How Avenatti Could Help the Democratic 2020 Field. Or Not.

Newfound celebrity-attorney Michael Avenatti is apparently serious about making a run for President.

Avenatti is, of course, most notably the lawyer for Stephanie Clifford (aka, Stormy Daniels), the adult actress whom Trump allegedly paid off in a felony campaign finance evasion. He appears on cable TV incessantly, has his own trademark quote (“basta!”) and no shortage of personal charisma. He also has a problematic legal and tax background, which should give anyone on the Avenatti train more than a little pause. His presence on any stage commands an odd atmosphere of personal objectification and fascination, and he has been making the rounds of Democratic establishment gatherings with flashy speeches and appearances. He is even launching a PAC.

So far all of this seems rather … well, Trumpian.

That should be a source of concern to Democrats both in the center and on the left. After the wreckage of Trump, do we really need more flash-in-the-pan celebrities with weak policy backgrounds?

Nor is Avenatti is the only one. There has been talk of presidential campaigns by several other left-leaning celebrities, including Oprah and even Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

There may be a silver lining to this, however.

That we are seeing more celebrity candidates on both the right and left is not an accident, nor is it merely an artifact of our celebrity-obsessed digital culture. Distrust of major institutions and expert consensus has been increasing for better and for worse, across all of society. As Tom Nichols details in his book The Death of Expertise, this growing skepticism has some noxious causes and deleterious effects, especially when it comes to disbelief in basic, crucial scientific facts like climate change, sex education, or biological evolution.

But there’s also a very good reason for the growing discontent with expert opinion, reasons that Chris Hayes illustrates to great effect in his prescient book Twilight of the Elites. Every major institution in America–from the military to the Catholic Church to professional economists and the political class–has suffered a crisis of confidence born of dramatic failure. These have included failures of competence, accountability, basic morality, and a lack of connection to the problems facing most Americans.

The political class on both sides has done virtually nothing as inequality has risen, young people are trapped in debt and locked out of housing, the white working class is suffering an unprecedented increase in mortality rates, climate change is worsening, our military has been bogged down in failed adventures overseas (based on false advertising), the perpetrators of the Great Recession went unpunished, and wages have remained at 1970s levels while the wealthy have prospered. It’s no accident that Donald Trump’s overt promises–which are inextricably linked with his openly racist rhetoric–to protect the white working class arose in this environment.

And it is no accident that democratic socialism is such a powerhouse movement on the left now—after decades of institutional failure abetted by center-left policies that allowed asset prices to inflate in value for the wealthy and for an aging population, while leaving workers and the young in the cold.

A somnolent political class rarely awakens of its own accord. It moves when it is threatened and can no longer stand still.

Already we are seeing candidates on the left, from Kamala Harris to Elizabeth Warren, adopt progressive populist policies that would have been unthinkable even just eight years ago, from a jobs guarantee to free college to worker representation on corporate boards. That is partly due to the pressure of the progressive left, but also, in so mall measure, to the threat that Trumpism and its protectionist variants could win over enough mostly white (but even some non-white) working class voters as to severely complicate center-left plans to win a plurality of the electorate, based solely on a combination of women, people of color, and upper-middle-class educated voters.

It is possible–though not certain–that celebrity candidates on the left could serve to increase the pressure on more traditional candidates to be more exciting and groundbreaking in their platforms and messaging.

Barack Obama was able to win the 2008 Democratic primary despite a platform not far to Hillary Clinton’s left, largely through optimism and personal charisma. Celebrity candidates like Avenatti or Johnson might force more traditional candidates without those gifts to be even bolder in their messaging and even more effective in their grassroots outreach, rather than relying on the traditional donor-centric influence peddling networks.

Or perhaps not. Perhaps Democrats could fall sway to a carnival barker dilettante of poor personal ethics, a weak grasp of policy and middling respect for democratic norms. Or perhaps establishment candidates could circle the wagons even more tightly around their own political culture, eschewing charisma and base excitement as a form of charlatanism. Either of those events would be instructive about the deep rot of our social, political, and economic order in an age of inequality and widespread injustice.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.