Americans Are Suckers for a Certain Kind of Grifter

For a time, Michael Avenatti fulfilled the left’s most destructive psychological needs—much as Donald Trump has done for the right.

Michael Avenatti
Brendan McDermid / Reuters

I met Michael Avenatti exactly once, in the green room of MSNBC’s Morning Joe in New York on March 16, 2018. That hour’s guests were three: Avenatti, me, and the monstrously productive legal scholar Cass Sunstein, who had just edited a book on authoritarianism. Avenatti, not yet at the apogee of his fame, went first. He began the interview with officious and dramatic lawyer-speak (“I cannot say at this time”; “I have no comment”), but darkly implied presidency-ending evidence that his then-unknown client, Stormy Daniels, would soon divulge. He teased the hosts with the prospect of further reveals and was rewarded by having his guest spot extended by several minutes. In those extra minutes, he said Daniels believed that the president of the United States had dispatched a thug to menace her and her child in a Las Vegas parking lot.

Avenatti was found guilty yesterday of three serious crimes related to his attempt to extort the sneaker company Nike for tens of millions of dollars. Even that morning, I saw signs that he was a strange man. When Avenatti came back to the green room, Sunstein and I talked with him, and I congratulated him on milking the segment for maximum drama. I’m quite sure I did not sound sarcastic; I was genuinely impressed. Then the commercial break ended, and the hosts, Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, began discussing the exciting news that Avenatti had just delivered. We heard them on the television in the green room. In mid-sentence, Avenatti stopped talking with us, turned his back, and approached the television, standing very close to it—utterly hypnotized by the clips they were running of his interview. I tried to talk with Avenatti and offered him a pastry, but his eyes had glazed over in a way that suggested a higher level of consciousness. All attempts to converse with him were in vain, as if we were trying to interrupt a monk in his third decade of silent meditation.

In retrospect, Avenatti’s Narcissus-like fixation on his own media image was a reason not to trust him as the political savior of anti-Trumpism. Now that he is a felon, it is easy to forget how significant his profile was at the time. For months in 2018, Avenatti appeared on cable television constantly, and before long he said he was considering challenging Donald Trump as a presidential candidate. Daniels’s allegations revealed Trump as an adulterous cad. (He has denied having sex with her, but his lawyer says he paid her $130,000 to keep silent about the matter.) We now know, too, that Avenatti used Daniels (and allegedly stole her money) to feed an addiction to his own publicity.

I look forward to not thinking about Avenatti; he will probably end up with a prison sentence, and I hope he emerges penitent and rehabilitated. But we should all think about the pathological processes that led him to be lionized in the first place. A lefty friend told me once that he thought Democrats needed to treat Trump like a schoolyard bully, and that the remedy for bullying is to make the bully cry by bullying him right back, harder. (Don’t worry; my friend is childless.) Under that theory, Avenatti was the good narcissist, and the left needed someone with sociopathic self-regard to save the country from the malignant narcissist, Trump. It needed someone who can commune with the divine rhythms of the news cycle, like a master sailor who knows winds and tides and by instinct alone arrives in port faster than others.

The belief that such a person is the country’s political salvation has done incalculable damage, for the obvious reason that anyone so devoted to his own reflection in the media is likely not to have much time left to be devoted to much else. Trump himself is the most obvious example of this: a man preternaturally attuned to the vagaries of public opinion and media cycles, but faithless to all principle and guaranteed to disappoint, sell out, or denounce his most loyal supporters, as soon as it becomes convenient to do so.

Avenatti, of course, never came near the Democratic nomination. But he revealed how defenseless we all are against a certain species of grifter. The psychological vulnerability is universal and devastating: Before a certain kind of soulless charlatan, our brains surrender themselves, as long as he promises that he is fighting on our side. I know of no political test, no gantlet one must pass before appearing on television or on a ballot, that stops such people. In fact these processes select for them, and the relationship between these showmen and the rest of us is best described as abusive and co-dependent.

What hope is there for those of us who like our politicians to be deadly boring, devoid of all panache, like a plate of plain noodles, hold the Parmesan? Before you scoff at the absurdity of a dull and introverted politician, remember that political flamboyance has only recently become de rigueur, and is not expected in all modern political cultures, democratic or otherwise. (Angela Merkel of Germany is an oratorical snooze; Paul Kagame of Rwanda favors a slow, wonky delivery; Singapore’s leaders are such faceless bureaucrats that if they donned surgical masks to talk about the new coronavirus, the masks would not detract from their charisma.) In all eras, political aspirants have included divas and self-admirers. But only now have we begun to laugh at the very idea that a candidate could win without the soapbox addiction of a Huey Long.

Michael Bennet, the senator from Colorado who recently dropped out of the race for the Democratic nomination, was mocked for saying that as president, he would try to return politics to a niche interest, something that one could go weeks without thinking about. Politics will find you, his critics said, and if you try to hide, politics will beat you extra hard for making it go through the trouble of tracking you down. Perhaps so. But the most appealing aspect of that message was its embedded promise that as president, he would not pathologically crave attention, and would consider his job well done if he avoided it. Bennet finished last.