If there’s one thing that sums up this moment in history perfectly for me, it’s Robert De Niro mugging it up as Robert Mueller on Saturday Night Live. As a signifier, De Niro is shorthand for certain things: “cool”; “tough”; and that horror of honorifics, “badass”. As a fact, the De Niro Mueller is a golem staggering out of our collective delusions.
We are all swept up in the Epic of Trump, and epics, traditionally, are populated with archetypes. Super-cop, traitor, dad — the meme that is Robert Mueller takes shape according to a viewer’s self-certainty in this uncertain age. He can be a media MacGuffin or a Russian red-herring; a war hero or a war criminal; De Niro in Goodfellas or De Niro in Dirty Grandpa, all depending on who is watching him do what where when.
Testifying at the congressional hearing last week, Mueller brought to light the limits of delusions when they are dragged into the cold light of reality. We didn’t get “you talkin to me?” and we didn’t get “you blewww ittt!” but we did get an ageing by the book bureaucrat dryly replying “yes” and “no” to a string of yes and no questions.
The immediate response was one of disappointment, a reaction more in line with that of Game of Thrones’ last season than, say, a congressional hearing. Mueller “proves a frustrating witness” said ABC News, he “threw a wet blanket over the media circus” said Vanity Fair, he “sucked the life out of the report” said MSNBC.
“The report is my testimony,” said Mueller, “and I will stay within that text”. And from that moment on Robert Mueller, like Travis Bickle, was God’s lonely man.
Therein lies the tragedy of Robert Mueller, a soundboard operator dragged on stage by the world’s foremost scatological improv troupe. If Trump is media, then Mueller, resolutely, is not.
He is a by-the-books administrator who has prided himself on a lifetime spent dotting i’s and crossing t’s. A perfectly normal man flung into imperfectly abnormal times. Contrasted with the world around him, the middle-of-the-road Mueller seems completely off the wall. Too proper to be proper, too monotone to make good television.
He is a stick in the mud of the media’s Trump carnivàle. He doesn’t fit the medium because it is a medium with little to no grounding in reality, what with it having to constantly respond and adapt to Trump’s unreality. Mueller cannot make sense within a story that abandoned sense at the outset.
The only way for the Mueller arc to make sense is for us to stop thinking of the news cycle as news, and start thinking of it as anime. The tin-pan alley wonks, anchor monologists, and professional paranoiacs that steer us through the dreck of modern political discourse can only respond to each new day with gut-punch histrionics straight out of Dragon Ball Z: a lot of screaming, a lot of filler, but little in the way of development.
The media made Trump and he remade them in turn. His behaviour and brand bled into how we frame stories and understand the people around him. Measured analysis and methodical reporting, although existing, are buried under a bedrock of self-regurgitating rubbish.
This is the modus operandi of anime, not journalism. A narrative both hyperactive and plodding, filled with tropes and characters easily reduced to type and function. There is plenty of room for fan theory, cosplay, and waifu erotica.
The Mueller arc, as it were, has spawned a cottage industry of fan dubs and dakimakura, but it has culminated in a climax as obtuse and unforgiving as the infamous end of Evangelion, and fanboys and haters alike are pissed. We deserve more. We deserve answers.
What the weeb and the wonk have in common is righteous dissatisfaction. The political junkie, like the anime geek, is fed on stories and characters that excitedly inflate and escalate with inconsistent logic and action. The stakes are forever being raised, villains are forever being retconned into heroes, and unlikely side characters are forever being “shipped”.
We, as consumers and participants, risk losing ourselves to the false comfort of fan fiction in our desire for closure. It is the media’s responsibility to correct this course, not succumb to it.
And so, stuck in the fantastical Mueller arc, I’m reminded of the words of another Vietnam vet likewise torn between reality and delusion: “The days can go on with regularity over and over, one day indistinguishable from the next. A long continuous chain. Then suddenly, there is change”.