The Mueller report has arrived, and a season of emotional trauma comes with it. Across the Internet, Twitter account after Twitter account asks: This is it? I accused strangers of being literally and forever Putin for this? In the harsh and completely predictable hangover light, let’s take a second to pause and ask: what in the goodly hell happened to the center-left?
Most of the wise people who really studied Russiagate concluded the final result would be underwhelming. Paste’s own Jacob Weindling said it best: “This was always going to be more like Iran-Contra, not Watergate.”
Russiagate was good business for unscrupulous media platforms. Now, even skeptics admitted that Trump was corrupt, that Russia had interfered in our election, and that crimes of embezzlement and bribery had taken place at some level. But the MSNBC story about a massive, multi-front conspiracy could not hold water. Realists understood that Mueller’s report would not undo November 2016. But the Centrists and the Maddow folk had white-knuckle fervor about it.
Here are two indisputable facts: Our mainstream institutions have failed us. These institutions led to Trump’s Presidency.
Most people understand this. But the Russiagate crowd never stopped believing in the good old established order of things. During the early days of the Orange Presidency, a now-famous protest sign made the rounds. It read: “If Hillary had won, we’d all be at brunch right now.” That was the Russiagate crowd: the world was fine before Trump, and it will snap back that way as soon as he’s gone. Given a choice between facing up to radical change and dwelling in the Brunchverse, the center chose the latter. It was the wrong call.
In a New Yorker article titled, “After the Mueller Report, the Dream of a Sudden, Magic Resolution to the Trump Tragedy Is Dead,” Masha Gessen wrote about this feeling, in a story that began with the most New Yorker sentence ever: “You know that feeling when you realize that you must have lost something a long time ago, without noticing? Last Wednesday, I attended the opening of the Leipzig Book Fair.” Gessen added:
The Mueller investigation, as a media story and a conversation topic, has been irresistible largely because it promised a way to avoid thinking of Trump as an American development. The Russian-collusion story dangled the carrot of discovering that Trump was entirely foreign to U.S. politics, a puppet of a hostile power. It also held the appeal of a secret answer to our catastrophe, one that would make the unimaginable suddenly explicable. ... Mueller, according to Attorney General William P. Barr, has now concluded that the President did not collude with Russia. The dream of the sudden, magic resolution to the Trump tragedy has not materialized. The report has not made the case that he is an illegitimate President. The political opposition and the media, acting as representatives of the public, should have been building the case that he is an unfit President in a way that did not rely so heavily on the outcome of the Mueller investigation, which has always been pitched as the single answer to all our prayers.
Obviously, there was a market for Resistance snake-oil salesman. But there were just as many reasonable people who put their hope in the Restoration courtesy of Robert Mueller. Well, so much for that.
What happened? How could so many people be so very fooled?
This brings me, by an indirect path, to the fantastic career and hilarious downfall of Elizabeth Holmes, our grifter queen. America is a con man’s paradise. Apart from the scam artist in the White House, or possibly Fyre Festival fraudster Billy McFarland, Holmes is our most prominent hoaxmaster.
Holmes has been covered by this site before. She’s making waves again, as the subject of HBO’s documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley.
If you read thinkpieces like this, the outlines of Holmes’ crimes are as memorable to you as a vulgar profanity in a Sunday School class. No need to refresh that page. What HBO’s doc adds to the mix is pictures, which are the drinking man’s news. Thanks to the magic of the Home Box Office, we can see what rich people saw when Liz Holmes talked to them. And it’s mind-boggling.
Here’s why. Holmes is such an obvious charlatan. An awkward, uncharismatic, fake-voiced liar. If you spent five seconds listening to her, you’d know she was full of it. A Branch Davidian could see it.
Holmes had one talent, and it was convincing wealthy older white people that she was the next Steve Jobs. That was literally the only thing she did well. And as the documentary shows, it only worked with that class of people. Say what you will about Jobs (and I have), but he convinced everyone. Holmes can’t even dupe the camera. But she spends the whole of The Inventor hoodwinking powerful people. It’s kind of inspirational in a way, like seeing a shark in a shabby disguise figure out how to hunt man on land.
This hustling child of privilege kneecapped hundreds of capitalists and hoaxed her way into one puff piece after another. A slurry of the so-called best and brightest were revealed as easy marks. In The Inventor, famous Fortune magazine gets recast as the official newsletter of coast-to-coast gullible rubes. This happens again and again, at the hands of a woman who spouts meaningless word salads about tests and reactions. She conned Kissinger. That’s right, the literal devil himself drank the Theranos moonshine. If Holmes hadn’t caused real human suffering by her actions, The Inventor would be the feel-good documentary of 2019.
