President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden meet with senior advisors in the Oval Office to discuss the shooting in Aurora, Colorado, July 20, 2012. Pictured, from left, are: Kathryn Ruemmler, Counsel to the President, and FBI Director Robert Mueller. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
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Critics Chat: The Propaganda and Persuasion of the Mueller Investigation
With the gaveling in of the 116th United States Congress, Citizen Critics reflects on recent developments of the Mueller investigation. This broad-spectrum discussion takes stock of the persuasion at work amidst the spectacle of un-redacted documents, misleading memes, and high-profile indictments. Contributors highlight a range of expert perspectives on the investigation’s antecedents, the role of propaganda and meme warfare, the public reception of Mueller’s report, the role of deception in the case, the dangers of Mueller-fetishism, and the cautious optimism for the investigation’s future. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Kellie Marin is a doctoral candidate in Communication Arts & Sciences at Penn State University who studies national security rhetoric, the intersection of social media and terrorism, and civic participation with a theoretical focus on affect and aesthetics. Her research has appeared in Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies and Rhetoric Society Quarterly.
Alex McVey is an assistant professor at Kansas State University who studies how visual rhetorics influence public controversies about race and policing. Alex’s work has been featured in Rhetoric Review, POROI, and Present Tense, and he is currently working on a manuscript about the visual rhetoric of the Blue Lives Matter movement.
Paul Johnson is an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh who researches American conservatism, victimhood in American culture, and gender and sexuality as they are linked to American conceptions of selfhood. Paul’s current book project, I, The People: The Rhetoric of Modern Conservative Populism, examines the last half-century populist turn of American conservatism and its consequences.
Atilla Hallsby is an assistant professor of Rhetoric at the University of Minnesota who researches the constitution of America’s secret-obsessed political discourse, and serves as the current Secrecy, Security, and Surveillance desk editor at Citizen Critics. Atilla’s research has appeared in The Quarterly Journal of Speechand Secrecy and Society.
The conversation was moderated by Michael J. Steudeman, assistant professor of Rhetoric at Penn State University.
Remembering Past Scandals, Framing the Perpetrators
Michael: Presidential scandals have been around since the Washington administration, but the Mueller saga feels different—even from Watergate and past foreign policy scandals. Does public memory allow us to say that a scandal like the Russia investigation has happened before?
Paul: I’m tempted to suggest the answer is both “yes” and “no.” There have been scandals about foreign political influence in American politics. There have been scandals about corruption of the presidency in the name of power. But the convergence of the two, in the person of the president, on this scale is really something special we haven’t seen since in the post-war period. Alger Hiss, various double agents at the FBI—those tick the “Russia” side of the equation, but not the “head of state” side. On the other hand, Watergate absolutely strikes some of the same tones about secrecy and illegality, but in the public imagination it wasn’t about financial interests or foreign influence.
Leslie: What do you make of the fact that there is public discussion about US interference in foreign elections but not these other events?
Paul: It suggests something about how important elections are as a symbolic resource for how we imagine ourselves as a democracy. Especially considering how hollowed out many other shared/civic practices are, perhaps many Americans gravitate towards elections because those are one of the last public resources for imagining ourselves as a country? Especially for those portions of the public whose citizenship is imagined only partially—rather than almost wholly—around the violent spectacle of punishing the non-normative.
Michael: What happens when foreign policy and domestic scandal elements coalesce? What’s unique as a result of this convergence? Or, to put it more weirdly: The Mueller investigation seems like the child of Watergate and Iran-Contra (in more ways than one). How is this baby different from its parents?
Atilla: One consequence of the convergence of foreign policy and domestic scandal elements is that the motives of the president’s foreign policy actions may be read in a new way. The general agreement that Iran/Contra was a public deception (as well as Oliver North’s continued public appearances) signaled that the motives upholding that deception of the American public could withstand scrutiny because they were backed by a higher-order virtue: namely, protecting the national security apparatus. It did not matter that North (or Reagan) had lied in that instance because they successfully gestured to a national security justification for it. The collapse of the Watergate and Iran/Contra frame means that foreign policy action becomes less defensible as a strategic military action and more legible as an expression of personal motives.
Leslie: If, as Paul suggests, this about an election and focusing our efforts there, that seems distinct from Watergate and Iran-Contra and at least one way to understand the failures of democracy in relationship to a whole host of issues. So, the question of the sanctity of the election becomes the place to project our concern for the utter fragility of the republic. Or perhaps the racist, and problematic, foundations of the republic given that racism is the wedge that often motivates Russian disinformation campaigns.
