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The Two Michaels
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The Two Michaels

Everyone loves a convert.

Michael Avenatti (left) and Michael Cohen. (Avenatti photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images. Cohen photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

The year is 2018. You’re at a psychic reading. In a trance, the psychic peers into the future and predicts that Donald Trump will be a criminal defendant in 2024.

“Eh, too easy,” you think.

Michael Cohen and Michael Avenatti will be involved in the trial, the psychic murmurs. But that’s also easy: Cohen was the then-president’s personal attorney and Avenatti was counsel to Stormy Daniels, a role he had parlayed into media ubiquity and Resistance stardom. Of course the two might feature in a prosecution of Trump.

Unimpressed, you rise to leave—and then the psychic speaks again. Cohen will be a witness for the prosecution, she whispers. And Avenatti will be a witness for Trump.

In later years, you’ll remember that as the moment you realized that psychics are real.

Michael Cohen is indeed a key witness for the state in Trump’s hush-money trial in Manhattan, having long ago transitioned from loyal henchman and “fixer” into a harsh critic of his former boss. Avenatti is serving a 19-year sentence for numerous federal crimes, including defrauding Daniels, but told the New York Post recently that he’s been “in touch with Trump’s defense for the better part of a year” about potentially testifying on his behalf.

Speaking to the paper from prison, Avenatti in 2024 sounded like Cohen circa 2018. “There’s no question [Trump’s trial] is politically motivated because they’re concerned that he may be reelected,” he said. “If the defendant was anyone other than Donald Trump, this case would not have been brought at this time, and for the government to attempt to bring this case and convict him in an effort to prevent tens of millions of people from voting for him, I think it’s just flat out wrong, and atrocious.”

Watching the two trade places politically is among the oddest developments of this very odd era. Their paths crossed with Trump’s hush-money payoff to Daniels and somehow each ended up in the other’s niche, a sort of Freaky Friday for boorish shysters. Do our two parties simply require an unusually sleazy lawyer named “Michael” to confirm their respective priors about Trump at all times, irrespective of who it is?

You might assume that partisan media organs on both sides would want nothing to do with either of them. If anyone is beyond the bounds of Strange New Respect for their political conversions, surely it’s the two Michaels.

Not so. In fact, it’s because they’re disgraced that there’s a market for them.

Consider their media coverage lately.

It’s not just the Post that has quoted Avenatti favorably on the alleged injustice of Trump’s prosecution. Another Rupert Murdoch property, Fox News, conducted its own jailhouse interview with him on Monday, showcasing Avenatti’s belief that Trump is a “victim of the system.” Trump himself thanked Avenatti publicly in a Truth Social post earlier this month after his new favorite Michael wondered why Trump is under a gag order but not Cohen or Daniels.

Cohen, meanwhile, has appeared repeatedly on Avenatti’s old stomping ground of MSNBC to crow about the recent civil judgment against Trump and to scoff at the former president’s promises to testify at his criminal trial. Cohen’s makeover as an outspoken anti-Trumper has earned him a following of more than 600,000 people on The App Formerly Known as Twitter, where you’ll find him taunting his old comrade with accusations of, er … see for yourself.

Both of these men are convicted criminals, let me remind you. And not just criminals, but criminals whose crimes speak directly to their lack of credibility: Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress while Avenatti pleaded guilty to fraud. Ask the average American to name a profession they associate with connivance and deceit and most will say “lawyer”—and even by that lowly standard, the two Michaels are such extreme examples that they landed themselves in the clink because of it. Why are partisan media outlets still offering them a platform?

Well, ask yourself: What’s the purpose of partisan media?

It’s not to inform, lord knows. It’s not really to persuade, either. Fox News and MSNBC may get a few “leaners” from the other side tuning in from time to time, but spend an evening watching their prime-time lineups and you’ll see that they’re not geared toward reasoning with the center. They know where their bread is buttered.

The purpose of partisan media is to validate the beliefs of readers or viewers, especially their belief that they’re morally superior to their opponents. And nothing affirms that belief as efficiently as a political convert.

