outlets grudgingly obliged, and what they found is, well, not much: The filing comes in a curious case against a lawyer who worked for the 2016 Hillary Clinton campaign. In the fantasy version, the filing shows that the Clinton campaign had a mole in Trump Tower and the White House. In reality, as the journalists Charlie Savage and Philip Bump detail, it does not demonstrate this at all.

If you must know more, dig into those explainers, but you can save yourself the time. This flap is what we might call a “fan-service scandal,” to borrow a term for when entertainment franchises produce content designed to excite enthusiasts, not move stories forward. The latest bit of Durham-investigation news is a titillating plot twist for people who have already bought into the Trump narrative, and largely incomprehensible—and inconsequential—for those who haven’t. This duality makes fan-service scandals powerful tools for motivating a base or keeping it frothed up, but they don’t usually work well as tools of persuasion.

Savage crisply captures the allure of these teapot tempests: “Upon close inspection, these narratives are often based on a misleading presentation of the facts or outright misinformation. They also tend to involve dense and obscure issues, so dissecting them requires asking readers to expend significant mental energy and time—raising the question of whether news outlets should even cover such claims. Yet Trump allies portray the news media as engaged in a cover-up if they don’t.”

That’s what happened here, with Donald Trump himself firing off a series of statements decrying the lack of media coverage. In a bold misinformation doubleheader, he claimed, “I was proven right about the spying, and I will be proven right about 2020!” He also labeled the story “bigger than Watergate” and whined that “a story so big, so powerful, and so important for the future of our Nation is getting zero coverage from LameStream, is being talked about all over the world.”

Conservative media scorched traditional outlets for not covering the story, but their own coverage tended to spend more time on interrogating the lack of coverage than the Durham filing itself. Not only would poking into the details threaten to undermine the entire premise, but the labyrinthine confusion is an asset: It allows any new tidbit to glom onto the existing narrative blob, even if the connection is rather unclear. The goal is simply to keep the fans riled up.

As a defensive strategy, fan-service scandals can be useful. Trump faces some unpleasant headlines at the moment: He seems to have illegally removed classified documents from the White House, despite attacking Clinton for her handling of sensitive information; the January 6 committee is marching inexorably forward; his accounting firm has dropped the Trump Organization and disavowed its financial statements for the company amid legal inquiries. The notion of vindication for past claims of persecution helps keep his supporters from losing heart.

But these narratives are less effective for anyone who isn’t already a member of the MAGA faithful. As the journalists David Roth and Jane Coaston noted in the second half of Trump’s presidency, his patois had become unintelligible to people who did not, as Roth put it, “understand the Fox News Cinematic Universe.” During the 2016 campaign, anyone could turn on a Trump rally and watch something transfixing—often terrifying, but also sometimes pretty funny. By 2020, these rallies had curdled into a string of angry insider references. The result was manifest in Trump’s election results: His base remained steadfast (and sizable), but his reach beyond the base was not sufficient to win the election.

Arcane fan-service scandals are not an exclusively conservative phenomenon. During Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the election (yes, the same investigation Durham is now investigating), a steady leak of small and disjointed details emerged, incomprehensible to anyone who wasn’t either a journalist following the story full-time or an owner of a Mueller votive candle. The satirical website ClickHole perfectly captured the impenetrability in one send-up:

The day’s just getting started, and the Trump house of cards is already crumbling. This morning, Special Counsel Robert Mueller dropped a legal bombshell on the administration by filing court documents announcing a plea bargain with Trump’s confidant’s lawyer’s friend’s associate Gorpman, and Gorpman’s testimony could spell major trouble for Bleemer, which must be terrifying for Trump.

“Bleemer and Gorpman” became a shorthand for anti-Trump fan service, and everyone knows how it all turned out: Mueller’s investigation ended without seriously harming Trump, disappointing many progressives with’ Pepe Silvia fantasies. Somehow, “Russiagate” has become a shorthand for “nothingburger”—even though Trump aides very clearly colluded with Russia, and Trump appears to have tried repeatedly to obstruct justice. It’s maddening, but I think a lot of it has to do with how a pretty straightforward scandal was transformed into fan service, and the general public lost the thread.

The most damaging scandals are the ones that are simplest to understand: The president had a sexual relationship with an intern. The prime minister said you couldn’t have a party, and then he had a bunch. It costs me way more money to fill up my car than it used to. These are the scandals that hobble and sometimes fell politicians.

Where fan-service scandals are most effective might be down the road—just as fan-service in entertainment can buy affection far in the future. During the 1990s, conservative outlets focused on a series of attacks on the Clinton family. Most of these never got any purchase, because they were flimsy and hard to understand, but they did attach a stigma to Hillary Clinton that was probably partly responsible for her loss to Trump in 2016, and that persists now, including in the idea that she somehow infiltrated Trump’s computer system. Today’s fan service might be tomorrow’s canon.