Russian Propaganda, Trump Tweets, and the Attention Economy
Alex: The dominance of for-profit, entertainment, hyper-partisan, 24/7 news cycles has produced scandal as an ubiquitous frame for understanding public controversy. Benghazi is an interesting and recent historical reference point because it was largely manufactured, but for its publics, was a serious scandal nonetheless. When scandal and conspiracy become such persistent frames for understanding one’s political opposition, it poses some challenges for those trying to make real for the broader public the scope and scale of any particular scandal.
Heather: In terms of address, it also seems important to note the President’s rhetorical resources for responding to Mueller’s investigation may be different in quality and quantity from previous presidents. I’m thinking here of President Trump’s use of Twitter to frame/reframe Benghazi, Mueller, etc. On my view, the president understands digital media as a way to bypass the gatekept fourth estate.
Leslie: Heather, how would you say that Trump’s tweets direct public attention overall?
Heather: There’s lots of good scholarship on how markers of attention in digital media—hashtags, etc.— can shape digital publics. For instance, much of danah boyd’s early work on publics takes up the vantage of digital media and hashtags as constitutive variables. The book Hashtag Publics, edited by Nathan Rambukkana, offers several revelatory essays on the constitutive powers of hashtags in an attention-based political economy. Tarleton Gillespie’s “The Relevance of Algorithms” and “The Politics of ‘Platforms‘” outline how seemingly neutral objects—algorithms, platforms—influence how and what we see and know (and do!). And Tiziana Terranova’s Network Cultureis exceptional at highlighting the dissolution and coherence of networked collectivities given information flows. Together, they paint a pretty good picture of how the various facets of digital media direct public attention and aid in the formation of the (digital) public that’s relevant for understanding how the President directs public attention.
Michael: The notion of presidents speaking “directly to the people” has a long history tied to the rise of modern mass media. In what ways does the digital make this appeal qualitatively different? Is it the directness of presidential address?
Heather: For me, it is about the various, constitutive components of network culture. The directness of presidential address may feel new, as in the President speaking directly to the public on Twitter. But the construction of “which publics” matters, and it depends on a whole host of variables. Those variables include algorithms, filter bubbles, how one constructs their digital media presence, the structures of the platforms themselves.
Alex: Trump also has the unique advantage of both bypassing the fourth estate (media) through Twitter and enjoying near unfettered ideological coordination with the largest and most commercially successful news media network around. Fox News is a propaganda arm of the Republican party and has worked to weaponize the discourse of scandal in an entirely partisan fashion. It has so severely muddied the waters on what constitutes a shared vision of public fact that there what constitutes a remedy to a public scandal for one group (Mueller’s investigation into Trump/Russia Collusion for liberals) itself constitutes a public scandal for the other group (The Mueller “Witch Hunt” for conservatives).
Atilla: Ultimately, Trump’s policies and the Russian propaganda that enabled it directs attention to American suffering while blinding us, say, to Manafort’s role in the Ukraine and elsewhere in steering elections through similar tactics. In other words, the American frame of propaganda — that we have been propagandized — attunes us to American suffering at the expense of precedents germane to our situation. At the same time, it erases the international scene as a possible place where our (seemingly unique, democratic) problems have already played out. The failure to tap the argument from analogy when it comes to other propaganda efforts is worth scrutinizing, particularly as it returns us to a uniquely American frame of victimhood.
Leslie: That frame of victimhood is key to what Heather is saying. That frame is carried by both human modes of discourse but also a host of network variables that suture that frame to a particular set of peoples more readily than others. So, the claim of US interference of other elections often emerges in far-right arenas of discourse or is an easy rebuke for those who are forced to reconcile increasing evidence of Russian propaganda efforts with support for the current president.
Michael: It’s fascinating how constituencies that would’ve decried talk of American interference as somehow unpatriotic or subversive now, in light of the Mueller investigation, are openly acknowledging those past influence efforts as a way to assuage dissonance over Russia’s doings.
Leslie: Yes! There is this great moment in the book when I talk about a Facebook friend. He is a former-Marine who shared direct Russian propaganda. I told him it was propaganda, one the images released by the House, and that Russia was using him. The guy didn’t take it down. Instead, he gave this answer that smacked of all forms of resentment. Rather than acknowledge that he had spread explicit lies, this guy blamed anyone else he could. More importantly, this former Marine embraced the lie and said Russian propaganda was cool.
