How pollsters misread the outcome of the 2016 presidential race
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.