The Resistance Media Weren’t Ready for This

After years of accruing retweets and Patreon donations with fevered speculation about Mueller, anti-Trump internet personalities are scrambling to figure out what’s next.

Ira L. Black / Corbis via Getty / The Atlantic

These are turbulent times for Resistance Inc.

The Robert Mueller fetishization cottage industry is collapsing. Russia conspiracy theorists are frantically tweet-storming as though their life—or livelihood—depends on it. And across liberal America, cable-news obsessives and keyboard warriors who have spent years waiting for investigators to produce a presidency-ending bombshell are in a state of open mourning.

Nowhere has the anticlimactic conclusion to Mueller mania been more acutely felt than in the alternative partisan media complex that services the so-called resistance. I first wrote about this world back in 2017, when an array of hyper-partisan Facebook pages, Twitter conspiracists, click farms, and podcasts were gaining popularity among stressed-out Trump-era liberals.

The landscape has shifted since that early attempt to map its topography. But even as new players have arrived on the scene and others have flamed out, the appetite for unsubstantiated, Mueller-centric speculation—and the attendant Trump-is-doomed narrative—never abated. So, when Attorney General William Barr notified Congress last weekend that the special counsel was closing up shop without having established a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, I decided to check back in on the resistance media. How were they taking the news—and what would they do now without their favorite content bonanza?

For now, at least, there remains a strong contingent of Trump-Russia truthers who are determined to squeeze every last ounce of click juice they can from the Mueller story before it turns rancid. In this crowd, the most popular theory of the moment is that Barr’s summary of the Mueller report—which has not been released to the public—is part of a sinister “cover-up” to protect the president.

The liberal website denounced the attorney general’s letter as “another salvo in a disinformation campaign that has lasted two years.” The Other 98%, a partisan Facebook page with more than 6 million followers, questioned how Barr could have even read the report in “less than 48 hours” when “it’s thousands of pages long.” (The report’s length is, in fact, unknown.) Addicting Info, another widely followed liberal Facebook page, shared a story with a headline designed to keep the hype going: “Republicans Walk Back Support for Transparency in Mueller Report, Could Mean Trump Is in Big Trouble.”

Some of this skepticism is understandable, of course. It’s entirely possible—even likely—that the full Mueller report contains damning, previously unknown details about President Donald Trump that are not reflected in Barr’s relatively brief summary. We’ll know for sure if and when the report is made public. But if the attorney general was dramatically mischaracterizing its contents in the meantime, it seems unlikely he’d go unchallenged by those in the know.

Which is why the savviest resistance content producers are experimenting with creative messaging pivots. Occupy Democrats, for example, served its 7 million Facebook followers an old photo on Monday of Trump and O. J. Simpson, accompanied by the sarcastic message, “BECAUSE WE ALL KNOW IF YOU’RE NOT CONVICTED, YOU’RE NOT GUILTY.”

On Twitter, meanwhile, some of the most prolific Trump-Russia conspiracists have kept busy this week reassuring their readers that the president and his team remain in grave legal peril—just as they’ve been promising.

Eric Garland—the corporate consultant of “It’s time for some game theory” fame—has hinted that new revelations of high-profile crimes are imminent, pointing to the existence of sealed indictments in Washington, D.C., and Virginia as evidence. (Barr’s letter says Mueller did not “obtain any sealed indictments that have yet to be made public.”)

Seth Abramson, a professor at the University of New Hampshire who has attracted more than 600,000 Twitter followers with breathless legal analysis and confident predictions such as “Bob Mueller will hunt both Trump and Pence to the ends of the Earth to secure impeachment and conviction,” was apparently undeterred by the weekend’s news. He has spent recent days churning out long, complex Twitter threads; plugging his book, Proof of Conspiracy; and directing fans to his featured interview in Playboy. “The Mueller investigation is not something that will conclude in the way that we think of investigations concluding,” he explained, helpfully, to Politico magazine. “It will simply transform.”