Heather: From our point of view in the book, Russian efforts to influence the American electorate leaned heavily on the affordances of digital media in order to amplify already extant, divisive rhetoric. Mueller’s indictment of the Internet Research Agency, for instance, demonstrates that foreign entities are willing and able to weaponize digital content—including memes—to disseminate falsehoods and ramp up rhetoric surrounding wedge issues. As an example, the February 2018 Mueller indictment highlights how the IRA allegedly amplified bogus claims about Hillary Clinton’s criminality on social media, using hashtags such as #Hillary4Prison. The report also notes that the IRA purchased Facebook ads suggesting that Clinton engaged in voter fraud. These specious claims about Clinton certainly weren’t new—they were a common refrain amongst the Trump campaign and its supporters—but they were used to further divide an already divided nation.
Leslie: #Hillary4Prison is just one example of a set of victimhood frames that tie resentment to victimhood such that propaganda efforts are never dealt with truly in favor of demonizing the opposing political party.
Damien: The prevalence of victimhood frames cycles us back to the question of how digital media is affecting the ability of the president to focus public attention. I might go so far as to say that victimhood frames constitute the right wing media ecosystem of Fox News, Infowars, and various Facebook pages and Twitter personalities. Trump’s use of Twitter is indicative of publicity becoming untethered from traditional routines of democratic deliberation. Indeed, “they believe they have shifted the paradigm of media coverage, replacing the traditional media with their own.” Conservatives have assembled their own media ecosystem of Fox News, talk radio, a red blogosphere, and now a direct line to the president through Twitter. Anyone remember GWB’s “catapult the propaganda” comment? He was referring to the ability of the president to circumvent the press and speak directly to the people. Pair the rhetorical presidency with the affordances of public addressivity offered by Twitter, and you have a pretty dramatic intensification of some long-term trends.
Atilla: Building from Damien’s point, one prescient event of the past two decades is the declaration of war in Iraq in 2002, especially its public justifications. David Zarefsky makes the argument that the Bush era maxim leveraged by administration officials like Condoleezza Rice, “the smoking gun will be a mushroom cloud,” appeals to uncertainty. The appeal binds pre-emption to deterrence with a logical fallacy: that the absence of evidence is evidence of absence. The fact we do not know is sufficient grounds to conclude that deliberate concealment has occurred, and enough to impute a secret motive.
Heather: To add on to Damien and Atilla’s points, the Mueller indictment of the IRA highlights the communicative impact of circulation, amplification, repetition and more given network culture. One of the key findings of our book is that the circulation of sensational, even conspiratorial media works to direct attention very efficiently, which can serve as a nodal point for developing a public, and relatedly influence public discourse. At the same time, memetic replication and amplification endemic to the network is residually productive in that it can provide narrative coherence to incoherent worldviews and even lend legitimacy to even the most outlandish of claims. When traditional media outlets report on or even satirize conspiratorial media or ideas, the conspiracy can grow, reach new adherents, and become further entrenched in public discourse.
Paul: There are also shades of the off-the-record Bush official’s comment about “You keep talking about reality, and we’ll keep making it” from the early aughts. When we refer to a public that should be outraged because of the parallels to say, Watergate, we imagine that something like Watergate has a shared history. But really, Watergate is part of a sequence of events that produced a serious trust-deficit between many white members of the population and the government. Conservatism figured out the master algorithm long ago. Tell people that they have a shared stake in being wounded by public failures but no shared stake in the acts that injured them, and you have yourself a powerful weapon. It’s a weapon that, to piggyback on what Heather is suggesting about direct address, mirrors the formal characteristics of informational warfare: there are not separate enthymemes about distrusting institutions and enjoying the digital content. There’s a shared enthymeme which is about affirming your personhood first and figuring out the details later.
The Far-Right Origins of America’s Meme Warfare
Kellie: How do we think this “scandal” will influence how America engages in its own attempts to influence elections abroad? What might the outcomes be, depending on how this pans out?
Leslie: I think it will ramp up our efforts.
Atilla: I think that the scandal’s outcome will rely on two factors: 1) whether there is an infrastructure of policy or belief that restricts America’s foreign influence (or, alternatively, whether that will be recirculated into a narrative in which democratic evangelism ultimately serves national security interests) and, relatedly, 2) whether the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) becomes more generally enforceable after the Mueller investigation has concluded. Although it has not been significantly enforced (this article from Talking Points Memo notes fewer than 12 criminal cases since 1966), FARA is a law “enacted 80 years ago to expose Nazi propaganda” and “requires people to disclose when they lobby in the U.S. on behalf of foreign governments or political entities.” With the Mueller investigation, FARA has become a topic of renewed attention, particularly in relationship to Paul Manafort’s role as Trump campaign chairman. This seems like a significant legal lever that has now been dusted off to prosecute foreign influence operations in the United States, and to deter potential American operatives from establishing transactional relationships abroad for domestic electoral gains.
