Last night, in my hourly check of national news for late-breaking tidbits on the impeachment, I made a disconcerting discovery: Attorney General William Barr’s inquiry into the origins of the 2016 Russia investigation has now been expanded into a criminal probe. This move gives prosecutors the power to subpoena witnesses and documents, issue search warrants, impanel a grand jury, and—potentially—issue indictments.
OMG, I’m thinking, will this be the ultimate distraction from blockbuster impeachment testimony? Will Mr. Barr conclusively besmirch his once not-so-awful reputation by charging someone with treason, as his boss claims many enemies richly deserve?
Never mind that the Department of Justice’s own Inspector General has already conducted an internal review of these matters, including FBI actions that have long been a point of rage-tweeting by our emotionally-unregulated POTUS. Never mind that the US Attorney from Connecticut, whom Barr tasked with the more far-reaching probe, found himself confronting a fool’s errand (by most accounts), thinly disguised as “Gotcha” law enforcement.
Mind the part that could lead to federal charges as political payback. Who are the likely targets? James Comey? John Brennan? Barack Obama (Remember, he ordered those wiretaps)?
I have many thoughts on this (and the New York Times has more details than I’ll explore here). But if you’re so inclined, indulge me in a small digression.
Because, all too often in the dark of night, I find myself beset by fears that I might face indictment someday my own self…
In my dreams of a future time, I picture a beloved child who has narrowly escaped the impending morass of corruption and social chaos that assails us in these times. This clear-eyed young person calls me to account, saying something on the lines of —
“Back in 2016, when our slice of the world—which in retrospect appears so innocent and whole—teetered on the brink of 11/9, what were you doing, Grandma? How did you help to preserve our sacred democracy?”
I can only hope that children of the future will possess such a concept as the incomparable value of government of, by, and for the people, however they may yearn for more perfect forms and expression. That very concept seems profoundly endangered today. Amid the belittlement and brownshirt tactics emanating from the halls of state since that fateful election, the idealism required to uphold civic norms is undercut on a daily basis—all but reduced to a quaint relic of bygone eras.
How do I answer the unflinching child of my dreams? Sadly, in 2016 I didn’t knock doors, make phone calls, or even write letters to editors of small-town papers across Ohio—actions I proudly performed during the three previous national elections. I do have an excuse for that lapse. Not one I’d expect to exonerate me in the eyes of that someday-grandchild, but something of an apology to trot out for those of my own generation, who may be more forgiving:
In the autumn of 2016, my partner of 26 years was grappling with the final illness that would take his life just five months after diagnosis. He had beaten two cancers in the past, but this one proved to be a more virulent beast. I couldn’t find it in me to reach out to strangers with an upbeat political message, urging one and all to vote down the demagogue. Instead, it seemed essential to, somehow, combine my political activism with the escapist, numbing activity my mind so desperately craved.
Naturally, I turned to Twitter.
I embraced the causes of several obscure state-level candidates, joined up to boost their followings, RT’d their positive appeals, as well as tweeting national news stories that rang like bellwethers of dire days ahead: The buffoon (who surely never could win the Presidency, could he?) was charged with defrauding gullible students of his get-rich-like-me “university.” Professionals of many stripes warned of the effects his degraded rhetoric would have on foreign relations, domestic extremists, and young minds. I believed I was doing my small bit to spread the word and inform American voters who were certainly intelligent enough to reject that sorry excuse for a candidate.
Checking out the trending hashtags of those times, I soon became aware of a virtual realm commonly dubbed “the fever swamp.” This was not the swamp our Republican nominee claimed he would drain. Far from it. Here was a realm where lies were deliberately churned into full-blown delusion by shadowy operatives of unbridled cynicism devoted to entrapping the gullible, the unstable, the traumatized — loosely moored human beings who might otherwise muster sufficient will to vote in their own best interest.
The trolls under those bridges were poised to drag down any vulnerable citizen showing an inclination to support the first female candidate of a major political party for President. They dug many pits for this purpose, deployed heavy weights of doubt, despair, and aspersion: effective obstacles to paralyze the infant hopes of first-time or sporadic voters, as well as those already defined as marginal, who might be prone to peeling off.
The best known of these pits was #Pizzagate.
When I first encountered this comical-seeming hashtag, I failed to realize that rational argument and even citations to Snopes’ online anti-rumor mill would prove incapable of denting troll armor. Thankfully, the Pizzagate narrative would be critically wounded by reality, when an irate believer showed up at the offending pie-shop IRL, his trusty AR-15 rifle at the ready. He fired three rounds into a wall and door in his determination to drive out the insidious pedophiles supposedly taking refuge behind cans of tomato sauce and jars of olives. The resulting barrage of real news explaining the absurdity of tales about Hillary Clinton and other Democrats running a child-sex operation out of the basement of this small business managed AT LAST to tamp down fevers in that dank cranny of the swamp.
Sadly, it happened a few weeks after the 2016 election.
But earlier that fall, on Twitter, I felt like a warrior for truth in spite of my obvious inability to save people from rampant false beliefs. I searched the hashtags for plaintive tweets from obvious humans among the dubious avatars of busty blond women, alleged veterans of special ops forces, and young dudes resembling Peter Fonda’s Easy Rider persona.
