Almost a year ago, the US public radio network, NPR, interviewed Robert Mueller’s biographer, Garrett Graff, on All Things Considered. It was a classic American hagiography. The “wealthy” Mueller went to Princeton University where he played lacrosse, then followed his teammate David Hackett to Vietnam after Hackett had been killed trying to rescue another ambushed platoon.
His biographer was keen to mention early on that Mueller was in fact not eligible to serve in the military. An injured knee ruled him out, but he took a year off, then doggedly re-enlisted. In Vietnam he covered himself in glory and earned a Bronze Star with valour for rescuing two wounded marines.
The interview was burdened with the unspoken. Here was a man who was Donald Trump anti-matter. A man who had a legitimate reason not to go to war, unlike you know who, and fought nonetheless. The task of vanquishing Trump and returning the US to its factory settings could not have been handed to a more appropriate figure. A Republican to boot. Mueller’s legend was written before it was lived. The historic perversion of events that led to Trump occupying the White House could only have occurred if a nihilistic foreign power had put him there. That, and his legal wrangles, would surely catch up with him eventually.
It was not to be. While the Mueller report has not been released in its entirety, it is now clear Trump will not be indicted, and will stand for a second term. There is to be no easy redemption, no saviour for the US. There may have been an irresponsible frenzy among Russia-gate believers, but it is an understandably hard pill to swallow that even with all of Trump’s violations, there will be no official censure. The Trump tenure is now an education in the power of the executive office and the limitations of American institutions, a crash course in what a president can get away with. Namely, to this date, approaching the status of unindicted co-conspirator and still being able to strut across the White House lawn and crow “no collusion no collusion” by way of a greeting.
What now? The Mueller report had offered an out and many had heavily invested in the idea that it might just all turn out to be a bad dream. It is an echo of the “Clinton won the popular vote” refrain of 2017. Even if the electoral college is no longer fit for purpose, the real jeopardy that must be faced is in the fact that Trump got so many votes in the first place. But no, liberals tell themselves it must be the system, it is Russia hacking the Democratic National Committee, it is James Comey’s timing, and it is the New York Times coverage of Clinton’s emails. What we must all accept is that it can be all these things, and still not change the fact that millions of people voted for Trump to restore nativism and inflict pain upon others. To deny this is to be drunk on the Kool Aid of American exceptionalism despite all the counterevidence of the past three years. It also shows just how quarantined many are from how the US actually works. Those on the receiving end of Trump’s policies – people of colour, immigrants and Muslims – have no such fantasies about the “real” US.
There is a similar escapism at play with the leave campaign’s electoral overspending violations and Leave.EU’s funding irregularities. Last week, the Vote Leave campaign dropped its appeal against the Electoral Commission’s ruling that it broke the law by donating to a supposedly independent campaign group, BeLeave. Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran claimed this as “proof” that the referendum was not valid.
While the remain campaign was illegally outspent and cynically outmanoeuvred, this is yet another chimera. Voters were subjected to rightwing propaganda about the EU and immigration long before a referendum was on the cards. Austerity and disenfranchisement did the rest. None of this is simple to unwind. And so instead, a second referendum becomes our magic wand, the UK’s Mueller report. But there is no way out of this that does not reckon with the ugliness and division that the leave vote uncovered.
An obsession with the margin of defeat misses the point. Millions of voters might not have known what they were voting for in detail, they might not have been able to tell you the difference between a customs union and single market membership. But they knew what they were rejecting; immigrants, a disenfranchising economic system, an unrepresentative Westminster. Some leave voters are threatening journalists and dragging around effigies of Theresa May and Sadiq Khan, others simply see Brexit as a last-ditch way to regain some control over their lives.
Brexit and Trump were not some perversion brought about by corrupt campaigners, they were a natural culmination of decades of failing politics. It is time to face this reality and lose the psychological comfort blankets. To paraphrase Maya Angelou, when nations show you who they are, believe them the first time.