The Sad Irony of Andrew Cuomo’s ‘Love Gov’ Persona

The New York governor took refuge in his meme-friendly brand—until he couldn’t any longer.

A broken mug featuring Cuomo's face and the slogan "From now on I identify as Cuomosexual"
Shutterstock; Teepublic; The Atlantic

On Etsy and similar sites, you can purchase a mug bearing the smiling face of Andrew Cuomo and the coinage that summarized his fandom: Cuomosexual. You can buy a prayer candle featuring the New York governor in a beatific pose. Or a throw pillow. Or one of many T-shirts, some bearing images of him, one featuring a list:

☐ Single.
☐ Taken.
☑️  Mentally Dating Andrew Cuomo.

The objects read as relics of a time both recent and removed. They also read as mistaken. Last week, the New York State attorney general, Letitia James, issued a damning report giving more shape and evidence to the accusations that several current and former government employees had made against Cuomo: of harassment, of unwanted touches and kisses, of a culture of intimidation that implicated him and many of the people in his orbit. In response to the report, Melissa DeRosa, the senior aide who had allegedly helped insulate Cuomo from earlier accountability—in part by attacking the credibility of one of his accusers—resigned. And now, though he continues to deny the allegations, Cuomo, too, is resigning. The Cuomo administration is ending. Yet the merch remains, on an internet that never forgets, a chastening reminder of how easily politicians can find refuge in empty iconography.

The merch appeared in response to the press conferences Cuomo began conducting in the spring of last year, as the novel coronavirus tore through New York. The conferences, sometimes homey and sometimes homely in their setups, were antidotes to the carnivalesque grotesqueries of then-President Donald Trump’s COVID-19 conferences. They offered the quiet catharsis of competence. But they did something else as well, something that would facilitate Cuomo’s public transformation from a machine politician into a gauzy emblem: The events, in the guise of sharing information, emphasized emotion. Each was a tacit recognition that many people, in those long and terrible months, were seeking not just effective leadership but also commiseration. Cuomo obliged. At one point, he revealed a display his staff had made out of cloth masks that were sent to his office, he claimed, from people around the country. “It spells love,” Cuomo said.

It didn’t, actually. But the Cuomo of those press conferences was operating, effectively, on the same frequencies that the mugs and the T-shirts were: He was using cartoonishness as a proxy for control. He presented jaw-droppingly loopy posters—what Hieronymus Bosch might have produced, had he had access to Photoshop—as visual evidence that the crisis was abating. He talked about his daughters, his jokily antagonistic relationship with one of their boyfriends, his Sunday spaghetti and meatballs. The appearances were their own versions of marketable kitsch: They presented the problem and the solution in one broadcast. They implied that things were being handled; that things were going to be okay; that things were, in fact, so hopeful that one could buy a mug with the smiling face of Andrew Cuomo on it and see the purchase as comedy rather than tragedy. Cuomo was selling something—calmness, catharsis, himself—and the pitch, for many, worked. Shhh! I’m watching Cuomo, one of the mugs announces.

Those press conferences won Cuomo an Emmy. People likened them to FDR’s fireside chats. Pundits discussed Cuomo as a potential presidential candidate. He got a $5 million book deal to write about his handling of the pandemic. The result, called American Crisis: Leadership Lessons From the COVID-19 Pandemic, reflected the #Cuomosexual moment. It reads as a classic campaign memoir—at once confessional and self-congratulatory in tone—but it, too, emphasizes the transcendence of emotion. Cuomo dedicated his book to “the people of New York.” His paean to them ends with the following observation: “New York loves everyone. It always has, it always will. At the end of the day, my friends, even if it is a long day—and this has been a very long day—love wins.” The lines are roughly equivalent to the T-shirt, available on Etsy for $14.95, that features a Shepard Fairey–esque image of Cuomo’s face, staring into the middle distance, with NEW YORK emblazoned under its reds and whites and blues: They say very little, sappily.

But emotion, summoned as a political tool, can be a form of protection. Fandom can be a form of impunity. The merch, earnest and ironic in nearly equal measure, reflected Cuomo’s transition from a local figure to a national one. It reflected a Cuomo who had slipped the surly bonds of Earth to live, instead, as a celebrity. “When you’re a star, they let you do it,” another celebrity politician has remarked. “You can do anything.”

Cuomo stoked the adoration. The man noted for his raging temper—the politician who had before been called “the Prince of Darkness” and likened to Darth Vader—sold himself as “the love gov.” The three-term governor, who was himself the son of a three-term governor, insisted that he somehow transcended politics. And: The man who allegedly mistreated so many of the women in his orbit, as James’s report details, portrayed himself as charming, hapless, merely loving to a fault. How could someone so guided by love be as cruel as the women claimed? How could the face smiling from the cheerful throw pillow be anything but agreeable? “New York Tough means New York Loving, and I love New York, and I love you,” Cuomo said in his resignation speech today. The lines echoed what he’d said before. They summoned the old mottoes and memes. This time around, they seemed even more empty.