Damien: It is important to keep in mind that Russia is probably not the innovator in information influence campaigns—we are. I documented a number of these efforts in my 2009 Argumentation and Advocacy essay on flooding the zone (PDF). A report written for the Joint Special Operations University recommended exploring the potential to hire “a block of bloggers to verbally attack a specific person or promote a specific message may be worth considering.” This kind of astroturf campaign is likely pioneered by U.S. operatives, taking lessons from direct marketing and advertising—the only real American art forms.
This kind of stuff was pioneered by U.S. domestic firms. Check out this gem from the early aughts, advertising a firm’s “professional blog warriors,” ready to be deployed to manipulate public conversation.
Heather: Yes—as Leslie notes, memetic warfare relies on old and new versions of informational PSYOPS.
Leslie: At least as it relates to memes (the main communicative form, we argue, of Russian “ads” in terms of how they appeared to the public—still images with overlaid font), is predicated on the publication of Jeff Gisea, who is the founder of MAGA3X and tried to get the Deploraball—the so-called “biggest meme ever” party to celebrate Trump’s win—off the ground. The foundational structure of “our” digital information warfare is far right in orientation.
Paul: Indeed, its far right in origin. Ronald Reagan’s 1984 campaign—one of the most successful in history—got around two barriers, that unions didn’t like Republicans and existing campaign finance constraints, by hiring a crack squad of Madison Avenue and West Coast ad types. Called the “Tuesday Team,” their task was to convert economic information into legible, humane advertising content for the campaign: the memetic warfare of its time, along with direct mail.
Leslie: I love the inclusion of a longer history to this, given that digital operations stem from older strategies.
Michael: This is what I meant when I said Russiagate is the child of Watergate and Iran-Contra in more ways than one!
Would it be safe to say that what used to be the CIA’s purview in toppling foreign democracies is increasingly the domain of the NSA?
Atilla: Wouldn’t it be most appropriate to describe it as a joint military-intelligence operation in which institutions like the NSA, CIA, and DoD work (more or less) collaboratively and with (more or less) transparency between them? I’m thinking here of the Stuxnet events c. 2014-15, and Alex Gibney’s documentary Zero Days. Stuxnet was an internet security concern that arose on the heels of the Snowden disclosures when it was drawn to the attention of prominent American antivirus companies. It was later revealed that the virus had a very specific purpose: to throw Iranian uranium centrifuges off-balance to interrupt their enrichment process. There was speculation that the virus was American in origin, or a joint venture with other nations. Stuxnet and viruses like it could, in theory, be used to interfere with other forms of public infrastructure, which is why it was so disconcerting. The investigations revealed that the virus was incredibly sophisticated for, among other reasons, the way it concealed the ‘infection’ it spread, and investigators were led to conclude that it could only have been created with the resources of a well-organized, well-financed nation-state. The documentary goes into some detail about US Cyber Command, which ostensibly would have deployed the software and which also would have required cooperation among CIA, NSA, and the Department of Defense.
Damien: I’m sure there’s some level of coordination, but I take Michael’s point to be that the influence operations are more oriented around shaping attention patterns in more subtle, communicative ways rather than funneling of arms and money to violently overthrow democratically elected governments.
The Public Reception of Mueller’s Report
Michael: To what extent is the Mueller investigation responding to the affordances and constraints of network culture? Likewise, how does the algorithmic amplification of discourse about “fake news” influence the reach of the investigation?
Heather: From our vantage as digital and visual rhetoric scholars writing about memes, we were fascinated by Mueller’s February 16th indictment against the IRA. The indictment—which we’d encourage all readers of this chat to read—outlines what we, in the book, call memetic warfare. In his Congressional testimony, Zuckerberg himself said that Facebook in particular, and American infrastructure in general, was part of an arms race with Russia. If this is true, then memes were a potent tool in the IRA’s arsenal. The Mueller indictment suggests that the IRA allegedly created meme groups on social media which amassed tens of thousands of followers.
The Mueller report also points out to the myriad ways memes influence culture, often in hidden ways. The Facebook ads that the IRA circulated often follow a traditional meme template—they’re image centric, with a handful of text framing the image. And they benefit from memetic expectations—no one fact checks a meme, because that’s not the point of a meme. Moreover, fact-checking does nothing to curb disinformation strategies. Your Great Aunt Judy will still spread some nonsense even after you’ve told her that something was a lie. Dana Cloud’s Reality Bites book is helpful for understanding that fact-checking alone won’t solve the #fakenews or #alternatefacts problem. In other words, we can’t just expect to present people with facts and have those facts change their mind. (See for instance, Leslie’s Marine-friend IRA example.)
Michael: There’s periodically a flurry of Mueller news, then the investigation recedes back into the shadows. Part of this is the ebbs and flows of the legal system, but it’s partly strategic. When does Mueller speak publicly and why? What are the consequences of his choices for the intelligence community and national security?