After all, converts speak from personal experience. When Michael Cohen calls Trump a lowlife, he’s not surmising it based on Trump’s public behavior the way most liberals do. He knows firsthand. When Michael Avenatti claims that the legal system is persecuting Trump, he’s not surmising it based on news coverage the way most conservatives do. He knows, or seems to know, firsthand.

They’re eyewitnesses to the enemy’s corruption, which makes their testimony about the foibles of the other side authoritative to partisans in a way that most political rhetoric isn’t. And so, as often happens with witnesses who lack clean hands, they’re granted immunity to testify against their former accomplices. In this case the immunity is moral, not legal, and it’s granted by partisan media, not prosecutors.

There’s another dimension to conversions that makes Cohen and Avenatti attractive. In some cases, the worse the convert’s character is, the more powerful their conversion becomes.

That’s obviously not true in a legal setting, where an eyewitness with a long rap sheet who turns state’s evidence risks being discredited on cross-examination, but it’s true in religious contexts. No one blinks when a pious man converts from one faith to another, but when a criminal finds religion and reforms his ways? There’s no testament more compelling. Any creed that can move a wicked man to repent must have a healthy amount of truth to it.

The fact that Cohen and Avenatti identified so strongly with one side politically, behaved so badly as members, and now claim to have seen the light gives partisan media on each side an irresistible narrative about corruption and redemption. Each man may have lacked credibility before his conversion, but … he’s changing. With repentance comes forgiveness.

A media outlet whose highest duty is to inform or persuade will avoid platforming low-credibility figures. A media outlet whose highest duty is to validate the audience’s belief in its own righteousness will not only platform them, it’ll grant them a degree of moral absolution in exchange for affirming that belief.

Even if there’s reason to believe their “conversion” is insincere, which there is with the two Michaels.

It must have occurred to the editors at Fox News and the New York Post that a man like Avenatti who’s serving a long sentence in federal prison has a selfish reason to ally himself with a presidential frontrunner known for issuing pardons to allies who’ve proved their “loyalty.” And it must have occurred to the editors at MSNBC that Cohen’s awakening about Trump coincided with his decision to cooperate with authorities in exchange for leniency on numerous criminal charges he faced in 2018.

But so what? The apparent Damascene moment each man has experienced doesn’t need to be genuine, any more than MSNBC’s wildest theories about Trump colluding with Russia or Fox’s suspicions about a rigged election needed to be substantiated. Cohen and Avenatti have been granted Strange New Respect not because they deserve it but because validating the audience’s moral superiority requires it.

I can’t fault either of them for being eager to take advantage.

Particularly for someone whose reputation has been shattered, it must be exhilarating to have a community offer you forgiveness and acceptance if only you’ll endorse its beliefs.

Without the virtual communities that have grown up around talk radio and cable news and the blogosphere and social media, there would be more downside than upside for Michael Cohen and Michael Avenatti to admit to having had a change of heart about Trump. The relationships they’d built on the right and left, respectively, would fracture when they did so—and there’d be nothing to replace them, at least not immediately. The process of earning the trust and goodwill of their new political allies on the other side would be a long one without a robust partisan media infrastructure to speed it along, with no guarantee of success.

But that infrastructure does exist, in spades. Access to the virtual communities it serves is only one Fox News or MSNBC segment away. Which leaves us with a grand irony of this era in politics: As freakishly partisan and tribally polarized as the two sides have become, political conversions have never been easier.

The prospect of receiving instant grace from an extant virtual community has encouraged side-switching from many people more esteemed than Cohen and Avenatti. Take, for example, George Conway, who in a few years went from being known mainly as Kellyanne Conway’s better half to one of the most popular anti-Trump commentators in the country, with frequent appearances on cable news and a Twitter following of more than 2 million people

In noting that, I don’t mean to imply that Conway’s feelings about Trump aren’t sincere, only that the affirmation and gratitude he’s received for speaking out presumably made him more willing to bear the considerable personal costs he’s incurred by doing so. If a man is considering burning the bridges he’s built on the right, it must be an enormous relief—and inducement—to see a number of newly built bridges suddenly open up on the left.

