On Anthony Weiner, Donald Trump, And Getting The Politicians We Deserve

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Anthony Weiner got caught doing exactly what we already knew Anthony Weiner likes to do last week, and once again he became a hot news story. His wife, Huma Abedin, announced they’d be separating, and Showtime, possibly capitalizing on the SEO value of “Anthony Weiner,” took the opportunity to announce the premiere date for Weiner, the must-see documentary that follows his 2013 campaign for mayor of New York. Which was, if we’re keeping track, also undone by relentless boner stories.

Having been through it a few times now, Anthony Weiner coverage follows a well-established pattern at this point — first weiner puns, then thinkpieces.

What Drove Anthony Weiner To Destroy Himself? asked Politico. “Does Narcissism Explain Anthony Weiner’s Downfall? wondered New York. “Is Sexting An Addiction? pondered the The Washington Post. If you can find “Anthony Weiner” and a question mark in a headline, it’s a pretty safe bet that there’s some armchair psychiatry going on. We have to find out What Went Wrong! Not with us, mind you, but with this screwed up sicko who can’t stop doing positively inexplicable things like flirting with babes online.

What kind of compulsion drives someone like Weiner? Sexting, or exchanging intimate text and images online, is increasingly popular behavior, almost normalized, but it’s an awfully high-risk practice for a public figure like the former New York congressman, who was married to Hillary Clinton’s closest aide. In Weiner’s case, the behavior is so reckless it defies logic. [Politico]

“What could possibly drive Anthony Weiner to engage in such reckless, logic-defying behavior that is also very popular and basically normal!”

We keep wondering “What’s wrong with Anthony Weiner,” but the pathology that’s most peculiar to me is the way we keep being surprised over things we knew all along. Is this real surprise or just feigned surprise in the service of easy clicks? Even if it’s mostly the latter, it’s still preying on the psychology of the former. This is at least the third wave of Anthony Weiner sexting revelations (the first one brought about his resignation for congress in 2011, the second torpedoed his 2013 mayoral run). At what point does “Anthony Weiner likes to flirt with babes online” cease being a revelation? Especially since he’s not even a candidate anymore, just a dude who uses Twitter flirting like the rest of us use porn.

“What drives Anthony Weiner” is a dumb question (say it with me: HE LIKES. TO FLIRT. WITH BABES ONLINE.), but asking how a politician — a politician! Of all people! — could be so reckless, might be even dumber. Have we actually convinced ourselves that Anthony Weiner is a special case? Emblematic, maybe, but not an outlier.

One of the reasons Weiner is so brilliant is that it promises a portrait of a politician, but mostly delivers a portrait of politics. (Incidentally, Lawrence O’Donnell comes out looking like much more of an asshole than Anthony Weiner, imo.) We watch as Anthony Weiner spends probably 90 percent of his waking life cold calling, fund raising, schmoozing, glad-handing, and generally begging rich people for money. Because that’s what getting elected requires (along with answering New York Post reporters’ questions about your favorite Post headline mocking you, apparently). And neither Weiner nor the mayorship of New York City are special cases in this regard.

A 2012 episode of This American Life on the subject, “Take The Money And Run For Office,” dealt similarly with the nuts and bolts of modern politics. Here are some excerpts from that:

Dick Durbin [Democratic Senator from Illinois]: I think most Americans would be shocked — not surprised, but shocked — if they knew how much time a United States senator spends raising money. And how much time we spend talking about raising money, and thinking about raising money, and planning to raise money. And, you know, going off on little retreats and conjuring up new ideas on how to raise money. […]

Andrea Seabrook [NPR Reporter]: Our analysis with the Sunlight Foundation data shows that in peak fundraising months, there are at least 20 events a day. One lawmaker told us, “You could spend every day of the year raising money.”

Alex Blumberg [NPR Reporter]: And in fact, some actually do. […]

Andrea Seabrook: How many fundraisers do you typically go to in a given week, do you think?

Nancy Pelosi [Congresswoman]: A lot. Yeah. Either on the phone or attending events. But I think they’ve said this year I attended almost 400 fundraisers in nearly 40 cities. […]

Andrea Seabrook: Walt Minnick is a conservative Democrat who represented a Republican-leaning district in Idaho. He was first elected in 2008, and after he won, he took just five days off from fundraising. Then, two months before he was sworn in as a congressman, he was back raising money for the next election, two years away.

