If Donald Trump’s idiocy once led observers to underestimate him, his victory has led to the opposite result. And when Trump is mistakenly seen as a political savant, it’s all too easy to want to counter him by finding a liberal counterpart. That, at any rate, is one way to interpret Matthew Walther’s semi-serious contemplation, in The Week, of President Michael Avenatti.
Avenatti may have gained fame for representing Stormy Daniels, but as Walther notes, he has grown into “a kind of all-around anti-Trump crusader,” intervening in high-profile controversies over the detention of migrant children and the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh. And unlike the Democratic politicians who struggle to strategize against a man who is the living embodiment of petulant impulsiveness, Avenatti is a match for the President—both in his personality and in his political instincts. “Both are brash, over-the-top, publicity-mad, media-savvy, ostentatiously rich,” writes Walther. Like Trump, Avenatti “has ties to the world of D-list celebrity hangers-on” and “has been involved in some shady business ventures,” but “both men are masters of communication, especially in the increasingly relevant-seeming medium of television.”
The implication is that Avenatti, like Trump, could become President—not by overcoming his oleaginous persona, but by cannily exploiting it. “Any Democrat who is serious about winning the next presidential election would do well to pay attention to Avenatti,” Walther argues, since Avenatti shows how to fight Trump, and since he “seems to recognize that the performative wokeness on social issues so beloved of a small section of the party’s coastal base does not play well elsewhere.” As evidence, Walther cites a meeting between Avenatti and a Democratic Party official in Ohio who, after 2016, bemoaned voters’ perception that Democrats “cared more about where someone went to the bathroom than whether or not these people had a job.” Probably understating the conclusions that can reasonably be drawn from this meeting, Walther expresses hope that Avenatti will figure out how to engineer a retreat from these dreaded identity issues: “It’s not clear yet what Avenatti’s remedy is, but he clearly has the diagnosis correct.”
Count me skeptical on, well, all counts. First, any expansive conclusions drawn from Trump’s victory should pause to note that he lost the popular vote handily and would probably never have eked out the series of small margins that delivered him the Electoral College without an extraordinarily inappropriate last-minute kneecapping of his opponent by the FBI. (And even that splash of cold water leaves out the issues of Russian interference and the specific weaknesses of Hillary Clinton as a candidate.) The brilliance of Trump’s brash, nasty style is far less self-evident with those factors in mind. Moreover, Trump has a low approval rating and few legislative accomplishments (especially given his acquiescent GOP Congress). Many causes exist, but this is all at least partly attributable to the fact that he’s a poorly informed, unpleasant person.
Nor is it so obvious that Avenatti represents a winning strategy rooted in the abandonment of identity issues. This claim is empirically speculative (at best) and normatively unconvincing. There’s no reason to think that joblessness and restroom access for trans people present an either/or problem for Democrats; there is no public-policy tradeoff here. A both/and approach is both possible and preferable, and it doesn’t require Democrats to signal either to the jobless or to trans people that the Party doesn’t care about their concerns. There is, in short, no reason to think that Avenatti “has the diagnosis correct.”
Lastly, it would be helpful to drop the idea that Trump is a master of communication—unless we also give up the idea that communication is at least sometimes a two-way affair. Trump is a master of self-involvement; his genre is the monologue, not the dialogue. I don’t know whether Avenatti is any better at listening than Trump (he certainly can’t be worse), but I also don’t count it as evidence of communication skills to have mastered the shouty belligerence favored by cable news audiences.
Walther does call attention to one important thing: Avenatti is motivated by a Trumpian thirst for celebrity, but unlike Trump, he has at least enlisted it in the service of a few worthy causes. And yes, it is certainly possible that he could run, although I doubt he’d get far in a Democratic primary. But it’s not a matchup worth wishing for, and unlike Walther, who says the campaign would be “fascinating,” I find the prospect exhausting. It would only further entrench the degradation of the presidency in our imaginations, and that would grant Trump yet another deeply unfortunate legacy.