In June 2017, as the inquiry into whether Russia had meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election ramped up, Stephen Colbert poked light fun at the man who, in May, had been appointed to head the investigation. Robert Mueller, Colbert imagined, “is like Batman, putting together The Flash, Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman to create the Obstruction of Justice League.” (The group being assembled, Colbert noted wryly, would definitely need to be part of the DC Extended Universe.) There have been many more assessments along those lines in the many months that have passed between then and now: Mueller as Superman, Mueller as Paul Bunyan, Mueller as the hero who, armed with the powers bestowed on him by fate, chance, and Rod Rosenstein, might save us all.
The special counsel lends himself to such comparisons. He does not give interviews—“the most unknowable man in Washington,” the city’s paper of record called him recently—and that recalcitrance, combined with the gravity of the investigation he has been charged with leading, has served as an invitation for many to project their own hopes onto him. Square of jaw, unfussed of hair, Casio-ed of wrist, Mueller projects a pragmatism—a political strain of normcore, in a time deeply anxious about the fate of norms themselves—that has come to suggest, as the American media have tried to make sense of it all, a veiled promise: that shady facts will find their light. That the moment’s chaos will be resolved through the calm of common truth. That justice, against so many odds, will be done. Colbert’s comedy once again proved deeply insightful: A weary nation shined its signal, the idea has gone, and there, atop the jagged skyline, was Robert Swan Mueller III, answering the call.
Can anything but profound disappointment be the result of all this hope-projection? Americans do not yet know what the report will share—or, indeed, whether Mueller’s findings will take the form of a published report, in the Starry sense of things, in the first place—but the chances of it offering conclusive findings about Individual 1 or his associates seem slimmer as time goes on. There have been subpoenas; there have been interviews; there have been arrests; there have been convictions. But the primary question—Did Donald Trump collude with Russia to win the presidency?—has not yet been answered, and it is unclear, as rumors insist that the report will soon be completed, whether it will be. The Mueller mystique lives on, however, both as a joke and as an earnest aspiration for what the report might ultimately achieve on behalf of American democracy. Alicia Barnett, of Kansas City, Kansas, explained her fandom to the Associated Press like this: “He gives me reassurance that all is not lost. I admire his mystique. I admire that I haven’t heard his voice. He is someone who can sift through all this mess and come up with a rationale that makes sense to everyone.”
Salvation and salve at the same time: Heroes, in times of tumult, offer reassurances of leadership, of order, of faith both earned and restored. Their very presence—the implied transcendence of their talents—soothes, and calms. All will be well, their myths assure. But even heroes, in an environment as partisan and divided as this one, have their limitations. Mueller’s determined reticence is, on top of everything else, ostensibly a matter of political strategy: an acknowledgment that whatever his team’s findings, a significant percentage of the American populace will simply refuse to believe those conclusions—on grounds of bias, and on grounds that one form of political faith trumps another. You could read the fan fictions that have been written about Mueller as attempts to inoculate him against those doubts: to insist that the hero, because he is not subject to the frailties that plague everyone else, also has unique access to truth. The “great man” theory of history, weaponized for the needs of the present moment.
In an America led by a man who has insisted that “I alone can fix it,” that makes for an uncomfortable argument. Mueller’s mythology treats him both as the embodiment of American democratic institutions and as someone who rises above them; it is a story whose center cannot hold. In September, Mueller made headlines once again. This time the news was made because the special counsel and his wife had been photographed inside a Washington, D.C., Apple store—he in a white dress shirt and tie, she in a T-shirt and Nikes, both seated at a high-top table—apparently getting help from one of the store’s Genius Bar employees. The picture, originally posted to Twitter, went precisely as viral as you’d expect, and from there became a news story (“Special Counsel Robert Mueller Is Now Investigating His MacBook,” The Verge put it).
But beyond all the jokes you could make about the scene, there was also something profoundly unsettling about this image of Robert Mueller, purported savior of the republic, engaged in that most humbling of activities: dealing with computer problems. Even if he and his wife had been captured simply availing themselves of a free iMovie tutorial, the picture was evidence of a kind of ordinariness, and thus, a lapse in the superhero-ed story. It ran counter to the essays that parsed the aesthetics of Mueller’s (strategically bland) sartorial choices, finding symbolism in the suits; it challenged the woozy, romance-novel-tinged paeans to him as a hero who will, in time, rescue the maiden from her plight. It suggested that Robert Mueller, whatever else he is, is also just a guy, and that fact alone disrupted the mythology. Superman does not need the Genius Bar; Superman is the Genius Bar.
That picture, more than the file photos of Mueller that depict him, expressionless, gazing at some unseen object, was revealing. Heroes are reassuring precisely in the I alone can fix it sense: They suggest that those who are not heroic can safely outsource their responsibilities to those who are. Their mere presence among us suggests that we will be taken care of, because they will be doing the caretaking on our behalf. Batman steps in where Gotham’s systems of law enforcement have failed. Superman is summoned for similar reasons. (“Champion of equal rights; valiant, courageous fighter against the forces of hate and prejudice” is how one early radio show described that “strange visitor from another planet who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men.”) The existence of the superhero is a promise; it is also an indictment.
Earlier this month, NPR published a story about people of advanced age, facing medical challenges, hanging on to life so that they might know the contents of the Mueller report. The reporter Tim Mak wrote about Richard Armstrong, 94, who told him, “I was hoping to live to see the outcome of what I think it should be—justice. I’ll be surprised and disappointed if it isn’t.” He wrote about Mitchell Tendler, who fought Nazism in World War II, who sought in Mueller another kind of heroism. Both men had lived into a time in the United States that finds faith in institutions declining, and faith in one another plummeting, too: a time of chaos, and scams, and suspicion, and partisanship, and anger. In that context, it’s fitting that they would look to Mueller to be a hero. It’s fitting that many other Americans would, as well. But it’s also fitting to remember: Robert Mueller is as earthbound as everyone else. He might have been granted extraordinary powers; if we truly want to be saved, however, we should perhaps start by looking at ourselves.