Michael Avenatti, the attack-dog attorney and media personality currently representing porn star Stormy Daniels in her legal dispute about an extramarital affair in which the man who would become the President of the United States of America had her spank him with a magazine with his own face on it, is running for President. That was a fun sentence to write. Unfortunately, Avenatti’s candidacy is depressing, and the initial surge of support behind him is not just misguided but troubling. In spite of Avenatti’s bona-fides as one of the few critics capable of actually intimidating Trump, his candidacy, if it sustains its traction, is bad news for the country. In one sense, it’s even worse than Trump.
Sure, that claim seems absurd on its face. I’m overreacting: No way Michael Avenatti will be our next president.
Come on. It’s easy to imagine a world in which we elect President Stormy Daniels’ Lawyer, because it’s the same world in which we elected a President Bankrupt Racist Reality TV Game Show Host And Functionally Illiterate Serial Sexual Assaulter, and we’re still just sort of rolling with it. The fact we can’t write Avenatti off (or any of the other household-name hopefuls, such as Oprah or David Schmidt) is the story here, and I’ve been thinking about what that means, because Avenatti is a special case.
Here’s the nut of the problem: Most if not all of Avenatti’s support derives from the fact that people think he’s the one who can beat Trump, because they believe it takes a Trump to beat a Trump. What it comes down to is where you stand on that, a position best articulated by Avenatti himself:
He’s got a point, obviously. But he’s offering a false choice, and one that’s seduced too many voters already.
Not only is this “takes a Trump” logic a depressingly cynical concession about America’s institutional rot, it’s not logical in that it misunderstands the nature of Trump’s victory in the first place. It’s also lazy, and smacking of an aversion to the serious and necessary work of diagnosing and fixing the many nuanced problems in the Democratic party. Worst of all, it makes a celebrity out of cynicism, another outbreak of the epidemic of political negligence that made a President Trump — and a President Avenatti — possible. And that’s why an Avenatti candidacy would be in one sense worse than Trump: It would be a surrender of seriousness, abandonment of the principles and purpose of the United States government. In other words, it’s an extension of Trumpism.
Let’s look at the man’s real chances, and then why we should abandon him immediately.
Okay: It isn’t entirely Avenatti’s fault. I don’t have much against the dude, really. I love him in his capacity as the whip-smart, eff-you, beat-you-at-your-own-game TV lawyer. He’s done solid work representing Daniels, and has, through the cunning use of facts, knocked Michael Cohen’s legs out from under him. Indeed, Avenatti seems positioned to cause serious damage to Trump directly, and he’s used his platform to speak up for justice more generally — which also serves his own ends. And though you can’t trust him blindly, he truly does seem to value progressive politics.
Avenatti cuts the perfect highway billboard personal injury attorney jib (though not as well as his courtroom opponent Michael Cohen), but he’s not an ambulance-chaser. Avenatti earned his JD from George Washington University Law School in 1999, where he finished first in his class and focused on constitutional law issues relating to, of all things, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Expect some “crumbs” from the famed Qanon conspiracy on that any day now. Four years after his graduation, the law school named an award for him: The Michael J. Avenatti Award for Excellence in Pre-Trial and Trial Advocacy.
After GW, Avenatti took part in a number of high-profile cases. He represented Christina Aguilera, as well as members of the Eagles fighting other members of the Eagles, and he sued Paris Hilton. He even sued Donald Trump, who settled out of court. Avenatti also won a civil suit against the NFL, as well as a major $454 million decision against Kimberly-Clark over “leaky surgical gowns,” an award reduced to $21.7 million on appeal.
Far from ambulance-chasing, then, Avenatti’s career seems predicated on going after unethical people in positions of power. For a corporate lawyer, that’s about as admirable as it gets.
Avenatti is also absolutely serious about his run, and he clearly mapped out his campaign some time ago. In stages over the past half-year the lawyer has broadened his brand from representing Daniels to turning Cohen against the president to advocating for families separated by Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy. Over that time he’s built a Twitter narrative that taken altogether amounts to something of a platform. A few examples:
And earlier this week he posted the first commitments of his actual platform:
Those are good points I can get behind, but lots of politicians share those philosophies. We have to be honest: The most important plank in Avenatti’s platform is that, as he puts it, America needs a “street fighter” who can beat Trump.