Paul: Mueller might be the most discussed, least-seen figure of the moment. He doesn’t speak as himself but instead remains mostly abstracted. He has a team, he’s somewhat coincident with a rule of law, if not the rule of law, given where we are at. Who knows what motivates it, but it strikes me that his formal absence from our visible economy is one of the few available formal data points that seems unambiguously dangerous—as opposed to morally troubling—for Trump. The whole GOP architecture relies on a public that’s being visibly occupied by enemies: welfare cheats, violent immigrants, a ‘foreign’ president. Trump’s embodied, in the most powerful office in the land. Mueller is around but does not, himself, appear in public as a person. So, he’s sharing, to some extent, space ‘offstage’ with at least a version of ‘the people.’ That’s more like a Ronald Reagan approach to the symbolic dynamics of American politics than others, which the caveat that he’s representing the ‘law’ and not ‘the people.’ But those two forms can converge.
Kellie: One (potentially negative) effect of Mueller’s lengthy silences is that it enables Trump’s outspoken mistrust with the intelligence community since he took office. Which, taken with Paul’s point, may have interesting implications as the investigation goes on. There is a longstanding narrative, supported by events like Iran/Contra, that “proves” the weakness of intelligence and security institutions by virtue of their having “come into the light” or otherwise failed to protect the secrecy of their operations. In that regard, I think the Mueller investigation does bring additional scrutiny to the intelligence community in the form of a double bind: if they reveal information about the case (through leaks, etc.) that will be seen as a failure of the organization to do its job. If they do not reveal information, it is too clandestine and plays into the evil empire narrative we have about our surveillance institutions—as incorrect as they may be about the actual bureaucracy at work.
Heather: To add onto Kellie’s point, Mueller’s low-key nature offers an information and, indeed, attention gap wherein Trump and others can debate the framing of the investigation. I’ve noticed that in lieu of Mueller’s front-and-center persona, various factions have been grappling to characterize both him personally and the investigation in general. One group, amplified by the President and allies, has framed the investigation as a #WitchHunt. In response, others are noting how productive the investigation has been. Those things are simultaneously mutually exclusive and incredibly coherent.
Leslie: It’s also important to remember that the public may not receive a full report on Mueller’s findings, or that report might be only a simplistic assessment of the circumstances. (See, for instance, the House report from March 2018 that basically regurgitated Trump tweets on the question of collusion.) While there is widespread speculation that a report will be released, with this administration and who is slated to take over the Department of Justice, it is difficult to say what the public will have access to. We may only learn of Mueller’s findings against Trump and associates if there are leaks from inside the White House or the FBI. My suspicion is that much of this will remain hidden and will be unlikely to harm a sitting US President—who may have already been identified as an alleged actor by Cohen. So, honestly, this may not pan as anything other than a report that tells us the potentially illegal actions of this administration well after our ability to do anything about it.
Atilla: In so many ways, it is easy to make Mueller into Trump’s antithesis. If we were to buy into Trump’s logic, Mueller is the expression of the “deep state” he is circumventing while the public-facing Twitter personality is his way of performing transparency, always and constantly. If he’s constantly talking, we know what’s on his mind. Mueller’s report, by contrast, is always in the shadows or persistently out of the public view. The “strategy” of making the report into a progressive unsealing of court documents is secretive because we get a vision of the trees in one or another part of the forest, but never the total landscape. That keeps the investigation in what scholar G. Thomas Goodnight called the “fantasy” frame: a series of loosely associated links without a clear set of associations that bind them together as cause and effect.
Michael: To connect Paul and Atilla’s points, it seems like the “Deep State” / conspiracy narrative emerges wherever a visual economy for directing visceral hatreds doesn’t exist. On the flow-chart of argumentative choices, it seems to be a catch-all for anything that slows Trump’s efforts that doesn’t have a clear visual figurehead to associate with it.
Alex: The relative silence of Mueller has a really interesting uptake and circulation amongst Mueller’s most hardcore supporters. Take, for instance, this post on R/The_Mueller, linking to a Dallas Observer news article about Mueller’s silence and the collusion case.
Here, we see precisely the conspiratorial mode of discourse Atilla gestured to above, but in reverse. The absence of discourse by Mueller is evidence of an investigative mastermind who will come to rescue us from Trump with his game of 3D legal chess. For those inclined to Mueller hagiography who are reading the tea leaves of the investigation, the lack of discourse by Mueller about the investigation can be read as a sign of Mueller’s surefire capacity to bring down Trump the cartoon villain. Take, for example, a reply to this thread: “Mueller is a tried and true professional in every sense of the word… and Trump is a fucking joke. This is child’s play for Mueller. We’re watching a shark slowly circle it’s defenseless prey. He’ll bite when he’s ready.”
