Michael Avenatti made the scene earlier this month at the MTV Video Music Awards, as attention-seeking celebrities are wont to do. Sleek as a panther on the prowl, like Steve McQueen of ’60s cinema, he oozed ambition onto whatever mics hovered beneath his chiseled chin. Yes, he told the nodding inquisitor from Variety, he is indeed “seriously looking” at running for president: “I’ve been traveling around, talking to people in the country, and I’ve really been surprised how much enthusiasm there is” for Avenatti 2020.
Then he was off to Iowa, for the second time, having already stumped in New Hampshire and having already posted an issue agenda on his Twitter feed. But even if Avenatti isn’t taking a breath before plunging into presidential politics, it’s worth the media and voters doing so. What the heck is happening here? Since when does a guy with a dearth of governing experience, who was virtually unknown six months ago, presume to believe he has the credentials to possess the nuclear codes?
Since Donald Trump lowered the bar for entry—that’s when. Since American popular culture irrevocably fused politics and entertainment.
Avenatti as a candidate, if only as a tease, was probably inevitable. If Trump could ascend from the greenroom to the Oval Office, from the artifice of TV studios to the high stakes of international summits, why not a porn star’s lawyer? If Trump can conquer a party and seduce voters who are bored with actual policy, why shouldn’t he give it a try?
Granted, Avenatti has some baggage, but Trump’s is weightier. His law firm went through a bankruptcy, but Trump’s companies have had six. He’s had two wives, but Trump has had three. He reportedly stiffed a former litigator in his firm—in a settlement, he promised the complainant $4.85 million, which he was late to pay—but Trump proved in 2016 that stiffing contractors in Atlantic City was no bar to high office. Avenatti’s firm recently had to pony up $800,000 in unpaid payroll taxes to the IRS, but Trump still won’t even release his tax returns. And at least Avenatti’s public statements don’t sound like this:
You can blow up a pipeline, you can blow up the windmills. You know, the wind wheels … ‘Bing!’ That’s the end of that one. If the birds don’t kill it first. The birds could kill it first. They kill so many birds. You look underneath some of those windmills, it’s like a killing field, the birds … Don’t worry about wind, when the wind doesn’t blow, I said, ‘What happens when the wind doesn’t blow?’ Well, then we have a problem. Okay, good. They were putting them in areas where they didn’t have much wind, too. And it’s a subsidary—you need subsidy for windmills. You need subsidy. Who wants to have energy where you need subsidy? So, uh, the coal is doing great.
That was Trump, riffing to a roomful of Republican donors in mid-August. Avenatti, by contrast, in his meteoric ascent via Maher and Megyn and Colbert and Klepper and Cooper and O’Donnell, has never served up an unpalatable word salad. He crafts chewable sound bites with nary a noun or verb out of place, and folks at home have come to believe they “know” him in the illusory way that celebrities famous for being famous are deemed to be knowable.
It’s impossible to know, however, when Avenatti first felt the surge of electoral adrenaline that hits senators and governors when they gaze into their mirrors. Not that long ago—when Avenatti was first hawking the Stormy Daniels case and his Twitter following began to explode (from 500 accounts in February to the current level of more than 700,000)—he was merely toying with, and shrugging off, the possibility of hosting a cable show. But at some point in the spring, he slammed his ambitions into fifth gear. Perhaps it happened in April, in Bill Maher’s studio, when he was greeted with a standing ovation and the host’s fawning declaration that “we’re in love with you” because “you’re something of a folk hero.”
Serious Democrats who prioritize serious issues are loath to view Avenatti as anything more than a hot-air trial balloon. The reaction of Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, echoed many of his brethren when he told me: “I can’t take it too seriously … Just because Trump was hard to predict doesn’t mean that every far-fetched candidacy has to be treated as if it has a real shot.”
Yes, this is probably just a summer thing. On the other hand, Maher’s description—Avenatti as “folk hero”—should give the American people pause. The country’s celebrity-saturated culture loves heroes, characters, narratives. This triumph of image over expertise was first detected and articulated by the historian Daniel Boorstin in a seminal book, The Image, published in 1962. What troubled him at the time was John F. Kennedy’s telegenic ascent to power—even though JFK, prior to becoming president, had logged 14 years on Capitol Hill.
Who knows what Boorstin would say today about Trump and Avenatti; back then, he described celebrities as “human pseudo-events” who are known for their “well known-ness.” He wrote: “Pseudo-events thus lead to pseudo-qualifications. If we test presidential candidates by [their] talents on TV quiz performances, we will, of course, choose candidates for precisely those qualifications … Our national politics has become a competition for images, or between images, rather than between ideals.”
A quarter-century later, the film critic Richard Schickel, in his book Intimate Strangers, lamented what he called “the politics of illusion,” and observed that the “traditional debts and alliances within the party and among various outside interest groups” had become, “in the age of television, of less significance in winning elections, and in governance itself, than the creation of an image that gave the illusion of masculine dynamism.”
In 21st-century parlance, that’s the Avenatti brand: masculine dynamism, but for the left. Taking Trump’s punches, and meting out worse. As he said in Iowa, “We cannot be the party of turning the other cheek … When they go low, I say we hit harder.” And some serious Democrats are intrigued by his pugilistic-outsider image. Mark Mellman, a veteran party pollster, recently reminded the Los Angeles Times that Trump morphed from joke to president, and therefore, “our definition of impossible needs to change.”
Avenatti isn’t entirely unconventional either. Perhaps it’s truly a sign of nascent seriousness that he spent some of his time in New Hampshire talking about his Missouri childhood, sharing the requisite up-by-his-bootstraps anecdotes, like how he mowed lawns and shoveled snow and worked at McDonald’s. It was even possible to see shades of John Edwards, the last career trial lawyer to run for president, who always called himself “the son of a millworker.”
Meanwhile, on Friday, he announced that he’s forming a political-action committee, called Fight PAC, to help Democratic candidates take back Congress in 2018—a traditional tactic that helps politicians earn IOUs. And Avenatti is fully capable of dodging questions and playing “but what about?” just like any conventional pol. On August 12, when ABC News asked whether he’d be willing as a candidate to release his tax returns, he replied: “I haven’t decided. I’ll look at the issue. But here’s what I do know … Where are Donald Trump’s tax returns?”
That response reminds that Trump is his political raison d’être; if the president were to quit prior to 2020, Avenatti would lose his foil and his Warholian 15 minutes would likely expire. But for the foreseeable future, he’s free to flash his wares and buff his fighter image one greenroom at a time. Trump, in one of his ghostwritten books, said, “I play to people’s fantasies.” Avenatti is game for the same.