If you're a President Trump loyalist, you have to be paying close attention these days, particularly when it comes to matters having to do with Russia. You never know when on a moment's notice you'll be instructed to cast aside what you've believed for a long time, maybe even all your life. Fortunately, there's a political movement and a media apparatus that are here to guide you through it.
They will only occasionally ask you to make full 180-degree turns; more often, you'll have to take a step to the side of the position you held before, then wait until the next shift comes. So first you might say that the charge that anyone on the 2016 Trump campaign was in contact with Russia is ludicrous. Then you'll say that, sure, they were in contact with Russians, but the conversations were just about innocuous matters unrelated to the campaign, like adoptions. Then you'll have to say that, sure, the Russians were trying to arrange some kind of cooperation, but they didn't have much to offer, so it never happened, and there was no collusion. And ultimately, you'll probably have to say that, sure, there was collusion, but what's wrong with that?
Some of us are old enough to remember when the Soviet Union was our implacable enemy, the "evil empire" in Ronald Reagan's phrase, and conservatives wouldn't trust them as far as they could throw them. Now? Not so much. It almost would have been wrong for the Trump campaign not to collude with them.
And as Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation reaches deeper into the Trump orbit toward the man himself, a kind of desperate panic seems to have been set off on the right. Tune in to Fox, and you'll see one attack on Mueller after another, a storm of criticism that was widened to the FBI when one agent working on the Russia investigation was found to have exchanged text messages disparaging Trump with his girlfriend (he was dismissed from the team). Republican members of Congress are now joining in the attack on the FBI, painting it as an agency full of Hillary Clinton apologists who are only out to undermine our extraordinary president.
The shocking news that there might be anyone in the bureau with a less-than-high opinion of Trump sent Fox News into a fury. "I think we now know that the Mueller investigation is illegitimate and corrupt," said the network's Greg Jarrett. "And Mueller has been using the FBI as a political weapon. And the FBI has become America's secret police. Secret surveillance, wiretapping, intimidation, harassment, and threats. It's like the old KGB that comes for you in the dark of the night banging through your door."
If you're weirded out by a Fox commentator sounding like a '60s leftist radical, you haven't been watching the network lately. But they are in a highly agitated state, and the top priority is discrediting Mueller, a Republican who until recently was one of the most widely respected law enforcement figures in Washington. As Newt Gingrich tweeted in May when he was selected for the job, "Robert Mueller is superb choice to be special counsel. His reputation is impeccable for honesty and integrity." But once Mueller started actually indicting people for what seem like pretty obvious crimes — something prosecutors have been known to do from time to time — Gingrich said he was "corrupt." And that's what Republicans are now asked to believe and repeat.
One of the challenges of being a Republican in the age of Trump is that you never know who you'll be called upon to decide is your enemy. Muslims, immigrants, uppity black people, sure — you expected that. Heck, that was a big part of why you voted for him. But the FBI? The G-men? Well, if that's what the boss wants, that's what he wants.
Underneath the convoluted defense offered up each day is a more far-reaching message: There are no real facts, no objective reality that stands apart from the interests of this president. Job numbers that were fake when they made Barack Obama look good are real when they make Donald Trump look good — and you know that if the economy turns down, they'll be declared fake again. So what's true today may not be true tomorrow. The only choice is to keep one's gaze fixed on the lodestar of Trump himself.
For the audience, this creates a simultaneous state of outrage and comfort. Outrage is the fuel of conservative media; the whole point is to keep the audience riled up and returning to learn whom they should be pissed off at today. But it's comforting because they know that when they learn something distressing — another Trump associate was indicted, say — they won't have to expend the energy to figure out what's going on and decide how they should feel about it. They can tune in to Fox and be reassured that it's all a partisan witch hunt (or as Sean Hannity says, the product of "Robert Mueller's partisan extremely biased hyper-partisan attack team"), so whatever it uncovers can be dismissed out of hand.
After a while, conservatives would be forgiven for coming to believe that there are no facts, no objective reality, nothing to hold to except the idea that idea that Trump is right and good, and could never have done anything wrong. When Mueller completes his work and all the facts are known (to whatever extent they can be), the book on Russia will snap shut, all allegations disproven, all insinuations false, all aspersions shown to be grossly unfair. Perhaps the FBI will become noble again, and who knows, even Russia might fall out of favor.
Tomorrow could have nothing to do with today; the only constant is Trump himself.