Rachel Maddow’s Conspiracy Brain

I tuned in to Maddow’s show after the Mueller investigation ended. It has not been pretty.

Maddow on her show with the phrase "Checking Accounts" on the screen.
Rachel Maddow MSNBC

On Monday night, the first night that MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show aired after Attorney General William Barr released his four-page memo on the Mueller report, Rachel Maddow was skeptical. Like, extremely, extremely skeptical. In fact, she had 15 questions worth of skepticism about the “the Barr Report,” which she displayed in remarkably tiny font behind her head. The questions started with the basics—Had Robert Mueller expected the attorney general to jump in and make a no prosecution, no collusion announcement? Was it appropriate for the attorney general to make that kind of determination at this point in the process?—before taking sudden swerves into the conspiratorial. Robert Mueller had chosen not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgment in his report. “Well,” Maddow wondered, “why did Mueller make that determination and was it, in fact, a choice?” Was it possible that the special prosecutor had not explicitly described the president’s behavior as a crime in his report because there were plans to indict him as soon as he left office?

Since Donald Trump’s election, Rachel Maddow has climbed to the top of the cable news ratings with a resistance bullhorn and a conspiratorial vision of the Trump presidency. She has traded the No. 1 slot with Fox’s leading conspiratorialist Sean Hannity, the flip side of her cabal-spotting coin. (In the days since the Mueller investigation concluded, Maddow’s ratings have dipped significantly while Hannity’s have risen.) Hannity, the president’s phone a friend, is widely understood to be a propagandist for the administration—perhaps even by his own audience, MAGA devotees who would never hold such a thing against him. Night after night he pushes deranged “factual” interpretations—Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez is an actress, not a congresswoman; the Mueller investigation is an attempted deep state coup—that turn the world into a wall of crazy targeting the Trump regime.

But Maddow too, has turned the universe into an intricate web of intersecting plots that all lead to one conclusion: collusion. In the days since the Mueller report was sent to Barr, Maddow has held fast to her faith that Mueller is some kind of avenging hero, who will get Trump in the end. “As we await the Mueller report,” she said on Tuesday night, “we are left with this incredibly provocative set of unexplained behaviors.” Then she cued up “the mystery sound,” a not particularly eerie ding she used to introduce a long digression about a still-active “mystery case,” in which a “mystery company owned by mystery country” has resisted all attempts to testify about some mystery topic at the special prosecutor’s request, which she then tied to a number of other still active parts of the Mueller investigation, which she intimated could still result in something damning.

It’s true that a case involving the subpoena of a still-anonymous foreign corporation is ongoing, as are other prosecutions, like that of Roger Stone for perjury. But we can be fairly certain that Mueller has decided these cases are not relevant to the question of whether he will issue indictments for “conspiracy and coordination” with Russia—since, among other things, he seems to have decided to issue no indictments at all. Maddow’s winking insistence otherwise feels like willful misdirection. “All this stuff is still live,” she said, with the amused self-assured look of someone who thinks they have figured out a magician’s trick, “even as it’s shutting down.” There’s no reason to peel the arrows and news clippings off the wall, so long as you can find a new string.

The Howard Bealeization, or Glenn Beckifaction, of Rachel Maddow is a reminder that partisan paranoia has bipartisan appeal. Maddow is right to question the summarizing of a 300ish-page report into four measly pages, to insist on transparency, to challenge the motives of the Trump-friendly AG—and she’s not alone in doing so. But for Maddow, every piece of information remains a clue that might take down the Trump empire. There is no adjustment for how the report has been widely received, no skepticism about what the report might actually contain, just cockamamie connections, the feverish belief that every single thing we don’t know is the all-important fact, that the smoking gun of collusion is out there, and that, yes, Robert Mueller is still going to swoop in and save us.

That last part is the most remarkable piece of Maddow’s show since Mueller began to close up shop: the abiding dream of Robert Mueller. In Maddow’s 15 questions on Monday night, she never entertained the possibility that things might have gone exactly as Mueller expected them to. She began with a long monologue about Leon Jaworski, the second special prosecutor on Watergate, drawing a parallel between Jaworski and Mueller that pinned the differences between the outcome of their respective investigations solely on the AG’s behavior. There is so much to be enraged and curious about when it comes to the handling of the Mueller report so far, but anyone seriously grappling with why it has been managed in the way that it has—why one person’s interpretation of a two-year investigation has come to stand in for whatever it contains—has to contend with the possibility that Barr’s interpretation might be accurate and that Mueller was prepared for this outcome. But Maddow has entertained zero criticism of Mueller, he’s the protagonist she’s sticking with, and zero engagement with the possibility that this—the “this” that includes indictments of several top Trump pals but not the man himself—is it. Instead, she’s just gathering thread for her next loop around the pushpins.

I’ll admit that I haven’t watched Maddow regularly for the past few years. Turning on her show this week was like discovering a Facebook friend is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. She looks the same as she did, she even sounds the same, but 15 minutes into a conspiratorial rant with no sense of proportion or, honestly, responsibility, you realize that something has gone wildly wrong: She wants to believe the instantly impeachable truth is out there more than she wants the truth, as gnarly and corrupt as it is. It’s easy to understand why this might appeal to the 4 million or so Trump-sick viewers who regularly watch Maddow’s program, but her audience is being served an alt-reality just as surely as Hannity’s is. If her audience of susceptible ostriches and amateur detectives, people who bury themselves in conspiratorial details hoping to unearth the one clue that will beam us out of this reality, is not as malignant as Fox’s audience of the hateful, aggrieved, and ignorant, in this one regard at least, what’s happening between MSNBC and Fox is not a contest: More than one cable news host can disserve their audience at a time.