Deception, the Conservative Movement, and the Investigation
Michael: Speaking of cartoon villains: Roger Stone. What is the role that deception plays in the investigation? More specifically, it seems like the conservative movement has trafficked in a growing openness about transparent deceptiveness. Get Me Roger Stone (and Stone’s enthusiastic promotion of a documentary that paints him in such a dramatically terrible light) is a good example of this. Does it matter to this investigation that the figures involved have almost built an identity upon their own duplicity?
Paul: Michael, I’d say no. People keep waiting for “inherent contradictions” to prove fatal for American conservatism, and they’re doing a bit of a Godot thing with an even sadder ending. Contradictions keep the movement strong, they don’t threaten it. Stone’s a libertine sex partier: how can the moral GOP handle it? Let’s go ask Jerry Falwell’s kid that question at his Miami flophouse.
Kellie: I agree with Paul that I don’t think the “deception” of main characters like Roger Stone is a significant factor in the investigation. However, if we compare the investigation and its framing to Watergate, then the Mueller investigation seems to be more oriented by eventual cooperation of deceptive individuals who “save” their career. During Watergate, collaboration with investigators was about “conscience”; in this scandal it’s about “career.” And that informs how we interpret “deceptive” rhetoric. When Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers, for example, he was lauded as heroic (maybe not instantly) and operating on his conscience. On the other hand, when Michael Flynn pleaded guilty and began cooperating with Mueller, the narrative seems to have centered on how he first lied before working with investigators to save himself.
Atilla: I see Kellie’s point in that there is a shift in the values that motivate truth-telling in the Watergate case and for the Trump administration. There’s a more moral frame for the Watergate whistleblowers, versus an instrumentalist motive to explain Mueller’s cooperating witnesses in the latter. This shift from moral whistleblowing to pragmatic cooperation also resonates with Paul’s argument. Figures like Stone, who lionize Nixon and embrace the villain role, get something from their own oppositionality and the construction of marginal position. The figure the ‘outsider’ shores up popular identifications with that position rather than opposition to it because Trump’s populist rhetoric affirms their craftiness rather showing how they were ‘caught in the act’.
Michael: It’s akin to Trump’s “shoot someone on Fifth Avenue” comment, or the “That’s because I’m smart” debate response when he was confronted about avoiding paying his taxes. He just owns the contradiction, which plays into a frame of: “We get how the game works, and we win it, and don’t give a damn about your intellectual nuances.”
Damien: One person’s “deception” is another person’s “good at politics.” And if all politicians are assumed to be deceptive at some level (which is, I think, a bedrock belief of conservatives), then deceptiveness just becomes code for ability to acquire and deploy power on behalf of their constituency. Which is why, I think, deceptiveness is seen as a feature and not a bug for conservative politicians.
Michael: Yes—and the point is, “the Dems do that too; at least we’re honest about being deceptive.”
Alex: Truth is an effect of affect. It may matter to the investigation, in terms of being able to catch these parties in lies. But for those who are primed to see anything that cuts against trump as itself a form of deception, the lies of those “victimized” by the investigation do not themselves constitute a form of deception. Mueller may be able to prove by legal standards that parties lied, but whether that trial happens in the court of law or the court of public opinion is an entirely different matter. This is where the Mueller investigation finds itself in the sticky wicket of what Giorgio Agamben has called the “no-man’s-land between public law and political fact.”
Michael: Are public fixations on Mueller and his investigation misplaced? There seem to be several potential risks to placing so much time and energy—and so many hopes—in what Mueller is doing. Are people on the left distracting themselves from other areas of Trump’s administration? Are we accepting a problematic “heroic” frame for the FBI? Are anxieties about foreign espionage just another version of the whole atmosphere of nativism and anti-immigrant suspicion upon which Trumpism thrives?
Alex: I’m quite worried about the way that centrist liberals have played up the Mueller investigation, in particular the visual rhetorics of Mueller hagiography. And I’m only partially exaggerating here when I describe the Mueller investigation as a form of beatification.
Leslie: Oh, literal beatification. Wow. Just to be clear: the Vatican has new standards for Sainthood, so…
Alex: I see in the uptake of Mueller on the part of centrist liberals a form of police fetishism – investing symbolic energy in images of police and their carceral power over bodies as the solution to social ills and undesirable populations.
Michael: I’m also thinking of that viral video that edited the final scene from Season One of Daredevil to superimpose Trump admin faces on criminals getting rounded up and handcuffed.
