So Donald Trump (and/or his campaign) broke the law/may have broken the law/came close to breaking the law/didn’t break the law/has been totally exonerated.
Delete according to taste. That’s the joy of living in a post-truth world: you decide what you believe, and then you ignore all the facts that might contradict it.
Because once you’ve reached for the smelling salts and recovered from the shock of discovering that what you always knew to be true is indeed true – because Robert Mueller says so – here’s an uncomfortable fact for you to ponder.
Most people made up their minds about Donald Trump a long time ago – they either love him or hate him, and nothing in the Mueller report will change that. What’s more, there is good reason to suppose that even if Mueller had concluded that Trump did indeed, beyond doubt, break the law, it still wouldn’t have mattered a jot to his supporters.
Not if American voters are anything like British voters, anyway. Because according to the political research think-tank the Hansard Society, more than half the voters in Britain believe that what the country needs is ‘a strong leader willing to break the rules.’ A leader, perhaps, like, oh, I don’t know, what name immediately springs to mind?
After all, when the Gallup polling organisation asked US voters ahead of the mid-term elections last November which issues were most important to them, the Mueller Russia investigation ranked twelfth out of twelve. (Mind you, climate change came in at number eleven, so make of that what you will. Health care, the economy and immigration were the top three.)
There is much in the Mueller report that is truly shocking. Take just these two sentences, for example: ‘If we had confidence after a thorough examination of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, we are unable to reach that judgment.’
But do I think the report will make much difference to Trump’s hopes for re-election next year? No, I do not. It follows, therefore, that if I were a Democrat seeking to challenge him for the presidency, I wouldn’t spend too much time dwelling on the minutiae of who said what to whom back in 2016.
That’s not the same as saying it’s not important. Or that the law shouldn’t take its course. Or that the Democrats shouldn’t carry on demanding to know the full story of Trump’s dealings with Moscow, or indeed with the Internal Revenue Service.
These things matter, even if there’s little political advantage in pursuing them. But they don’t matter to many voters, for whom an expanding economy, full employment, and a president who tells them a dozen times every day what a great job he is doing all come closer to meeting their expectations of a political leader.
So how’s this for a quote? ‘The death dance of democracy has begun again, just like in the 20th century, by painting human rights, freedom of the press [and] judicial independence … to be political questions. By portraying facts and reality as a matter of threatened identity. And by depicting hate and violation of the law as moral obligations.’
That’s not about Trump, as it happens. It’s about the Hungarian president, Viktor Orbán, and it’s taken from a deeply worrying piece in the German newspaper Die Zeit (English translation here), by a Hungarian academic writing under the pen-name Beda Magyar.
It could equally have come from a piece by an academic in the US, or in Turkey, India or Brazil – or even, without wanting to push the analogy too far, from the UK, where our very own mini-Trump, Nigel Farage, launched his new political party a few days ago by threatening to ‘put the fear of God into our MPs.’
(This is the same man, you may recall, who barely a week after the fatal shooting of the Labour MP Jo Cox, exulted in the Brexit referendum result having been achieved ‘without a single bullet being fired.’)
Here’s some more from Beda Magyar: ‘Orbán’s main focus is that of creating wedge issues to distract from his conduct and maintain the social divide, usually by identifying scapegoats that make it easy for his followers to express their loyalty and identity.’
It’s uncanny, isn’t it? Substitute Trump or Farage for Orbán, and it would be equally true. Because populists know what works – and that it works wherever enough voters believe that traditional politics have failed to deliver. In the UK, for example, according to the Hansard Society, four out of every ten voters think that ‘many of the country’s problems could be dealt with more effectively if the government didn’t have to worry so much about votes in Parliament.’
Just think about that for a moment, and what follows from it. And then ask yourself again why so many American voters pay so little attention to what Congress or the ‘mainstream media’ allege are President Trump’s immoral – and arguably illegal – actions.
Last weekend, the former Tory deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine said on Channel 4 News: ‘You can’t escape this chilling thought: the extremes of the ’30s were born of economic stress, and the thing that is driving the extremism today is the fact that we have had since 2008 frozen living standards and people are looking for alibis.
‘If you put together the bureaucrats of Brussels, the immigrants and the foreigners and the elite … all that sort of stuff … it has a sort of basic, chilling appeal for people who are desperately looking for an alternative.’
Trump, Farage, Orbán, Erdoğan, Bolsonaro … It’s nearly a year now since I wrote a piece entitled ‘I hear the sound of jackboots’ in which I wrote: ‘The atmosphere is dangerous and ugly … Anger is rising, and there is surely no challenge more urgent than to confront the threat head on. In 1939, it took a world war; this time, we must find a better way.’
If the European parliament elections go ahead next month, we’ll all have a chance to cast a vote against populism, nativism and xenophobia. If you haven’t registered to vote yet, click here and register. Now.
And then use your vote well.