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Why the Story of Michael Avenatti Is a Lesson for the 2020 Election

Michael Avenatti.
Michael Avenatti. Photo: Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images

Michael Avenatti is in trouble. He’s facing federal extortion charges in Manhattan, where the FBI alleged on Monday that he demanded $22.5 million from Nike in exchange for his silence about a pay-to-play NCAA scandal. The U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles charged Avenatti with wire fraud and embezzlement in a separate case. Both occurred as the attorney and would-be 2020 presidential candidate weathers the fallout from splits with his former firm and ex-client, porn actress Stormy Daniels.

It wasn’t long ago that Avenatti was gaining traction as an outspoken Trump foil. His appearance in September on Tucker Carlson Tonight, where he accused Carlson of giving “the president a pass” despite having “unprotected sex with a porn star with a four-month-old son at home,” showcased his willingness to go low with the worst of right-wing media. He involved himself in several anti-Trump crusades, ranging from undocumented immigrant children to the assault allegations facing Brett Kavanaugh, drawing ebullient crowds to speeches in New Hampshire and Iowa. His White House ambitions were taken somewhat seriously, including by Politico’s Bill Scher, who declared in September that Avenatti was already “winning the 2020 Democratic primary” by setting the tone in terms of his temperament and policy ideas.

Avenatti’s own case for his candidacy required markedly less imagination. “I think [the Democratic nominee] better be a white male,” he told Time in October. “When you have a white male making the arguments, they carry more weight. Should they carry more weight? Absolutely not. But do they? Yes.” Avenatti has since denied saying this, but appears to have a habit of making poorly received statements and then claiming he didn’t. He denied earlier this month having phoned attorney and Atlantic writer Ken White to harass and insult him. White says that phone records documenting whom Avenatti called, and when, prove otherwise.

But assuming he made them, it grows clearer by the day what Avenatti meant when he spoke to Time. Being white and male was not just a descriptor for him — it was an expression of an ethos, whereby both identities lent him an unearned authority and instilled in him an aggressiveness and willingness to play fast and loose with the rules that he saw as ideal qualities for beating Trump. The logic behind their utility is that Trump must be matched blow for blow. When the president goes low, his Democratic opponent must go lower, fighting dirty to cleanse what the Republican has defiled. The opponent accomplishes this by replicating his enemy’s temperament and perceived strengths — including, in Avenatti’s estimation, the authority and unaccountability vested in him by his whiteness and maleness. The irony is that the only guaranteed outcome of this strategy is the empowerment of yet another white man who fancies himself exempt from having to treat other people fairly and honestly.

Putting stock in this conception of whiteness yields dividends, as the 2016 election has demonstrated. But that does not make it an ethical or trustworthy investment. A coarse and immoral white male Democrat in the White House addresses only part of the problem that a coarse and immoral Trump presidency embodies. The extra weight given to white men’s words is not the natural order of things, nor should it be taken for granted, as Avenatti concedes. It draws its power from constant assertion and reaffirmation — it’s true because Americans make it true every day, whether consciously or unconsciously.

There is no easy way to address this reality that doesn’t begin with recognizing it while it is happening and rebuking it. Avenatti may never have been a serious presidential candidate, but he was and is a serious white man who has expressed a troubling willingness to weaponize whiteness and maleness to right what he believes to be wrong. It’s certainly tempting to draw upon the power that these intersecting identities embody — especially if it provides a shortcut to deposing what seems like a greater or more immediate evil. But that power should always be looked upon with suspicion. Prosecutors will spend much of the near future painting Avenatti as an untrustworthy grifter to build their case. But Americans don’t need the law to tell us that skepticism toward him was warranted. A man so open to wielding, and thus reaffirming, white patriarchy should have been a much tougher sell to begin with.

The Parable of Michael Avenatti Is a Lesson for 2020