If you want to understand what the Russia investigation is doing to America, and to us all, think of it this way: The Russia investigation is a TV show, and we are the fans. But it’s that second part — our fandom — that’s important.
The first part isn’t unusual — scandals or investigations often dominate politics; people watched the wall-to-wall Watergate hearings.
But that was a centralized era of culture, limited by choice. Forty years later, we have a different way of consuming culture, one that’s interactive and immersive, yet splintered.
When Michael Cohen pleaded guilty last week to telling lies about a deal he was working, Twitter lit up with little slices of information, cross-checking dates from court documents with other dates and plotlines that have been reported, extrapolating what all this meant or could mean for the larger Russia investigation.
It was like how we’d live-tweet an actual 2018 TV show.
We, the readers and viewers of 2018, are consuming the Russia investigation news like we’re part of the biggest internet fandom there’s ever been. We’re in the throes of fan theories, fictions, wars, and everything else, alert to and at the mercy of the next development, whatever produces that feeling where your eyes feel like they’re both jumping out of your head and melting.
There’s a missing professor, a Moscow deal, a porn star, a Russian spy, a Russian billionaire, his son, his son’s music promoter, highly lucrative overseas political consulting, secret memos, secret recordings of calls, secret payoffs, surveillance warrants, the existence of Carter Page, the vagueness of that Trump Tower meeting, the dossier, the overheard lunches, the texts between the FBI agents, the love affair between George and Simona, the emergence of Michael Avenatti, the latter-day resurrection of Rudy Giuliani and Lanny Davis, and on and on and on and on — an ever-expanding formation of surreal plots and mundane process details.
It’s the best TV show Donald Trump will ever create. And you’re either really into the Russia investigation or not much at all, and the people who get really into the Russia investigation can end up in weird places.
You've had this experience, right, where you trip and fall into the 22nd tweet in a 46-tweet thread making a connection between a $100K check and something that happened nine years ago, like it’s a Reddit thread for a new Radiohead album. Over the past two years, entire theories have lived and died on the internet about otherwise obscure figures. Take, for instance, Tad Devine (a Bernie Sanders adviser who worked for big Ukrainian $$$ with Paul Manafort in the 2000s) and Imran Awan (a Pakistani American IT professional who worked for Washington Democrats). Devine assisted the Mueller investigation, and the Justice Department said the Awan wasn’t involved in hacking, but their names became part of various suggestions from people in the center left and on the right, respectively, about what The Real Story was. Robert Mueller — the silent figure at the center — has been the subject of a variety of weird, clown car attacks, and also of a saintly fandom. Read a sign at the recent New York City rally in support of the former director of the FBI: “PROTECT THIS PATRIOT.”
It's sort of fun and destroying our souls all at once. People have entirely different operating premises about different actors in this wider saga, with baked-in conceptions of their motivations — it’s like a fandom for a big show!
Even the way people talk and joke about and meme the various players feels like a part of a show. This is partly because fandom — and other parts of the 1.0 internet 10 years ago — helped build the internet we live in today. Not to get too pseudo-intellectual on you with the etymology, but obviously, the current vernacular developed over time. Black Twitter has produced a lot of that language and form, and so has internet fandom. Die-hard zealots and canonical plots long precede the internet, of course, but internet fandom made “stans” and talk about how “it’s canon” part of the day-to-day experience of consuming culture.
Internet fandom also helped mainstream a kind of critical approach to plot and character: plots that are continuous and fluid, something whose meaning is open to interpretation; characters whose plotlines we can isolate, reexamine in different contexts, and expand upon in the unlimited space of the internet.
Those dynamics are central to the biggest kinds of internet fandoms, which often derive from the promise of something tangible (e.g., the long build-up to an album release) or a cultural product vast enough for unlimited entry points (e.g., something like the Star Wars universe, Harry Potter, or Game of Thrones).
These series feature: dozens of characters; complicated and overlapping plots; a distance from our own reality; and, with notable exceptions, limited interiority (you don’t know what most characters are thinking or feeling). Combine the density of the plots and that interiority gap, and you the viewer have a lot of room to roam where it comes to theories, side plots, and hopes for how it all might turn out.
And isn’t that what we’re looking at with the Russia investigation, except in real life?
What unites both of these kinds of fandoms and the Russia investigation is they exist in spaces where we are unlikely to come to collective, firm conclusions about what happened or what’s real.
The level of discordant noise and complexity is too much for the human heart. That’s why people either check out or, like, check too far in. That’s why there’s this economy of journalists who explain and contextualize each development in Twitter threads and on cable news. There is a literal podcast called Mueller, She Wrote, which features three liberal hosts detailing each week’s developments in weekly hour-plus episodes — and they fill it up!
Amanda Hess recently wrote about the end of endings, in pop culture, in technology, in the news. “Didn’t endings used to mean something?” she writes. “They imbued everything that came before them with significance, and then they gave us the space to reflect on it all.” What we want are resolution and an ending, and connections between the points that will prove or disprove the theorems we’re operating on about Donald Trump and the past two years.
And these days, there’s a sense like the resolution is coming, right? The plotlines are converging, the knot will unravel, the scales will fall from our eyes, the season finale will finally reveal itself. Or maybe not — and we'll just be battling it out in the great fandom wars forever. ●