Over the past two years, the liberal hopes that Robert Mueller would singlehandedly KonMari the republic metastasized. So did the memes. He was shirtless and muscled, cross-armed in a tie and stretch pants. Patricia Arquette shouted her thanks to him at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. Spike Lee wore a T-shirt asking God to protect him. He got fan clubs. Candles. Halos. Expectations soared. Mueller wouldn’t just shine a light on whatever happened leading up to the 2016 election. He’d lasso up the criminals and gruffly read them their Miranda rights. He’d save the embattled settlers like the U.S. cavalry does in an American Western and restore sense to the nation. He’d be the first Google result for “American hero.” He’d restore the rule of law.
Of course, this did not happen. Mueller issued a report whose contents are still unknown, save for a curious summary penned by Attorney General William Barr. This much seems clear, however: Mueller did not pronounce on the criminality of the president’s activities and—despite issuing dozens of indictments and eliciting several guilty pleas among those in the president’s inner circle—did not clinch the case for the president himself. The most die-hard members of Mueller’s fan club are stunned, disappointed, and at sea. And America, which has never taken agnosticism in criminal matters well, is now lurching through an epistemological vacuum that is producing unexpected alliances. Those on the far right and “Russia skeptics” on the far left, for example, are united in sounding an “I told you so” alarm over the apparent fact that Mueller did not establish a conspiracy between President Donald Trump and Russia. The former claims this exonerates Trump, the latter feels that it indicts journalism. What both seem to share with the legions of crushed Muellerites is a craving for certainty. And an intensely felt commitment to their set of expected outcomes.
Maybe this is inevitable. Maybe it’s even warranted. Instability makes people cling to their prophet of choice. Much will be written in the aftermath of this report about the high-profile media personalities whose main gig has been Russia prophecy, as it should. Conspiracy theories need to be called out. So do the sources that make those theories plausible and disseminate them. But there’s more than one way to be wrong. Total cynicism, the blanket attitude that institutions will simply never provide accurate information, feels different from healthy skepticism. I don’t personally believe, for instance, that those lamenting the decline of sound journalistic practice, basing their admonishments on a biased summary of a report whose contents we still don’t know, are on especially solid ground. Relying heavily on William Barr’s letter while mocking Muellerites for trusting a former FBI director seems like doubling down differently on the same mistake.
I’m also not sure what follows if everyone actually embraces the cynicism that too easily passes for political sophistication now—which assumes that everyone is lying all the time. Trump isn’t; he tells the truth sometimes. That’s what makes evaluating him tricky. The same is true of the FBI: The institution that has lied about matters of some importance has also told the truth about others. The same might even be true of Barr! The “everyone lies” filter doesn’t work. Not even Trump can sustain that his lying media is always lying. The man never stops complaining about how he’s covered, but he quoted MSNBC to claim he’d been exonerated. (He hasn’t.)
I get why those on the far left want to crow about how the mainstream media got the Russia story wrong. I still don’t know whether they’re right, though, for an obvious reason: We don’t know what’s in the report. The Muellerites may have been credulous and overenthusiastic. But their willingness to believe that something would incontrovertibly prove this administration’s pattern of wrongdoing is pretty understandable. There was always a rational basis for the suffocatingly patriotic fantasy that Mueller would—through our functioning legal system—rescue America. It’s idealism, to be sure, and a kind of idealism which only those who have been cushioned from systemic abuse can muster. (There are communities who know all too well how justice actually works in this country.) But it still stems from faith in the nation, faith that hasn’t fully succumbed, a disillusionment with America that is incomplete.
Mock them for that if you like: A lot of people gambled their credibility on the credibility of institutions and people who were supposed to be impartial, and they thought this would work in their favor. As of right now, they appear to have been wrong—at least in their rush to paint Mueller as some kind of crusader for American justice. Plenty of liberals were privately proud of putting their faith in a Republican investigator under the rationale that this is what you do when you still believe in your troubled country’s waning institutions: You assume there is still, even in these hyper-partisan times, a way forward that can sieve clarifying facts out of the ambient mudslinging. As America’s institutions have faltered—many have turned out to be so norm-driven they haven’t been able to cope with a shameless buffoon—Mueller felt to many like a principle of probity and institutional resilience. The Mueller memes look ridiculous now, but it’s hard to blame the meme-makers for believing in him, or for trusting the many former intelligence officials who went on television to hint at things they knew but couldn’t say. We also, and I cannot repeat this enough, don’t know what Mueller actually found!
Liberals aren’t alone in imagining a savior figure and perpetuating him through silly memes; what’s more interesting, perhaps, is how differently the fantasies of salvation manifest in different political camps. As images of, say, Mueller’s face photoshopped onto Beyoncé in Lemonade proliferated on the liberal side, what many reflected was a need for an omniscient arbiter who would legitimize the findings of an imperiled system. Mueller’s military record features prominently in these comparisons. He’s shown laughing at Trump as the president says no one can see his taxes, or as a dad about to discipline (read: beat) his disobedient child. These are distasteful fantasies of surveillance and abuse, but they’re quite American, and the underpinnings are weirdly consistent: They’re about catching wrongdoers. The liberal fantasy was that Mueller would embody the democratic function of the institution. It’s Superman turning the criminal over to the cops; his superpower exists to bolster existing norms and practices. The staggering number of Trump-as-Christ memes suggests that the conservative fantasy is a little different. In that analogy, there is no civic institution Trump responds to, no democratic principle the “savior” figure necessarily upholds.
We’re awash in superheroes these days, and the liberal pipe dream that Mueller would “save” America is built on a questionable foundation, certainly, but one we should recognize since it’s one of our more powerful comic myths. The idea was that a superhero would think America so great that he’d serve it—usually by turning the bad guys over to a legal system his powers entirely and obviously transcend. Subsequent superhero stories have rightly questioned that overenthusiastic premise. Superheroes are a proud and unreasonable American institution; it makes sense for America to resort to them in emergencies, even and especially when the savior fantasy contains the seeds of un-democracy or defeat.