November 15, 2019

The Power of Mueller Memes

“What disturbs while watching the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees question Robert Mueller is the lonely but certain knowledge that the community of spectators to which you belong should theoretically be lofty and vast—encompassing the American public, the organs of the state and the president—but is in practice vanishingly small. Very few people will actually see those seven hours of testimony with you. So what you’re witnessing, which others won’t, is a war over translation. To watch the hearings is to witness a weird middle stage of a potentially impossible mission: to compress an enormous amount of existing, already-hashed-over data—the Mueller report—into pellets the average American voter can digest and be swayed by.

There are logistical hurdles, like five-minute questioning increments and a room with poor acoustics. And there are larger ones, like a witness under terrible mental strain. The hearings were strange, anxious television: Mueller hesitated and asked for questions to be repeated, clearly under an enormous cognitive burden as he tried to confirm the particulars of a report several hundred pages long while remaining impartial, accurate, and true both to the confines the Department of Justice outlined for him and to his own principles. Rarely has a human being been so committed to divulging so little in proportion to the amount he knows and surely feels. A comparison between his agony and Attorney General William Barr’s pleasant, careless overstepping (or Donald Trump’s fluent lies) registers something about the extraordinary labor it takes to appear nonpartisan and truthfully precise in a time that punishes both.

These details both matter and don’t: The testimony was just a first draft, a messy proxy for the battle of summaries the thing will become. Each side emerged from the hearings with a video reel of selected moments—for Democrats, a revealing exchange about Trump’s culpability between Adam Schiff and Mueller; for Republicans, a moment when Mueller forgets the word conspiracy—that they will use to wage an information war for the hearts of the apathetic or confused or uncertain. A battle of memes. The question was never what will the voters think of this show? The voters were never going to watch all of Mueller’s testimony, just as they were never going to read his report. The question has evolved into something like: What clips will each side create from the footage, which of these clips will go viral, and whose set will galvanize the viewers who stumble on it more?”

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