Walt Minnick: I needed to raise $10,000 to $15,000 a day, and you only do it by elbow grease.

Alex Blumberg: Let’s stop and dwell on that statement for a second, shall we, Andrea? $10,000 to $15,000 a day. The typical cost of a congressional race is about a million dollars — although, if you’re challenging an incumbent, you need more. Minnick’s goal was even more than that — $2.5 million — because he was in such a competitive district.

Walt Minnick: I would spend two or three hours a day as a congressman trying to raise money.

Essentially, in order to get elected, you have to do a lot of cold calling, a lot of weaseling money out of the people who have it in exchange for some murky future benefit. Hey, Bob, glad I caught you! Have I told you about this exciting new donating opportunity? It’s me!

Frankly, politics looks and sounds a lot like Boiler Room. Identify whales, extract dollars. When we have a political system that essentially rewards the best cold-caller at J.T. Marlin, can we really be surprised when they turn out to be a little needy, a little sleazy, and a little reckless? We understand intrinsically what type of person that job attracts — guys who toss dwarves, drive Lamborghinis, snort cocaine out of rectums, and occasionally are Ben Affleck. Why can’t we do the same math with politics?

In that context, a mayoral candidate trolling his DMs after his wife goes to bed seems almost quaint. Politicians pretty much have to be schmoozy narcissists if they want to be viable candidates. That’s the game. And knowing that, a sex freak honestly seems like the best we could hope for. A leader who craves power so he can get tit pics from strange women seems less nefarious than most of the alternatives. At least that’s a kink I can understand.

Anthony Weiner is sort of yesterday’s news as far as politics are concerned, but Donald Trump coverage has been similarly flawed. The small hands story, the “blood coming out of her wherever,” the ridiculing of a disabled reporter — at some level it’s impossible not to watch this trainwreck, but that also gives him a weird kind of immunity. His boorishness is actually a gift to conservatives and the conservative media, because it allows them to present Trump as if he’s some kind of anomaly, rather than the logical result of the last 20 years of right wing talking points.

My favorite moment of the debates was watching Ted Cruz try to hang Donald Trump with the albatross of “you said you wouldn’t let the uninsured die in the streets.” Donald Trump isn’t a real conservative, folks, he’s not even sufficiently callous! It makes it a lot easier to win a nomination when your opponents have actually forgotten the difference between ideology and populism. “You guys are never going to believe this, but this guy is just empty Reagan slogans without the victim blaming!”

Donald Trump is a creation of Roger Ailes and the right wing media, the personification of two decades of race baiting by Republican attack dogs, a triumph of media manipulation over policy. It’d be hilarious watching them get blown up by their own creation if only we could be sure they won’t take us all with them. (That the Democrats managed to nominate the only candidate Donald Trump could ever have a chance of beating, while the Republicans nominated the only candidate Hillary Clinton could ever have a chance of beating, is a nice bit of political synergy.)

Roger Ailes, who helped Nixon seem more hoo-mon on TV and allegedly helped create the Willie Horton ads that helped elect George H.W. Bush (Ailes still denies it, though he did famously say “The only question is whether we depict Willie Horton with a knife in his hand or without it.”), was the driving creative force behind Fox News until his recent resignation. He also did much to create Donald Trump as a viable political candidate. Ailes gave Trump a weekly call-in segment on Fox & Friends, “has given Trump talking points throughout the campaign,” and is now giving him debate preparation advice, a role that could extend to the kind of media advisor role he played for Nixon and George Bush Sr††.

It’s worth asking how Fox News got in the position of being able to make or break political candidates in the first place. And if you trace Fox News’ ratings dominance back to its earliest days, you find, well, another boner scandal. The boner belonging, in this case, to Bill Clinton.