Perhaps the most notorious conspiracy theorist in the liberal fever swamps, Louise Mensch, has been similarly unrepentant. A former Tory member of the British Parliament, Mensch built a liberal fan base in America by offering a veneer of access to secret, explosive information about Trump and his comrades. After a brief flirtation with respectability that included publishing an op-ed in The New York Times, she retreated to a narrow but loyal fringe that hangs on her every tweet. Her greatest hits over the years include an exclusive report in 2017 that Steve Bannon had been busted for espionage and that the death penalty was “being considered.” (As of this writing, Bannon remains alive.)

After Barr’s letter was released, Mensch tweeted, “I do not resile from any of my reporting. I believe my sources.” In a subsequent post on her blog, Patribotics, she posited, “What if Bill Barr’s notification letter summarizing the Mueller Report was not terrible news for America, but actually was brilliant, glorious and exciting?” (Her argument appears to rely on a combination of between-the-lines interpretation and wishful thinking.)

Other resistance-media personalities have seized on Mueller’s failure to establish collusion as proof that shadowy forces of corruption and oppression are at work.

Take, for example, Sarah Kendzior, a scholar and commentator who is generally viewed as more mainstream than people like Mensch (but who nonetheless once suggested that Senator Lindsey Graham was being blackmailed by Russia). After the Barr letter broke, Kendzior tweeted a screenshot of private direct messages she’d written in January laying out her skepticism of the Mueller probe. The nation, she wrote, had been captured by “a transnational crime syndicate that includes a Russian asset POTUS in the White House”—and the special counsel was no match for it. “It’s not a real investigation,” she concluded, “and I’m not sure it ever was...The tactic was to run out the clock and consolidate power as Mueller plods along.”

Andrea Chalupa, who co-hosts a podcast with Kendzior called Gaslit Nation, struck a similar tone on Twitter. “None of this should come as a surprise,” she wrote. “Our institutions have been failing us.”

For political-narrative purposes, there is an obvious utility in casting the end of the Mueller probe as a new low point in America’s slide toward autocracy. It has a kind of alchemic quality, allowing liberal audiences to transmute their disappointment into outrage—without forcing them to abandon their darkest notions of the Trump regime.

It also opens up the possibility for new and exciting story lines. Leah McElrath, a liberal writer and activist, speculated Sunday night that Republicans would now use investigations into the Russia-collusion “hoax” to put Hillary Clinton behind bars. “They really DO want her imprisoned,” she tweeted.

Such is the burden of a certain kind of resistance-media star today. After years of accruing followers, retweets, and Patreon donations with fevered speculation about the Mueller probe, they are facing the end of a gold rush—and they’re looking for their next opportunity.

Of course, not everyone in the left-of-center media universe has met the Mueller news with such weeping and gnashing of teeth. For years, leftists such as The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald have accused Democrats of deploying Russia conspiracy theories to cover up for the failures of Clintonite liberalism in 2016. Now claiming vindication, Greenwald and his ilk have been beating their chests in triumph alongside the #MAGA crowd.

“I’m genuinely sorry if you spent the last 3 years believing a blatantly stupid partisan fairy tale ripped out of the pages of a primitive Tom Clancy novel & made it central to your worldview,” Greenwald tweeted, sounding less than genuinely sorry. “I get that it’s upsetting & disorienting when it got revealed as a hoax. Look inward.”

But at least some in the resistance media have remained clear-eyed about the political realities of the investigation. The co-hosts of the popular liberal podcast Pod Save America have covered the ongoing Russia news over the years. But they have also repeatedly warned their listeners that real change would only come through grind-it-out activism.

“How many times have you yelled into the microphone, ‘Bob Mueller’s not gonna save us’?” the former Obama White House speechwriter Jon Favreau said to his co-host Jon Lovett on Sunday’s episode. “We’ve said it for like fuckin’ two years.”

“And we did it because we wanted to be able to say this right now,” Lovett cracked. “We were ready.”