For two years I have been arguing in this space that there was no conspiracy between Donald Trump and the Russian government or other, more vaguely defined entities — individuals said to have "Russia ties" or "Kremlin links." Despite having endured an almost endless amount of scorn for saying so — perhaps even more than I was subjected to for arguing that Trump would be elected president in the first place — I derive no pleasure from the news that the summary of Robert Mueller's interminable special counsel investigation sent to the House and Senate judiciary committees by Attorney General William Barr confirms my views.
I say this not least because even the word of Mueller himself, whom liberal activists have spent the last two years turning into a kind of cartoon hero, complete with merchandise, is not enough to convince those who dislike Trump and would like to undermine his administration to change their minds. It was always resentment in search of a conspiracy, which anti-Trump enthusiasts attempted to will into existence by games of connect-the-dots, exercises that could just as easily have been brought to bear upon any prominent politician or businessman in the post-Soviet era. "Maybe he missed the boat here,” MSNBC's Chris Matthews said of Mueller on Saturday. "Because we know about the Trump Tower meeting in June 2016, we know about the meeting at the cigar bar with Kilimnik [Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian political consultant]. My God, we know about all of those meetings with Kislyak [Sergey Kislyak, a Russian diplomat] at the Republican convention in Cleveland. All these dots we're now to believe don't connect."
The Russia conspiracy was one of the worst shaggy dog stories in American history, up there with the JFK-CIA-Castro-aliens theories of Jim Garrison or Saddam Hussein's supposed nuclear weapons. The difference is that I don't think anyone has ever really believed it. The first time I heard such a theory proposed was during the week of the Democratic convention, when Trump responded to news about WikiLeaks by joking that maybe the Russians could help locate all of Clinton's missing emails. The New York Times and other allegedly serious news organizations reported that Trump had "invited the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton." Yes, this is how conspiracies are born — on live television, before an audience of millions.
Since then the bad-faith insinuations have been given a quasi-official vehicle by Mueller and received the uncritical support of a Washington establishment that resents Trump's victory. It has allowed them to spend two years not coming to terms with the fact that he beat Hillary Clinton because some voters liked him more and agreed with his policies and because he made a point of actually campaigning in the states that he needed to win. It has forced the Democratic Party to turn on a dime from Barack Obama's jokes about the '80s wanting their foreign policy back to calls for a new Cold War. It has effectively hamstrung Trump's ability to execute the office of the presidency. It has also led to the indictment of a number of individuals for crimes ranging from tax fraud to lying to federal officials. All of these offenses were committed either before or after the 2016 election, with the exception of Michael Cohen's violation of federal campaign finance law. So far as I am aware no one has ever proposed that the Stormy Daniels affair had Putin's fingerprints all over it.
We are now only a few months away from the first Democratic presidential debates of the 2020 election cycle. If the party has learned anything in the last two years, I hope it is that their nominee, in addition to actually campaigning in places like Michigan and Wisconsin, must do more than simply define him or herself against Trump. His presidency has been a mixed bag at best, and many of his failures have been totally unforced. His promises to save the jobs of American autoworkers are belied by massive impending layoffs at Ford as I write this. His commitment to shoring up the safety net has been proved farcical. His trade war, however worthy its motivations, has been conducted in a ham-fisted manner.
The Russians did not force Trump to do these things. They will not shield him from their consequences in 2020 either. But unless Democrats abandon the illusions they have lived under for the first half of his tenure in office, the Russia conspiracy theory, if it gives rise to more complacency, will prove to be far more powerful as a fantasy than it ever could have been if it were real.