If you're fortunate enough not to be a regular consumer of Fox News, conservative talk radio, or the more colorful outposts of conspiracy theorizing popular on the right, you might think that Robert Mueller is an experienced prosecutor leading a methodical investigation into the Trump campaign's ties to Russia. At the end of that investigation, you probably think, Mueller will present his findings, there either will or won't be evidence of serious wrongdoing, some people might be indicted (a couple already have), and whatever the outcome of those criminal cases, our political system will have to sort out what to do about the whole matter, if anything.
But if you do watch Fox or listen to Rush Limbaugh or read websites like Breitbart, you're living in an entirely different reality, in which there's a massive and sinister conspiracy at work and the only appropriate response is to live every moment of every day on the verge of outright panic.
In this bizarre fantasy world, the FBI — as conservative an agency as you'll find in the federal government — is actually an organization committed to destroying Donald Trump, so gripped is it with pro-Democratic bias.
If you haven't been following this story, some of the strands that have absolutely consumed the right will sound unfamiliar and even ludicrous. There's the matter of text messages exchanged by an FBI agent and an FBI lawyer who were having an affair, in which — cover the children's ears — the two are revealed to not think particularly highly of Trump. Even though any reasonable reading of the messages shows the two doing anything but trying to subvert Trump — not to mention the fact that we aren't reading whatever texts were sent by the thousands of other people who work at the FBI — each message is examined with Talmudic care to find its hidden meanings and subtle implications, in the desperate hope that some ill will toward Trump might be found. The latest "revelation" came when a couple of congressmen rushed to Fox News to tell of a reference they found in a text to a "secret society." Egads! They don't know what it means, but it certainly couldn't be tongue in cheek. Is the FBI controlled by the Illuminati? The Freemasons? The Rosicrucians? Some powerful secret society so secret and powerful that it has prevented us all from even knowing what it's called?
But that's just the start. The latest obsession goes under the title "Release the memo!", a new rallying cry on the right. It comes from Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who you might recall was forced to recuse himself from the Russia probe after he came under Ethics Committee scrutiny for potentially revealing classified information as part of his comical attempts to protect the Trump administration from the investigation he was supposedly overseeing. Now Nunes has produced a memo allegedly showing questionable FBI behavior in 2016 leading to a warrant putting certain people associated with Trump, including foreign policy adviser Carter Page, under surveillance. While ranking Intelligence Committee member Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) calls Nunes' memo a "profoundly misleading set of talking points drafted by Republican staff attacking the FBI and its handling of the investigation," Republicans are treating it as though it's some kind of smoking-gun document that with its blockbuster revelations will bring the Russia investigation to a screeching halt.
It only gets worse. Jonathan Swan of Axios reported on Tuesday that Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been pressuring FBI Director Christopher Wray to fire his deputy director, Andrew McCabe, who has become a particular target of President Trump's. (Trump is consumed with the fact that McCabe's wife ran for state office in Virginia as a Democrat, which he seems to believe proves that McCabe is conspiring against him at Hillary Clinton's behest.) The pressure got so intense that Wray reportedly threatened to resign if Sessions tried to remove McCabe. Sessions is not only under pressure of his own from Republicans to purge the Justice Department of anyone who isn't a Trump loyalist, it wouldn't be surprising if he's desperate to show the president that he can help protect him from the Russia probe, as Trump has said plainly he wishes Sessions would do.
Trump's enemies, apparently, lurk everywhere.
This is a particular way of dealing with a scandal, one that differs from those we've seen in recent years. When Bill Clinton was impeached, Democrats certainly criticized independent counsel Kenneth Starr's hardball tactics and prurient obsession with the most lurid details of the president's affair with Monica Lewinsky. But their essential argument was that while Clinton's behavior was reprehensible, it was private and didn't warrant impeachment. When the Iran-Contra scandal broke, Republicans defended both the Iran part (trading arms for hostages) and the Contra part (creating an insurgency to overthrow the Nicaraguan government) as the right and proper thing to do, even if some people got a little over-enthusiastic.
In neither case did the president's party wage a war against any federal agency that might even consider investigating the president. They didn't weave a dark tale of a sinister, hidden conspiracy coursing through the government trying to bring the president down. (When Hillary Clinton mentioned a "vast right-wing conspiracy" she was referring to the network of outside groups and funders that was quite openly and proudly trying to dig up dirt on her and her husband, not anything in the government itself.) In short, you might not have agreed with the arguments they made and the rationales they offered, but they hadn't completely departed reality.
Perhaps it isn't a surprise that Republicans would use conspiracy theories to defend Trump, himself an aficionado of such theories and someone who has tended to hire people similarly inclined. But this gives us a preview of what will happen when Mueller's investigation is finally complete. No matter what evidence Mueller presents, no matter how many Trump associates go to jail, no matter what crimes are revealed, Republicans will say that it's all a big hoax, ginned up by shadowy forces enacting an intricate plan to destroy this most noble of public servants.
And if they repeat it often enough through their formidable propaganda machine, they'll get just enough people to believe it to hold off impeachment, no matter what Trump turns out to have done. And their long odyssey through the hinterlands of Crazytown will have been well worth it.