Former Congressman Anthony Weiner is the actual picture of Dorian Gray. Not the man, the portrait.
Weiner stopped looking like a bright young thing about twelve-thousand news cycles ago. He now has the haggard, knife-edged stare of the illegal fetish-magazine browser, who buys his product in bulk from the shadowy Acapulco cartel. Pictures of him are feng shui disasters; Weiner emanates bad mojo. He’s a Jack Chick drawing of how fundamentalists imagine morally-degenerate college graduates look. He’s everyone’s creepy uncle. That hangdog look is Nixonian, Rahm Emanuelian; it must be how Cheney feels every morning of his life when he sees the ceiling and knows the Devil has not yet taken him. I have not seen Weiner’s haunted, hollow look outside of movies capturing the Hitler Bunker. It is eerie, on this side of spectral. You would change subway cars to avoid that gaze. You would be right to.
Late last week, Weiner pled guilty for sexting a fifteen-year-old girl. His wife, the long-suffering Hillary retainer Huma Abedin, just filed for a divorce. His political career is dead, lifeless as iron in a ditch. He has no non-crazy way to climb back to power. He’s done.
The question is not, Why does Weiner do it? Probably the same reasons he allowed a movie to be made of his doomed mayoral campaign: why not? He thought he was a Kennedy, that no rules applied to him, and so he leaped into the maw of destruction.
The real puzzler here: Why are we still talking about Anthony Weiner, a depraved has-been who just admitted to transferring obscene material to a minor? True, the public has an interest in the downfall of the once-powerful. But Weiner is now a concern for the law. If he does not end up in jail, he will spend the rest of his life dwelling in the shadowy half-existence of all disgraced political figures, in the Fields of Nixon.
Why, then, must we read about him?
What explains the revolting focus on him? Just as the Weiner was drawn to his habits, so is the media junkied to the baffling, ineffable figure of Weiner. Weiner’s life is a race between two greyhounds: one named tragedy, and the other revulsion. Revulsion is always be one full track length ahead. The nature of his collapse inspires disgust. It’s like getting food poisoning while watching a Greek tragedy; how long can it go?
As Erin Gloria Ryan noted, every moment of Weiner’s decline felt “like they couldn’t get any darker, or sadder, or more pathetic.” Remember the Florida years of O.J.: Made in America? What if that sorry spectacle had gone on and on? What if that documentary had gone on for six years, and ended only today? What if every new episode since 2011 had revealed a second basement of Florida below the previous Florida, and then a third and fourth basement, and so on, and Simpson had somehow gone deeper and deeper into the Earth? That would be Weiner.
There is a difference here. O.J.’s descent began in horror and limped into petty decadence. Weiner’s story is a Gothic decay with a twist. Typically, Gothic stories work by showing the antihero falling into lower levels of crime and horror. They begin with the main guy filching money from the collection plate and end with the dude descending into murder and bad poetry. Even William H. Macy’s milquetoast character from Fargo burbled his way into accessory homicide. Weiner never got to the killing part of the story. And yet somehow his tale seems worse.
He had once been a pillar of the America state—a Dem Congressman elected seven times—and his downfall ended with him as a Triple-A-rated creep. It was the downfall of an NFL freshman, not a member of the Democratic royal court. His Mayoral campaign, which might have reversed his downfall, was collapsed by revelations that his clandestine dick-pic crusade had continued. Weiner’s data got picked up by the FBI, leading to investigation of Secretary Clinton’s email server.
This last piece of puzzle, I think, is key. It tells us why the now-powerless Weiner is still in the news. Weiner matters to a considerable number of people, in a way that the retired war criminal Donald Rumsfeld, or the imprisoned Simpson, don’t.
Apart from the stomach-churning nature of his crime, Weiner is still mentioned because Carlos Danger is useful. The right loves him for obvious reasons: his weird appetites overshadow their lust for oligarchy. The Clintonites, wailing night and day for the Syria-bombing Presidency that might have been, also find Weiner handy. The narrative among the Concerned Audience is that Weiner indirectly led to the Presidency of Donald Trump. Poor Hillary was too trusting, you see.
As Jason Ross wrote on Twitter, Weiner is proof the Clintons don’t murder people. Clintonworld can once again lay the blame on an outside force, instead of looking in the mirror for the source of destruction. And finally, New York loves him, because he is New York—the slightest crimes of the slightest statesman of The City is of surpassing interest to the national press corps. Weiner is a prop for anybody with a point to make, and the nauseating facts of his case are there for anybody to use.
In the end, Weiner is distinct from other infamous predators, like Trump. During and after the election, Trump got away with being a creature of darkness because he was the embodiment of populist rage. Weiner has no support, no substance; he exists only as a headline or a joke, an extension of his own appetites. Like Simpson, Weiner embodies the curious amorality of fame in America: in a country with no titled aristocracy, infamy and fame are two sides of the same coin. Is there some part of him that wanted to be caught? Is there a section of his brain that, like Bill Clinton, wanted to get away with it? Near as I can tell, at the end of the day, Anthony Weiner has only wanted two things in his life—power and sexting—and now he will have neither.