As of the morning of March 25, searching “Mueller” on Etsy would give you precisely 2,374 results. Items range from punny T-shirts declaring that “It’s Mueller time” to enamel pins featuring the special counsel Robert Mueller’s disconcertingly square jaw to many rather uncomfortable prayer candles. “Dear Mr. Mueller, Please hurry up, k? From, The Majority,” reads one T-shirt.
He did, and as of this weekend, the “Mueller Report,” for all intents and purposes, is out. Though all we have is Attorney General Bill Barr’s four-page summary, and there are still two ongoing federal investigations into Trump that are being handled by the Justice Department, the document concerning the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with Russia during the 2016 presidential election has been completed.
Unfortunately for the purveyors of cutesy Mueller merchandise, however, the report that was supposed to mean the downfall of the president did not exactly do its job. The Trump campaign did not collude with Russian operatives, according to Mueller, and now, 2,374 of the items on Etsy are essentially worthless. Even the director Spike Lee created his own Russiagate merch, a T-shirt that read “God protect Robert Mueller,” where proceeds go to the nonprofit Generation Citizen. (Some of them are still available.)
Of course, screenprinting a political catchphrase onto a T-shirt is far less work than, say, writing a book whose title literally hinges on Mueller’s findings, such as the professor and pundit Seth Abramson’s forthcoming Proof of Conspiracy: How Trump’s International Collusion Is Threatening American Democracy. But there is still an inherent tragedy to a now-unusable piece of clothing that is made irrelevant not by the ebbs and flows of fashion trends but by documents compiled by a 74-year-old lawyer.
As Ian Bogost writes in the Atlantic on the Mueller-industrial complex (which includes the scores of Etsy souvenirs as well as the frequent portrayals of Mueller as a folk hero on Saturday Night Live and other late-night comedy shows), “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.”
A gloating “It’s Mueller time” T-shirt, then, is made more depressing because it reveals all the ways in which we fail so spectacularly at both predicting the future and accepting the most constant and universal aspect of being alive, which is uncertainty.
When a team loses the Super Bowl, their winning merchandise is immediately banished from the country. They are, by the order of the NFL, never to be seen on television or the internet and instead shipped off to a warehouse, after which a charity will distribute them to people in developing nations. Per the New York Times, “This way, the NFL can help one of its charities and avoid traumatizing one of its teams.”
There is no such governing body for the T-shirts that presumed the Mueller report would reveal something more salacious, but it appears that at least some of the sellers have governed themselves — by the time I finished writing this piece, Etsy’s “Mueller” results had dropped to 2,366.
In no way do the findings of Mueller’s report preclude anyone from monetizing the current political atmosphere in the form of T-shirts, however. As journalist Brittany Shepherd noted on Twitter, there are now those on Etsy who lionize the Southern District of New York, where the investigations into the hush money that Trump allegedly paid women with whom he’d had affairs will be taking place.
It’s not as if the nauseatingly rapid T-shirt screenprinting industry is going to slow down anytime soon. T-shirts on sites like RedBubble or CustomInk are almost entirely user-generated, and there are countless other companies that sell T-shirts that don’t even exist yet, digitized and emblazoned with phrases generated by algorithms.
Which means that for every possible political viewpoint, implausible hope, or conspiracy theory, there will be a way for merch sellers to capitalize on it. But unlike, say, the cottage industry of QAnon merch, a Mueller prayer candle was a preemptive celebration of a definitive end result. Now that that result turned out to be the wrong one (for the candle, anyway), it’s rendered entirely worthless. QAnon, on the other hand, is a complicated, sometimes contradictory conspiracy theory that to some true believers will probably never be proven false. Even if President Donald Trump never ends up locking up Hillary Clinton on Guantanamo Bay, QAnon supporters are free to claim it was all part of the plan, thus Q merch still retains its meaning.
But if there is a lesson here, it is this: Spending any amount of money on a T-shirt that makes a pun out of a political event is almost always deeply embarrassing, and no one should ever do it.
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