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Battle for America’s soul rages

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The probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election is politically and culturally significant

By. Max Boot

Reading Marc Fisher and Sari Horwitz’s extraordinary article, comparing the lives of United States Special Counsel Robert Mueller and US President Donald Trump made me realise that the war between the two men is not just a struggle over the fate of this presidency. The op-ed noted: At pivotal points in their lives, they made sharply divergent choices — as students, as draft-age men facing the dilemma of the Vietnam War, as ambitious alpha males deciding where to focus their energies. The months flip by, and the showdown looms: Mueller and Trump, the war hero and the draft avoider, two men who rise early and live mainly at the office, two men who find relief on the golf course. They circle each other, speaking different languages. So they continue on their missions, one loudly, the other in silence.

Mueller is a life-long Republican who has worked for administrations of both parties; Trump was raised in a Republican home by a father who spent many weekends visiting the Democratic clubs of Brooklyn, building relationships with the politicians who might help him get his projects built.

Neither knows how this will end. It is a battle for the soul of America, because each of them represents a recognisable American archetype. Mueller was born to wealth and attended elite institutions — St Paul’s School, Princeton University, the University of Virginia School of Law — but felt compelled to serve his country. During the Vietnam War, when most of his classmates were avoiding the draft, he volunteered for the Marine Corps and earned numerous decorations, leading a rifle platoon in fierce combat. Returning home, he became a prosecutor and eventually ran the Justice Department’s criminal division.

In the 1990s, Mueller went into private practice. It was lucrative, but he hated it. Watching the spike of drug-driven murders in the District of Columbia, he volunteered to become a line prosecutor in the US attorney’s office. It was as if a retired general had volunteered to serve as a private in wartime.

Later, as FBI director under former US presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, Mueller became the embodiment of the old-school G-man who only wore a white shirt with a red or blue tie — never a blue shirt, because that would signal dangerous frivolity. He “avoided the limelight” and “frustrated his speechwriters by crossing out every ‘I’ in speeches they wrote for him. It wasn’t about him, he told them: ‘It’s about the organisation’. ”

‘City upon a hill’

Mueller embodies the ideals of probity, service and self-sacrifice that trace back to the Pilgrims who came to America in search of a “city upon a hill”. The Puritans preached devotion to the Almighty and had nothing but contempt for vanity and luxury — no blue shirts for them. Over the centuries, their religious fanaticism leached away, leaving behind in American culture a residue of obligation to serve not just God but also mankind. Mueller just missed being a baby boomer, but he has a Greatest Generation ethos.

President Trump is Mueller’s opposite in every meaningful respect save that he was also born to privilege. He has much in common with the land promoters who bamboozled English immigrants into coming to the New World in the 17th century with fanciful tales of riches — what Trump would describe as “truthful hyperbole”. He is the kind of charming man who peddled patent medicines in the 19th century and then, in the 20th century, penny stocks and timeshares. These scofflaws were the inspiration for the phoney duke and dauphin in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Jay Gatsby and the Wizard of Oz.

Trump combines the hedonism of the 1970s with the rage of the 1950s: the mix of both worlds. His consciousness was not raised in the 1960s. He did not take part in the civil rights or anti-war movements and won five draft deferments — including one for “bone spurs” — so that he could devote his life to the pursuit of wealth and privilege.

All you need to know about the diseased state of today’s Republican Party is that it reviles Mueller and reveres Trump. Hitherto the champions of personal responsibility and rectitude, Republicans have embraced a culture of self-indulgence that they denounced when it was symbolised by Trump’s fellow draft-dodger Bill Clinton. This shift in the tectonic plates of the culture may long outlast the current administration.

  • Max Boot, a Post columnist, is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam. Source: Washington Post

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