That dynamic cuts the other way too. Journalists Matt Taibbi and Glenn Greenwald spent most of their careers cultivating an audience on the anti-establishment left. As the populist energy in American politics shifted from left to right, they shifted with it by taking up cultural hobby horses more closely associated with MAGA types. Alienating one’s longtime readers is risky business for a journalist—unless a virtual community already exists on the other side that can be easily reached and that’s sure to be receptive to his point of view. 

Again, that’s not to accuse Taibbi or Greenwald of letting filthy lucre dictate their political views; someone who’s motivated by money would be a fool to abandon a successful livelihood on one side of the aisle for the mere possibility of a successful livelihood on the other. As with Conway, the incentive is moral more so than financial. If your politics have changed and you expect to be ostracized because of it, it’s not only reassuring to find a virtual community that’s eager to embrace you for having done the right thing, it’s encouragement to keep going in the direction you’re inclined to go.

That’s partly why The Dispatch exists, of course. We’re not here to morally validate our readers but we do aim to provide a bit of community for Trump-skeptical conservatives who are sorely in want of one. It’s also why platforms exist that are, more or less, the opposite of this one. If not for the fact that an enormous and energetic virtual community of post-liberal cranks thrives online, for instance, I doubt that the former host of Crossfire would be willing to share thoughts like this publicly:

It wasn’t so long ago that Tucker Carlson would walk out of political events where attendees insisted on “just asking questions” about Building 7. His descent into hypercontrarian madness over the last few years might have happened even if there weren’t a robust alt-media industry that caters to kooks cheering him on—but I doubt it. It takes a lot of positive reinforcement from one’s audience to convince a formerly sane man to film himself admiring coin-operated grocery-cart locks in a Moscow supermarket.

Whether sincere or opportunistic, political conversion involves risk. The Cambrian explosion in partisan media we’ve seen on television and online over the last 25 years has reduced that risk by assuring fledgling converts of every stripe that a virtual community will be there to embrace them warmly if they continue on the path they’re on. In some cases, as with the two Michaels, that path leads from disgrace back toward respectability—or a simulacrum of it.

And sometimes it leads the other way, from respectability toward radicalization and further disgrace. Tucker Carlson has been mentioned as a future candidate for president; instead of pursuing mainstream politics to maximize his appeal, he let the adulation of a virtual community egg him on toward self-sabotaging conspiratorial nonsense. Ditto for Candace Owens, who pivoted from The Daily Wire to entertaining Jew-baiters with moral equivalencies about all of the innocent Germans the Allies killed during World War II. There’s a big community for stuff like that, just not one that a decent person—let alone an aspiring politician—would ever belong to.

Which leaves us with one more irony. Because so much of the political media ecosystem is devoted to morally validating its audience, political conversions have never been easier for their critics to dismiss. Even the earnest ones. Especially the earnest ones.

I wonder how many times Liz Cheney has been told over the past three years that she’s taken the position on Trump that she has because she craves the allegedly vast wealth and glory that only a contributor’s gig at CNN or MSNBC can bring.

Every conservative critic of Trumpy populism who works in politics or media knows that feeling. Not one of us has been spared the accusation that our antagonism toward the right is driven by a desire to ingratiate ourselves to the mainstream media, even those of us who’ve never done a media appearance. (Including on our own employer’s podcasts!)

It’s idiotic. If you’ve built a career in right-wing politics and will say anything to maximize your money and fame, the obvious move is to double and triple down on Trump the way that someone like Charlie Kirk has, not to take your chances with an audience across the aisle. With rare exceptions like the two Michaels, the only reason to articulate a crisis of conscience about your political allies is because you feel sincerely morally compelled to do so—and hope that those allies might reflect on your criticism and resolve to improve.

But they don’t improve. Instead, mindful of the insatiable appetite outlets like Fox News and MSNBC have for validating their audiences, they shrug and disparage the earnest political conversion before them as just another bit of opportunistic repositioning by a disgruntled partisan eager to exploit how partisan media operates.

And you know what? It’s hard to blame them when you turn on the TV and see Michael Cohen or Michael Avenatti on the air. In 2024.

It’s bad enough that we have the two Michaels still polluting public debate, each for obviously self-interested reasons, but much worse that earnest conversions will be more readily dismissed because of it by those who might otherwise have been moved by them. Strange New Respect for those who don’t deserve it means less respect for those who do. 

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.