In a letter to Congress on Sunday, Attorney General William Barr declared that while Robert Mueller’s report found evidence of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and did not exonerate President Donald Trump, it also did “not conclude that the president committed a crime.” And so the special counsel’s months-long investigation into Trump’s dealings with Russia ended with an inconclusive conclusion: No smoking gun would result in Trump’s hasty removal from office.
Not just Democratic lawmakers had been banking on a final blow to the Trump administration. Pundits, commentators, and opportunistic entrepreneurs had all held up Mueller as a hero for their cause—and, in the process, constructed a cottage industry of Mueller-pegged media content and accessories.
The University of New Hampshire assistant professor Seth Abramson built a small media empire anticipating the report. He even wrote a book, not yet published, ambitiously titled Proof of Conspiracy, about Trump’s alleged “international collusion.” The Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe also found literary potential in the investigation, co-authoring the book To End a Presidency last year.
On Saturday Night Live, Robert De Niro played Mueller in a series of sketches about the special counsel. Stephen Colbert styled him as a Voltron-like superhero, single-handedly forming the “Obstruction of Justice League.” At The New Yorker, Troy Patterson covered Mueller as a “style icon” last year, including a detailed meditation on the special counsel’s Casio DW-290 sport watch; Patterson argued that it projected “an incorruptible constancy.” Redditors and watch enthusiasts took out their wallets.
More exotic Mueller-themed wares appeared. An Austin, Texas, company sold a Robert Mueller prayer candle, one of many such accessories, from T-shirts to mugs to throw pillows, that looked to cash in on Mueller fever. Etsy was (and still is) flooded with mugs and pins and baseball caps and Christmas ornaments emblazoned with the special counsel’s impassive face; art enthusiasts can buy an unframed print of Mueller’s neatly coiffed hair for $10. Booksellers started taking preorders for The Mueller Report—with an introduction by Alan Dershowitz, no less—marketing it as an inevitable best seller.
With the report in and seemingly impotent, the Mueller-industrial complex is quickly collapsing. Abramson has been posting feverishly on Twitter since Friday, in long numbered threads in between national media appearances, attempting to recuperate his miscalculation. On Sunday, Tribe pinned a last-ditch tweet to his Twitter timeline reminding readers that “the ‘no obstruction’ conclusion was Barr’s, not Mueller’s.” Saturday Night Live didn’t even get to weigh in this week; the show is on spring break. And it’s hard to imagine anyone lighting a Mueller votive candle at bedtime or donning their It’s Mueller Time T-shirt while drinking down some cold ones on the deck. The special counsel’s cottage industry quietly burned down when its namesake completed his job without fanfare.
As my colleague Megan Garber wrote on Friday, Americans had taken the liberty of inferring what the report would contain, and what impact it would have. Absent knowledge, Garber wrote, we filled in the blanks, interpreting the secretive actions of Mueller and his team in the manner most favorable to our own desires.
That’s not a phenomenon unique to the special counsel. The Mueller-industrial complex is just the latest example of a hyper-mediated world turned in on itself. CNN came on the air in 1980, but not until the Gulf War, in 1990, did the 24-hour news cycle coalesce. A war halfway around the world, filmed and commented upon incessantly, became the model for news of all stripes. It transformed the concept itself, filling the void of airtime and attention space accordingly. Talk radio’s shock jocks thrived during this period. Fox News took off in 1996. Then the internet arrived, and soon after that, blogs, and then social networks, where everyone from Wolf Blitzer to Seth Abramson to you and your grandmother was able to create and spread messages, images, and ideas that capitalized on whatever event currently felt current.
But there’s something different about Mueller industrialism. It’s more than yet another fusion of 24-hour information, meme culture, and internet opportunism. It also speaks to Americans’ strong desire to anticipate the future, and to live in the present as if that future has already arrived, and in the way they’d planned it to besides.
The media theorist Richard Grusin has a name for this practice: premediation. News analysts, pundits, product designers, influencers, and all the rest now create media in the present whose content anticipates future events or actions. The nonstop coverage of the 2020 Democratic primary offers an effective if humdrum example. That the left perceives the Trump presidency as odious partly explains why his opponents are coming out earlier, but the media landscape also demands and rewards this kind of anticipation. Are Kamala Harris’s policies suitable for the Democratic ticket? Is Beto O’Rourke’s hacker youth a benefit or a liability? Will Joe Biden run or won’t he? These and other stories seem like news about the present, but they are really speculations on information from the future.
The public eats this stuff up. Yesterday on Twitter, I happened across a long thread about whether supporters of Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, might be sexist because they would support a man with such modest credentials over a woman senator with experience and policy proposals, such as Harris. The thread was electric, bedazzled with hearts and replies, most frenzied in support or detraction. But exchanges like it are so common and so fleeting, I can’t even find the posts anymore. Those who weighed in were not really making arguments about the reality of the political moment; instead, they were anticipating, and practicing, the kinds of claims someone—a news commentator as much as a social-media everyperson—might make before a debate, or after one, or in the run-up to the Iowa caucus, or a local primary. So much media is premediated now, it’s almost impossible to find something whose payload isn’t partly composed of practice for future events.
Most of the time, nobody even notices this phenomenon. Premediation works because it homes in on natural anxieties or desires amplified by the hyper-mediated ecosystem in which television, smartphones, social media, and all the rest rot and reanimate. Whom should I consider voting for in the next election? Am I going to die if I board a plane? Those are questions whose future answers seem to demand consideration today.
In Mueller’s case, so many people anticipating the investigation’s end also banked on the specific conclusions that might accompany it. Certainly none of the Mueller industrialists thought it would burn out as a dud. But certainty is the enemy of forecasting. The future inspires drama because of the cloud of doubt that obscures it, not because it withholds a certainty until a later date. When SNL, Colbert, Abramson, and others began placing bets on the result of the Mueller investigation, they also sterilized their own relevance in the “no collusion” timeline that Americans now appear to occupy.
The investigation’s actual result now also casts a dour shadow over the Mueller-industrial complex’s wares and messages. The work came at a great cost: It cannibalized the future for the benefit of the present. Like taking out a loan on news to come in the hopes that its benefit will pay out enough to cover its costs, the Mueller disciples traded their own anticipatory media on margin, assuming that their winnings would more than pay off their debts. That bet turned out to be a bad one, and now the payment has come due.
And for boring reasons, too: Because it was high risk. Anticipating the future possibility of the Democratic nomination is a sure thing: Someone will get the party nod. But taking for granted the outcome of a charged and historic special-counsel investigation is like betting on a single chamber of the roulette wheel. If you win, you’re a hero. If not, you’re just a sucker.