On a recent Wednesday evening, off to the side and up the stairs of the 92nd Street Y, beneath an old colorful ceiling and four chandeliers, one of the leftiest lefties asked a question of the couple hundred people in attendance.
“How did it happen,” Stephen F. Cohen wanted to know, “that liberals and progressives are embracing the FBI and the CIA in their war against Trump?”
There was a time, he noted, when the left was deeply suspicious of the American intelligence agencies. Flanked by his wife, the Nation’s Katrina vanden Heuvel, and Dan Rather, Cohen was there to sell and sign War With Russia?, which Tucker Carlson deems “a fantastic new book.” To the assembled, Cohen offered his longtime Putin apologia, waving aside the ills of Vladimir Putin and generally avoiding the topic of 2016’s hacking operation.
But this is the walk-through-the-walls world we live in now, where Tucker Carlson and Stephen F. Cohen commune together, and Patricia Arquette shouts, “Oh, thank you, Robert Mueller!” onstage at the Screen Actors Guild Awards.
The pro-Trump right casts Mueller as illegitimate; the anti-Trump left valorizes the former head of the FBI. It’s wild! In the open plains created by Mueller’s silence, he can be all things to all people — but especially those who hope he will deliver.
Spike Lee said “God protect Robert Mueller,” which begat a black T-shirt that read in white “GOD PROTECT ROBERT MUELLER,” which begat Spike Lee wearing the “GOD PROTECT ROBERT MUELLER” T-shirt on CNN last April.
You can buy ornaments, pins, mugs, pint glasses, stickers, hats, T-shirts, Christmas T-shirts (e.g., a cartoon Mueller in a Santa hat with “He knows if you’ve been bad or good”), key chains, action figures, and a felt pennant with a good ink drawing of the man. You can buy buttons that read “SAVE MUELLER,” “PROTECT MUELLER,” and “It’s Mueller Time,” ones that feature his name and half his face on a gold backdrop, or a nice Valentine’s option that features Mueller in black and white, surrounded by hearts.
You can buy Mueller novelty prayer candles. Many kinds! There are more traditional options, with a haloed Mueller pointing at his sacred heart, and this black candle with a ’70s crime drama vibe. The latter is currently sold out, but for $22 you can purchase the companion piece “pee tape prayer candle,” the kind of gag gift destined to be found by a prospective in-law. Nine hundred and thirty-seven people pledged $34,532 on Kickstarter for these candles to exist!
Next month, the BBC will begin airing a radio drama about the Mueller investigation featuring a mix of real people and “invented” ones. (“When Hunter and Najib are given the job of looking into the proposed Trump Tower in Moscow,” begins the BBC plot synopsis, “their investigation soon throws up some startling results.”) Two lengthy pieces have been devoted to Mueller’s style sensibility. There’s a very active subreddit “for memes and discussions about Special Counsel Robert Mueller III, and his ongoing investigation”; a banner that features an eagle above the Capitol sits above a mix of links and memes. A writer recently considered in Vanity Fair whether Mueller has big-dick energy in a piece titled “Indict Me, Robert: How Mueller Won the Hearts of America.”
There’s a sort-of-ironic, sort-of-not tone that runs through all of this, like the two hours between buying a Powerball ticket and the drawing itself. (Well, what if I won?)
And there’s some history in it. In the 1970s, thousands of people sent away for Sam Ervin Fan Club membership cards, dedicated to the segregationist senator overseeing the Watergate hearings, who received warm media coverage during the period. In an interview with Slow Burn, one of the club’s cofounders explained the origins: He didn’t like Ervin (because of civil rights), but then he found himself liking “Uncle Sam” during the Watergate hearings. He called Ervin’s office for some buttons, and upon finding out it had none, decided people might want some memorabilia from the Watergate era — and ultimately settled on cards, so people could call themselves “card-carrying members of the Sam Ervin fan club,” an ironic nod to the way the John Birch Society was always claiming card-carrying communists walked among us.
Mueller isn’t a segregationist, obviously, or anything bad near as anyone can tell. He is a man with a distinguished military record who flips the lights on and off when he wants people to leave his house, according to Time magazine. But this is a time when the ascendant progressive left has brought Angela Davis and Assata Shakur back into vogue as political figures, where Howard students protest Jim Comey because of the FBI’s history on matters of race — and where some anti-Trump liberals have turned George W. Bush’s FBI chief into an ironic cult figure.
People are always chastising you about What Mueller Knows. (Answer: more than you!) And it’s here, where the irony slips into deference, where the trouble may lie. The sheer faith people seem to have that “MUELLER KNOWS EVERYTHING,” as a hat helpfully puts it, and that EVERYTHING will be a big checkmate surprise, might not be realized. And I know what you’re thinking — i.e., somebody from BuzzFeed News would say that, because he shot down their story about Donald Trump instructing Michael Cohen to lie to Congress — but it’s worth considering why a statement that does not directly clarify what the office disputes in the story was received as a rebuke from a god.
What’ll happen when Trump’s no longer president, and Mueller’s no longer a silent figure, and maybe the ground firms up again? For decades, it was the conservatives who honored the intel community and criticized the Russian government, and the left who viewed the whole apparatus with skepticism, the shadowy hand behind American power. Now we live inside the witch hunt/resistance. What happens when it’s all over? ●
This has been updated with other stuff you can buy that has Mueller’s name on it.