The reaction to the Holmes documentary was particularly telling. After The Inventor aired, a number of pundits wrote essays on Holmes. These pieces rhapsodized about her. They called her a dream-weaver, a sphinx, an eternal mystery. Normal people on Twitter just as quickly replied: No, she’s not. Roughly a hundred women pointed out that Holmes’ major talent was being a blonde person in rooms full of millionaires. The cruel irony is that young people suffer from impostor syndrome, but the genuine, honest-to-God impostors never seem to feel that way.
The Holmes problem is the Russiagate problem. The same media class that was convinced Russiagate was a real thing … also thought Holmes was a Serious Genius with a miracle device. They still think she’s a genius. Except of crime, not of medicine. They still believe in her!
Part of the problem is structural. If you believe in institutions, then you believe in their vetting process. If you believe in America, and America is never wrong, then all threats come from the outside. If you believe in Silicon Valley and Stanford and tech geniuses, then of course you’d believe Holmes, since all those institutions vouched for her.
But the real problem with Holmes (and the problem with Russiagate) goes deeper than believing in institutions. It has to do with how we search for solutions.
THE FALSE POSITIVE
Writers of fiction will tell you most of the heavy lifting is done by the audience. Every horror director can confirm that what the audience dreams up is scarier than what the crew can put on the screen. The art of persuasion is not so difficult. You convince people a little, and their emotions handle the rest of the work. Most of the buy-in is done by them. Politics is more like falling in love than you think. We carve an idol first, an ideal match…and then look around for the person who resembles it. And that’s the wonder of the thing. We want to be fooled.
For example: would Obama have been president without Aaron Sorkin? Would Trump have been without The Apprentice? Liberals need to believe in merit and enlightened monologues, just like conservatives need to believe in the authoritarian father. But Obama was a mildly centrist technocrat, and Trump is an addled billionaire who thinks cable shows are real stories. People saw what they wanted to see.
Google defines the scientific term “false positive” as “a test result which incorrectly indicates that a particular condition or attribute is present.” The test tells you you’re pregnant, but you’re not. That’s a false positive. When you hop into what you think is a cab, but it turns out to be a meth dealer with a yellow Corolla, that’s a false positive. Modern American life suffers from a problem of false positives. See, we’re not just looking for solutions. We’re looking for a particular kind of solution. A particular kind of person.
During the last several years, we’ve seen a number of bad Presidential candidates who were essentially resumes in search of a platform. You can rattle them off as easy as I can: Mitt Romney. Hillary Clinton. John Kerry. The parties who backed those candidates decided they were looking for a brand, instead of a politician.
In this country, we are not looking for solutions. We’re looking for what we already expect. We’re looking for someone we can fall in love with, with the minimum amount of emotional agony.
Tricksters take advantage of what people expect to see. A wily man with a clipboard, a serious demeanor, and a tie can get into any secure facility in the world.
Likewise, Holmes’ test was not delivering a product. It was convincing people with money that she was Jobs’ reincarnation. She passed that trial.
Russiagate’s test was not delivering valid proof of Trump’s participation in a massive conspiracy. Not in the least. The only standard Russiagate had to meet was looking like Watergate, on Rachel Maddow’s show. And it passed that test.
And so it was during the Orange Administration, the media once again surrendered its duties in favor of an obvious wild goose chase, except the goose was a crayon drawing of a white bird that might have been a goose in twilight, scrawled by a child, pinned to the side of a flaming boxcar going straight to hell. In the rain.
Trump’s actual crimes, his real violence and corruption, were ignored. They were passed over in favor of a nice little story that drummed up ratings. Oh, Trump has violated his oath of office. Just not the way Twitter thinks. Trump is corrupt. But it’s ordinary, plutocratic, billionaire corruption. Just the dumb money-laundering schemes of a lifelong scuzzy rich guy—not the elevated treason of a Nixon.
Once Russiagate looked enough like Watergate, it could move onto its actual job, which was providing emotional succor to its audience. Russiagate was QAnon for people who own second homes. Pizzagate, if you went to Dartmouth.
The story of Russiagate is the story of Holmes, which is another way of saying, the story of modern America. If you wanted to look at the people who actually created Apple’s tech, you’d consider Steve Wozniak and Jony Ive, who have more to do with Apple’s success that Steve Jobs did. If you want to look for actual corruption, look at Trump’s everyday crimes, not the stuff in Twitter threads.
But this is the America of false positives. The folks that sold Russiagate knew what people expected. Holmes knew the one percent wanted a tech genius, so she played the part. With the possible exception of the Presidency of Ronald Reagan, Holmes had the highest-paying acting gig in history.
In both cases—Holmes and Russiagate—the salesmen knew what people wanted and gave it to them. There lies a lesson: We have to understand what we’re looking for. Or we’ll search for a drop to drink, and all the while, the deep waters roar beneath our feet.