The silly season of the 2020 presidential contest will end on November 6, when the midterms are out of the way and the chattering classes focus on the next big political event. And soon after, Democrats will begin to separate the wheat from the chaff in the vast number of presidential possibilities that have joined the ranks of the Mentioned.
There have been plenty of unserious candidacies bruited about, some involving billionaires who may be taking themselves a bit too seriously, and some involving megacelebrities (Oprah Winfrey, the Rock) who don’t have the time or the inclination to vie for leadership of the free world. But there’s been one very conspicuous proto-candidate who has been behaving like an actual candidate even though he possesses none of the credentials considered minimal for POTUS aspirants in the couple-odd centuries of American history before Donald Trump. That would be celebrity attorney Michael Avenatti.
Avenatti became a major national media figure representing alleged Trump lover and hush-money recipient Stormy Daniels, in part by connecting her story to the Russia investigation of Robert Mueller, and in part by making Trump representatives like Rudy Giuliani look foolish (not that difficult a feat). And then, after racking up enough cable TV appearances to make your average U.S. senator green with envy, the 47-year-old lawyer suddenly started appearing at Democratic events in early 2020 nominating contest states like Iowa and New Hampshire, getting rave reviews in that red-meat environment for visceral attacks on Trump.
His dog-days blitz of overtly political appearances indelibly associated him with the twin ideas that Democrats needed “their own Trump” to take down the MAGA Man in 2020, and that Avenatti had just the right combination of morally dubious but effective characteristics to get the job done. His all-but-official slogan is “Fight Fire With Fire.” This has not only helped place this once-obscure man in a metaphorical ring with the president of the United States, but has connected him to a rich vein of Democratic longing for “toughness” in their politicians and spokespeople.
Long before Trump (arguably dating back to Lee Atwater’s sliming of Michael Dukakis in 1988), Democratic activists and pundits have increasingly deplored the wonkiness and even-handedness of their elected officials and presidential candidates, who are forever accused of “bringing a knife to a gun fight” (or as Avenatti said in Iowa, bringing “nail clippers to a knife fight.”) Some of this craving for “fighters” is ideological, coming from progressives who deplore the taste for bipartisanship often shown by Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. But much of it is simply a chronic disdain for a Democratic strategy more complicated than a punch in the mouth (advocates of Democratic toughness forever complain about a lack of “spine” in their pols, but almost never worry about a lack of brains).
With Trump as president (accompanied by such cynical power-mongering sidekicks as Mitch McConnell), the desire for a more vicious Democratic politics has understandably grown like topsy. But although a more combative stance is discernible throughout the Donkey Party (this side of Chuck Schumer, that is), no one has been a more strident advocate than Avenatti for the proposition that Democrats should put a hatpin through their frontal lobes and get medieval on Trump and his allies. And so the idea of Avenatti 2020 became less risible.
Unfortunately for this proto-president, his past and present behavior is turning out to be a bit too Trump-like for Democratic comfort. All kinds of legal and financial irregularities in his background are coming into focus. Like Trump, he purports to offer a win-at-all-costs proposition. But one of Stormy Daniels’s lawsuits against Trump has been dismissed. And his narcissistic intervention in the Kavanaugh confirmation fight arguably tainted the allegations of sexual misconduct that nearly brought the judge down.
Beyond Avenatti’s recently mixed-to-negative press, there has to be some eventual progressive discomfort with the machismo attitude his whole pugilistic shtick relies on. One of his conservative admirers, the #NeverTrump political operative Rick Wilson, says: “Avenatti’s got balls. Giant, clanking, titanium balls.” Avenatti himself says Democrats need to send a white male up against Trump (“When you have a white male making the arguments, they carry more weight”). At what point does this fight-fire-with-fire strategy begin to burn the party that deploys it?
Perhaps, as Eric Levitz argues, Avenatti has performed a service for Democrats by getting them to consider the sort of tactical radicalism that Republicans have embraced, without following them into Neanderthal-land on policy or values. If so, Democrats should bid him a fond farewell from the campaign trail — assuming he does indeed just go. It’s understandable a party tired of watching Trump break every rule in law, politics, and basic ethics will give a listen to someone who says he’s willing and able to tear Trump a new one. But you can make a case that this is precisely Trump’s fondest hope: eliminating the undertow of basic decency that keeps his approval ratings underwater and Democratic prospects for 2018 and 2020 relatively strong.
Yes, Democrats need to toughen up to overcome the extremist politics of Trump and the latter-day conservative movement. But they need to smarten up, too, and Michael Avenatti’s “Dare to Be Stupid” challenge to them won’t help.