Alex: Not only has Mueller’s status as a decorated war hero and head of the FBI been trotted around by liberals as signs of his progressive ethos and credibility—
—but images that stylize Mueller as a police officer putting Trump under arrest seem to be the telos of online Pro-Mueller discourse.
I find these problematic for their naturalization of the police as a remedy to social violence and as a conduit of progressive justice against the Trump agenda. But they also share interesting social parallels with anti-Hillary discourse in the run-up to the 2016 election. The gleeful reappropriation of “Lock her up” makes sense, given the atrocious, sexist treatment of Clinton in the run up to 2016. But I worry that it relies on a perverse Manicheanism in which political opponents are rendered into criminal antagonists.
…and the Hopes of Our Mueller-Fixation
Leslie: People are fixated on the Mueller report because they view it as the last barricade between our political efficacy as citizens and the threat posed by this administration to what we consider to be normal forms of governance. While we can hope for the idea that this could be a revolutionary moment, or at least a moment in which we as citizens invent new ways to matter to our own governance, the Mueller report represents how the current democratic process may help curb what seems at least chaotic if not entirely vicious. Many folks may view the Mueller indictments as a way to clarify the political scene and figure out what is, in fact, fake news. Of course, the new Congress will usher in other areas of focus. There will be new opportunities to forward other modes of political action. The actions of the courts will similarly spark activism and other political inroads. Right now, Mueller is a fixation because this is the possibility available.
Atilla: Presentism is a real obstacle here to capturing the Mueller investigation, in that there’s an unshakeable preference for the synchronic elements, and a real attachment to flashy indictments or individual conspirators as core features of the investigation. Individuals like Jerome Corsi, for instance, burn brightly for a moment, and then fade back into the conspiratorial network under the FBI’s scrutiny. Today, how recognizable is H.R. Haldeman, the chief of staff who appears on the famous Nixon tape? That may be useful to consider in light of the way individuals like John Kelly or James Mattis may be momentarily propped up or fade into the background.
Heather: If you believe the president should set a national agenda, his Tweets are evidence that directing attention to and demonizing the Mueller report are on the national agenda. I am hopeful that media surrounding Mueller might prompt a larger conversation on how network culture influences politics. My most hopeful self thinks that the investigation might lead to structural changes at the level of platform and policy, and individual changes in terms of digital literacy. My reservation is that, because influence is subtle and shifty, people will dismiss the massive impact the network has on culture and politics. It’s the job of rhetoricians to explain why the potential reach of alleged IRA-purchased Facebook ads highlighted in the February 19 indictment isn’t the square sum of memetic influence campaigns.
Paul: Heather, it seems like part of what you’re asking is: who is the Jeff Giesea of the Left? Or is there one, and would they be the kind of figure who could play a role in giving the Mueller Investigation a significant vernacular meaning?
Damien: I’m going to be a little starry eyed and say that the public fixation on the Mueller report is valuable—in fact, I think it’s the most valuable democratic iteration about democracy in the 21st century (to borrow a phrase from Seyla Benhabib). Obviously, it touches on so many tendrils of contemporary culture: the rise of networked communication norms, the increase in political power of unaccountable technology firms, politics in an era of globalization, lingering Cold War geopolitical antagonisms, contradictions of late stage capitalism, the ongoing centrality of race and racialization in U.S. politics. There’s been a pretty robust debate about all of these issues unfolding in tandem with, and often sparked by, Mueller’s investigation. Now, obviously, the investigation isn’t all—but it might ignite a more serious conversation about reforming democratic, educational, and technological institutions. I’m resting my hope in the fact that the report will be so tightly argued that serious reforms (public financing of campaigns, increased funding for educational institutions, the breakup of major technology firms) might receive more public conversation. In other words, the impact of the Mueller report is what we make of it.
Leslie: So: it’s up to those scholars who study this (and those who demand reform) to open up the possibilities of the report.
Paul: I would, to build on Leslie’s earlier point about Mueller’s investigation as our “last barricade,” suggest that you can’t separate the Mueller report from other elements of Trump’s rule-breaking and illegality. There’s nothing that prevents the ‘Mueller investigation’ from functioning—however irrationally—as a point of condensation for a litany of issues Americans have with the Trump administration. Similarly, if the frame in operation is about law and order, then it definitely places limitations on the polity going forward, with a nod towards what Alex is suggesting. It’s possible we’re seeing stirrings of attempts to link violence and criminality to the body of Trump. If Trump “did the Crimes” (in the parlance of those who are Extremely Online) but evades punishment, then that would fit with the narrative about investments in a racial, carceral state. On the other hand, if Trump finds himself prosecuted and declared guilty—either by the formal legal apparatus or within the court of ‘public opinion’ such as it is in its degraded state—then that would suggest something is happening that is defamiliarizing our idea of criminality and its tacit linkages to whiteness. Given our history, I know where I would place my bet, but politics is about the possibilities that might occur despite the apparent exhaustion of their plausibility.