Recall that right around the time we were handing the country over to the whim of a sociopath who made fun of a handicapped reporter, Michelle Obama said to us, “When they go low, we go high.” Recently, in reference to that speech, Avenatti told a crowd in Iowa, “We must be a party that fights fire with fire. When they go low, I say hit back harder.”
Look, the appeal is simple: If Trump won because he was a wealthy celebrity who fought a double-down-and-dirty outsider campaign, then Democrats can win with the same type. In this scenario it doesn’t even matter who this candidate is, because anyone who fits that bill and is also a human being other than Donald Trump would be by default smarter, better prepared, and a better overall person than Trump.
Put another way, that’s a concession that the best available political game is Trump’s game. Avenatti, in other words, is betting that America is broken beyond repair. We’re not. And even if we are, this isn’t the way to fix it.
First of all, it misses the whole point: Trump didn’t win because of his personality. He won, weirdly enough, on the issues—specifically immigration and trade. In the GOP primaries, Trump consolidated and ignited the passions of a bloc of angry white racists in a way no mainstream candidate had done for decades. That won him the nomination, so those issues and the “policies” that addressed them defined the campaign and the party, and his voters set the tone. This wasn’t Trump’s personality at work — it’s the personality of his base. The really terrifying thing about Trump is not the man, but his supporters. Trump is an empty, amoral, apolitical robot who will do anything to win, and his supporters have the controls. Trump just knows how to read a room.
Another major factor in 2016 was, of course, the person he ran against, who was one of the most (unfairly) despised mainstream American politicians in recent memory. Hillary Clinton won’t be the candidate in 2020, and it’s difficult to imagine Democrats nominating anyone nearly as widely and weirdly hated.
And look: Trump isn’t popular at all. People hate the guy. Once again: You’re not running against Trump; you’re running against his base. It’s much smarter for Democrats to try to positively motivate their own ranks, along with moderate and independent voters, than to step into a playground fist-fight. Democrats can run a successful issues-based campaign that, while not ignoring Trump’s tantrums and insults, doesn’t sink to Trump’s level.
Avenatti also wouldn’t address the biggest problem in the way of Democrats: Democrats. The party bloc is nuanced: If Democrats swing far left on social issues and emphasize identity politics in 2020, there’s a fear they might (further) alienate white working class voters. But if Democrats instead push a platform based on populist policies regarding jobs, healthcare, and taxes, then there’s a fear they might (further) alienate their base. It takes a special kind of candidate who can strike this balance, and yes: above all, that candidate needs to have a charm and magnetism that can hold the different factions together. You might argue that a strong personality such as Avenatti has would go a long way towards uniting Democrats, or at least distracting from their differences. Obama seemed particularly well-suited for that, but note that Obama didn’t pull Democrats together by gathering them into a fist. He gave us something to aspire to, which brings me to the underlying problem with Avenatti.
Avenatti is not a righteous, equal-and-opposite reaction to Trump. The phenomenon is more spooky action than it is Newtonian. In other words, it’s the same thing.
Any political dimension Avenatti has recently assumed is incidental to and dependent on the political dimension we’ve unfortunately given our tangerine king. Over the last few months Avenatti has put himself in warped orbit around the black hole that is the Trump style of American politics, and in the long term, Avenatti would contribute to our collapse, not provide a bulwark against it. Though, like the rumors about Oprah before him, his run might be fleeting (I doubt he relents), many Americans take him seriously for the highest office in the world. He doesn’t have to last all that long to have an effect: The inevitable public debate about winning versus governing will be corrosive enough, just like it would be for Oprah or Mark Cuban or Kanye or PFTCommenter or whomever else wants to jump in the ball pit. (Fact-check: PFT would make an excellent President, but is 11 days too young for 2020.)
Bottom line, Avenatti isn’t the right response to Trump. He’s not even a response: He’s a product of Trump, part of the Trump brand, and his popularity, such as it is, expresses the same underlying problem that made a Trump presidency possible in the first place: The flip and cynical self-immolation of our own political agency.
So yes, while to a lot of us, a President Avenatti is pretty obviously a joke, to a lot of others, it isn’t. And the fact that the left can’t immediately shake off Avenatti, no matter how absurd, is the reason I write this, which I hope is the last think piece anyone writes about the Avenatti campaign ever again.
But we all know there will be more. Many, many more.