Henry Owings didn't mean to make thousands of dollars off of Robert Mueller's face. It just sort of happened.
When his friend Beck, who had recently bought a button maker, asked him if he'd create a Robert Mueller design for her, Owings didn't have to think much about it. He has always figured it's better to say "yes" to things. He is something of a creative polymath—he founded Chunklet magazine (a cult favorite that had a VICE column years ago), played in a touring band, and has worked as a designer for two-plus decades—and he prefers to do stuff as fast as possible. In Atlanta, where he currently co-owns a club, he has a simple exercise: He finishes flyers promoting his space in no more than five minutes. He adopted the same method with the pins. He searched the internet for the picture on Mueller's government ID, and then he gave himself 15 minutes to produce 16 different design concepts, one of which ultimately became the button.
That was a pretty profitable 15 minutes: To purchase one of those buttons off Etsy at the moment, it's $5, plus shipping; for ten, it's $20. "As of now," Owings said over the phone, "I've sold more than 50,000 of them. I've sold 11,000 in, like, 48 hours. There are people doing bootlegs. But do I really want to be known as the guy who made his living off a fucking button?"
Owings doesn't necessarily consider himself a Mueller super fan. ("I would like to think of myself as an all-American shit-stirrer," he told me.) But he has found himself at the middle of a legitimate craze. Ever since the special counsel investigation into Russian interference during the 2016 presidential election was launched, the silver-haired former FBI director at its head has been idolized, lusted after, and nearly deified by a Resistance badly in need of heroes.
In other words, many people really seem to be, increasingly, in love with Robert Mueller.
Case in point: the countless, never-ending stream of articles about the subject. (Including this one.) In August 2017, Vogue crowned Mueller "America's new crush," rounding up responses to comedian Chelsea Handler's tweet professing her adoration. That October, the AV Club reported on his "bustling Reddit fan club"; a few months after that MEL referred to him as a "daddy," citing memes of him rendered as Superman or atop a shark shooting firearms and tweets that referred to him as "the sexiest man alive." Last March, the New Yorker analyzed the numerous media claims that he was a "style icon," evaluating his choice of ties and his insistence on only wearing white dress shirts. And then this January, just a few weeks before Chad "Ochocinco" Johnson would watch the FBI arrest Roger Stone, Vanity Fair published a love letter to "Robert Swan Mueller," by Rachel Dodes.
At a time when the public expects access to every bit of information, when the president and his Democratic opposition are talking all the time on Twitter and on cable news and everywhere else, Mueller is that rarest of things: a blank slate. We imagine he knows things but doesn't talk about them, which is exactly the inverse of how most human beings in DC seem to operate. So it's no wonder some people are fixated on his every gesture.
And some people are pretty fixated. To take a choice excerpt from Dodes's piece: "The world is a cold, dark place. Yet, just when I think that nothing matters anymore, I google your latest indictment and the dying embers in my heart begin to stir, revived by your inventive legal maneuvering."
Dodes discovered, rapidly, that she wasn't alone in her feelings. "After my piece ran in Vanity Fair, so many people reached out to tell me they are similarly obsessed with Robert Mueller," Dodes said over email. "I guess I didn't realize the love was so widespread, but now I know it is."
She told Slate that the piece was just "kind of to take on the persona, a bit exaggerated, of someone who believes she’s in an unrequited relationship with Robert Mueller," but when she wrote to me she didn't try to justify it as a complete piece of fiction: "Mueller has kept such a tight lid on the investigation, which is testament to what a strong leader he is," Dodes said. "The lack of leaking inspires curiosity and creates a sense of mystery about what's really going on. We only know a tiny percentage of what he knows. Also, everything we know about Robert Mueller stands in stark contrast to what we know about Trump. And that contrast is astonishing."
Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, offered a similar, if more academic, explanation for Mueller-mania. The special counsel's "appeal is that he feels to many that he is the most reliable, reality-based voice in the investigation," he wrote in an email. "Even in a world of partisan spin and Trumpian frenzy, he has emerged as a figure who still represents the possibility of truth in a political world where that is fleeting. So that has made his fans even more passionate about him than most prosecutors would encounter."
For an example of that passion, check out the over-the-top Mueller love song from the band Mouths of Babes, which opens like this: "I see you on TV / I see you in my dreams / I know you've got your ways / And you've got your means / You've got my heart inside a daily double boiler."
"Honestly, I think of Robert Mueller as the closest thing we have to a superhero right now," said Tylan Greenstein, who with her wife is one half of the band. She told me that she woke up one morning in the summer of 2017 with the tune already in her head. "It was sort of tongue-in-cheek, obviously. But he has all of the qualities of a super crush: He's mysterious. He doesn't return phone calls. He plays hard to get. And because of that, we get to project onto him all of these incredible qualities."
"In the absence of leaks from the special counsel's office," Troy Patterson wrote in the New Yorker, "the public is left to listen to the clothes, which are equally reticent, which is their elegance." In Vogue, Michelle Ruiz wrote that "as a nation starved for heroes... Mueller is slaying us with a trait that’s all too rare in Washington these days: good old-fashioned dignity."
Sometimes, this admiration is a joke, sort of, except under the thin layer of irony it's clearly not really a joke. The hope that Mueller can somehow bring down Trump is both ridiculous and genuine. The overwrought language—of love letters and confessions of heartache and rom-com-esque pleas to notice us—matches the country's desperation. Yes, it's true: He looks exactly like an FBI agent is supposed to look, jawline and unmovable hair and everything else. He talks like an FBI agent is supposed to talk, too, which is to say not at all.
His silence, though, has brought about an aspect to his appeal so rarely acknowledged: He has gotten everyone's hopes up. And extremely so. Being mysterious gives one a definite edge in romance. Will this guy forever be emotionally unavailable? Will he ever, finally, ask us out? How many rocks do we have to throw at his bedroom window before he'll climb down? I've been in enough failed relationships, both familial and romantic, to know that projection rarely works as a solid foundation. But we might be in a new reality. (Keats: "Nothing ever becomes real until it is experienced.") Time, I suppose, will tell—we just have to wait, cross our fingers, and pray he loves us back.
"Because maybe secretly," Greenstein admitted, "I do actually think he's perfect."
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