(Oh, and let me not forget the tweeters with faces of young black men whose contempt for Hillary and all Democrats — Da worse mo’fuckin’ racists on the planet! — knew no bounds but somehow conveyed a telling pose that drove me to ask on one occasion, “Be honest, @BaltHomeboy. Is that your picture? Are you truly not a white guy behind a black guy’s photo?” Cool to the core, he assured me he was “black as the night sky.” But within a matter of hours, his picture, tweets, name, and account had all vanished, as if into a black hole in that same sky.)
So I would seek out the humans among these trolls, the ones tweeting questions like, “Are well-vetted politicians really heading up trafficking rings in pizza shops?” I visited their profiles. Many were older people living in small towns with pictures of grandkids, pets, and cakes in their home feed. Lonely people, inclined toward Republicanism, but hesitant to believe the worst about their fellow Americans.
In case you imagine there’s no worse conspiracy theory than #Pizzagate, I must regretfully disabuse you. The one that became my Twitter obsession, against which I railed in long threads chock-a-block with fact and appeals to better angels was a narrative known as #SpiritCooking.
I will spare you the gorier details.
Suffice it to say that the heyday of #SpiritCooking coincided with poor John Podesta’s “time in the barrel,” as announced by that IRL troll Roger Stone. These were the delirious days after the WikiLeaks dump targeting Hillary’s campaign chairman. In a nutshell: A personal message from Podesta’s brother turned up in the hacked emails, asking about dinner plans. Like the tempest of a deranged sorcerer’s apprentice, trolls spun this less-than-nothingburger into the most lurid, libelous narrative of sex abuse, Satanism, cannibalism, and human sacrifice you can possibly imagine.
(But please don’t.)
They fanned inconsequential remarks into an urban legend that eventually featured Hillary (of course)—although she’s never mentioned in the actual emails, she’s now leading a coven under the cover of respectability shot through with such cracks as her gleeful participation in Bill’s countless forcible rapes and Epstein-fueled exploits. She frequented Fantasy Island, she drank deep of the brew concocted of blood and breast milk, feasted her eyes (if not worse) on huddled masses of kidnapped children and random body parts.
Because what else could possibly sate her depraved and limitless lust for power?
I remember one of the elderly women I discovered floundering under photoshopped “proof” on the #SpiritCooking hashtag. She had a normal human picture, a Midwestern profile, and several touching tweets in support of Jeb Bush. She asked, askance, “Did this stuff really happen? Where did it happen?”
I instantly sent her a personal tweet: “It is fake, @BuddysNana! #SpiritCooking is invented top to bottom!” I sent links to fact-based articles tracing the origin of the legend to performance art and neo-paganism. We exchanged a couple of tweets. I was peeling her back to reality. Then the trolls descended en force—it was like they watched my every move. They flooded the feed, blotting me out with “photos” of shrieking Hillaries, robed Satanic priestesses, missing and exploited children.
One proclaimed that I, too, “looked like a pedo.”
That’s when I understood there was something bigger behind all this than a few kooks with time on their hands, something broader than a social platform and better funded than a 400-pounder in his (or her) grandmother’s basement. This was an operation with resources and research behind it, with people putting in even more hours than the likes of me could spare to my mind-numbing addiction.
There were already hints coming out that Russia was behind many of the trolls and outlandish theories, the attacks on vulnerable American psyches. Sex abuse to entice and fascinate. Trampled taboos to repel, yet strangely attract. Fear and horror to transfix and immobilize. Money and control because that’s all that matters, right?
But Americans can take pages from the Autocrat Playbook, too, can’t we?
I felt a fresh chill, reading about AG Bill Barr traveling the world in search of support for multiply-debunked theories about Joe Biden, the DNC “server” magically spirited away to some babushka’s stove in Ukraine, and the mysterious Professor Mifsud believed by all American intelligence sources to be a Russian agent, yet named by Sean Hannity as a Democrat plant. With even greater resources at his disposal than a St. Petersburg troll farm, Mr. Barr is sure to find “evidence” if he looks long and hard enough. Some functionary somewhere will oblige. A few straws-to-grasp can always be scrounged from the dirt.
When truth itself is on the defensive, decades of life in the public eye cannot convince troubled minds that you don’t shapeshift into a giant carnivorous lizard the minute we let down our guard from pure exhaustion. Save the children, LOCK THEM UP, try them later!
Is this the world we’re leaving to future generations? Ideals of democracy on the back foot, our great American republic imperiled by nostalgia for the security of a strongman-style government?
Perhaps I’m an alarmist, and AG Barr won’t indict anyone in the Obama administration for “spying” on the Trump campaign. Or perhaps he will indict, but remnants of the Republican Old Guard will remember what outrage is for and repudiate the move resoundingly.
Perhaps a wonderful future awaits us, free of fake news, a future where citizens negotiate consensual reality in tones of mutual respect. Where children aren’t fetishized as objects of abuse and defilement. Where hope and idealism flourish. It appears bright and probable in my imagination, but I know it remains elusive unless we rededicate ourselves to Truth, and work our hearts out to boot pathological liars from office.