[Gabriel] Sherman writes [in his Ailes biography], “Whatever else it was, the [Monica Lewinsky] scandal was a media bonanza, and no medium benefited from it more than cable news—and no cable channel more than Fox News.” Within hours of the Lewinsky story breaking, in January, 1998, Ailes inaugurated a new nightly show devoted to the melodrama, and assigned five producers and correspondents to cover it. No detail was too sordid for Fox to cover. With Ailes, a former Republican political operative, at the helm, Fox covered the affair as a criminal act, and rode the story straight up the cable-ratings charts. “Monica was a news channel’s dream come true,” John Moody, Fox’s executive editor, once admitted. [The New Yorker]

It’s only slightly reductive to say that Bill Clinton’s boner gave us Fox News, and Fox News gave us Donald Trump (and arguably George W. Bush before him). The Clinton “scandal” is old enough that we have the benefit of hindsight, such that we now know that almost everyone involved in making political hay out of the Clinton sex scandal has since had sex scandals of their own, ranging from simple adultery to paying off molestation victims.

The historic [Clinton impeachment] vote, and subsequent trial in the Senate, involved the work of three men who were elected Speaker of the House Of Representatives by the Republican majority, Newt Gingrich, Bob Livingston and Dennis Hastert. […]

Gingrich later admitted that, while he was pushing for Clinton’s impeachment, he was engaged in an affair with a Congressional aide. […]

On the day of the impeachment vote, Bob Livingston announced he was resigning following revelations that he had engaged in an extramarital affair. According to Hustler Magazine Publisher Larry Flint, who offered a reward for information about the sex lives of members of Congress, he “found four women who said they had been involved with Mr. Livingston over the last 10 years.” […]

[Dennis] Hastert was indicted on charges that he illegally structured $1.7 million in payments to an individual in an attempt to cover up prior misconduct. According to reports, the payments were allegedly intended to “conceal sexual abuse against a former male student he knew during his days as a teacher in Yorkville, Ill.” The LA Times also reported that “investigators also spoke with a second man who raised similar allegations that corroborated what the former student said.”

On April 27, Hastert was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison for improperly structuring payments to cover up the abuse. In open court, a federal judge repeatedly called him a “serial child molester.” [Think Progress]

With the Fox News team, as astute readers may already have noted, things are much the same. Roger Ailes resigned (sort of — his exit agreement requires him to “stay on as an advisor to Rupert Murdoch”) from Fox News in the wake of a nearly career-long sexual harassment scandal involving multiple women, pocketing $40 million for his troubles. It was announced just this week that Gretchen Carlson would receive $20 million to settle her own case against Ailes (allegedly just one of a number of Fox News reporters receiving settlements). Back in 2004, Fox News star Bill O’Reilly paid former producer Andrea Mackris “anywhere from $2 million to $10 million” to settle her sexual harassment suit against him.

So what’s the rub? Our political system is a delicious layer cake of boner scandals, with media coverage of it mirroring it to an eerie degree. Are we being hoisted on our own boner obsession? (That’s a free thinkpiece title for you.) It’s given us arguably our worst president and our worst presidential candidate. It’s hypocritical to pretend that they’re all a special case, and a little smug to say “Well, what did you expect?”

But at this point, after 20 years of this (at least), it seems fair to wonder when our apparently self-perpetuating boner outrage might become (even slightly more) constructive. Or at least, to wonder when we might ask questions a little deeper than “Jeez, what’s going on with Anthony Weiner, he seems boner crazy, am I right?” or “Why is this populist demagogue so boorish?”

Politics attracts narcissists and the media sensationalists, but it seems like even our soul-searching is half-assed and deflective. If we can’t do just a little better than this, we’re going to keep getting the assholes we deserve.

Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.

At some point, it might be worth asking what “got caught” means in this context. Does having private pictures published publicly against your will count? If posting Hulk Hogan’s sex video was worth killing Gawker over, why is this one okay? Is a pro wrestler entitled to rigidly enforced privacy while an already-twice-disgraced ex-politician is not? Which boners are sacrosanct, I can’t tell.

††In The Loudest Voice In The Room, Gabriel Sherman’s 2014 biography of Ailes, Sherman also details the cocktail of cozy relationships and incompetence that led to Fox News becoming the first network to call the 2000 election for George W. Bush, possibly swaying the eventual outcome. (George W. and Jeb’s first cousin, John Prescott Ellis, ran Fox’s “decision desk” at the time.)