Damien: I like how Paul is threading the needle on this question of police/juridical fetishism. We can do without the Saint Mueller stuff Alex has cited, but prosecuting white collar crime (emphasis on white) might open up some political possibilities that are not visible now. So, yes, Leslie, I think part of our task is to interpret the report in a way that underlines the radical change needed to address these underlying causes.
Paul: Trump is a rich, white, predatory member of the elite class, and the president of the United States. It’s foolish to imagine that the most likely outcome is that he will be prosecuted and face accountability for what he’s done—at all levels and in many ways—and so, should he find himself made to somehow make the Republic whole, it won’t be by the same rule of law and that has historically operated in this country. At the same time, there are more moving parts at this moment then at any time since the 1960s. The difference is that it’s an uneasy alliance of progressives and liberals who feel excluded from the public rather than conservatives. So, we’re at the start of a process, not its conclusion.
Alex: I’m notably skeptical of the idea that Trump will actually face legal sanction. Even if he did, I’m skeptical that prosecuting white collar crime can substantially delink rhetorics of criminality from whiteness or rearticulate those to financial crimes. Yes, Mueller has successfully prosecuted Enron and Organized Crime, but the business model of American capitalism is legally sanctioned fraud. I worry about how the celebration of prosecution of the exceptional instances of criminality may normalize the broader wealth inequalities of those “Too big to fail” aspects of the American economy which produce inequalities of wealth that should be but are not criminal.
Kellie: How do we think other parallel (future) investigations (like those pursued by Rep. Adam Schiff) might diminish what force the Mueller investigation has for the public?
Atilla: The major contribution that other investigations (i.e. releasing Trump’s tax records, placing individuals who have been interviewed behind closed doors on the record) relies on the logic that the performance of transparency is awakening, or that another factual basis for impeachment will be the last straw. However, the fact that the public is already (speculatively) in the know works against mass revelation. Schiff’s investigation may be regarded optimistically, for all the reasons Damien argues. And it may be on us, as Leslie noted, to offer a hermenuetics of the case and its implications. However, if the information is already ‘out there’—if the ‘slow leak’ makes those invested in the outcome already feel in the know—then I worry about public cynicism when the official public record comes at such a delay.
Heather: In my view, the Mueller report offers an opportunity to hold a national conversation about the political and its intersection with network culture. There’s also an opportunity for the public to engage with digital literacy projects that chart the significant but sometimes submerged influence of digital rhetorics. For instance, the IRA indictment prompted significant coverage outlining the reach of IRA-purchased Facebook ads (which, we argue, look at lot like memes). Much of the news media focused on reach metrics as a rubric for measuring influence. That’s a great start for a national conversation on the affordances of networked communication. But alone, it’s insufficient.
That hundreds of thousands of people saw these ads by foreign agents is surely disquieting. It’s important to note, however, that these memes didn’t begin or end with Facebook ads—nor did their reach. We have metrics on the ads, but we don’t necessarily have metrics on the associated memes that comprised the ads. Memes are successful tools for propagating information because they move quickly and widely without a formal infrastructure beyond the network. They also shift as each user puts their own spin on them, making them difficult to track quantitatively.
That doesn’t limit meme’s reach—rather, it adds to it. Early meme scholars note that they were adjacent to viruses, infecting users who infect others. We needn’t be so deterministic to understand the very far reach of memes in network culture. Communication theorists know that communicative impact isn’t always as black and white as a metric might suggest. Causality itself isn’t the focus—reach, circulation, and influence can be. And Mueller’s report begins to get at the wider reach of the IRA’s memetic campaign. Tl;dr: Yes, ads amplified the reach of IRA messaging, but the reach was probably much wider than that.
This is why I’m grumpy when people say that IRA influence was hype because the Facebook ad metrics weren’t significant enough. The metrics don’t take into account the movement of the memes on which they were based, which are slippery, continually recrafted, and shared amongst networks big and small.
Damien: I think Heather’s observations about meme culture are right on—and emphasize the importance of revisioning educational infrastructures as part of a response to the 2016 campaign. I think we’re only just now beginning to realize that our educational institutions are geared toward teaching about 20th century propaganda, i.e. Burke’s “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle.” We need the equivalent (“The Rhetoric of the IRA’s Battle”?) in order to give our students some updated equipment for living. That’s a small part of a much bigger problem, but it is something that we as rhetoricians are primed to do well.