If you’ve seen any of the many cuts of the modestly viral video of Bernie Sanders dressing down a ham-headed congressman in 1995 for a drive-by criticism of “homos in the military,” you’ve seen Randy “Duke” Cunningham, who was the very same ham-headed congressman mentioned earlier in this sentence. A decorated Navy fighter pilot who became a CNN military analyst and finally a Republican representative for San Diego, Cunningham was serving the second of his seven terms in Congress when he wound up on the wrong side of then-Rep. Sanders; Cunningham somehow slipped his slur into a statement that was ostensibly about the Clean Water Act.
Cunningham had an eventful life, which mostly played out as a series of tragicomic comeuppances that he barely seemed to notice. His personal fame was built as the man who shot down a famous North Vietnamese ace known as “Colonel Tomb,” who later proved to be either wholly apocryphal or a conflation of various pilots. In office, Cunningham was a vigorous advocate of the most onerous and unhelpful aspects of the War On Drugs, but his son got less than half the mandatory minimum sentence for drug trafficking when he was arrested moving 400 pounds of marijuana in 1996. He passed a law that let cops carry guns wherever they wanted while off-duty and, to his credit, became an advocate for prostate cancer testing and research, albeit after he got prostate cancer himself. He seems maybe a little bit drunk in that video, but also Cunningham was just always like that. He was one of the congressmen who were, and always are, like that.
That is a strange sort of job, but the good news for representatives like Cunningham is that it doesn’t involve much actual work. The people that elect them do not expect them to advocate for them in any meaningful way, because that is not what they are hiring them to do. The job of congressmen like Cunningham is to be kind of an entertainer, and also sort of a sour mascot for the moods of their electorally safe and otherwise roiling districts, and not really so much a legislator or leader as a designated local famous person. Cunningham was, by accounts, very popular at fundraising events. In 2005, when he pled guilty to tax evasion, fraud, and taking more than $2 million in bribes, he was living rent-free on a yacht he’d rechristened The Duke-Stir, which was owned by a military contractor to whom Cunningham had previously sold his San Diego home at an outrageous mark-up and whose products he’d pushed on the Pentagon.
It emerged during his trial that Cunningham had written out a sort of bribe menu, on his own congressional stationery, detailing which of his services could be had for what price. At the end of the eight-year prison sentence he served for these crimes, Cunningham wrote a letter to a federal judge asking for his right to own guns to be restored. He would be living in Arkansas, Cunningham assured the judge, “far from the Union-Tribune,” the San Diego paper that broke the story of his criminality, and which he believed had unjustly persecuted him. “The IRS has me poor for the rest of my life,” Cunningham wrote of the penalties levied against him for the bribes he took, in a letter written with a command of basic grammar that would earn any eighth-grader a “See Me” note. “Don’t guess we can do much for our veterans after all.”
This kind of abstruse self-pity, and this strange superclass of furious clowns, unpleasant and repetitive and unlovable and permanent though they are, are something like a way of life in the many places where the grim ritual of electing or re-electing some caricature or other has come to stand in for representative democracy. Those elected officials and their frantic signifying politics get worse—more strident, dumber and more desperately attention-seeking and ever more vacant—as everything else gets worse. If you follow American politics, you know that this has left us in a bad spot, and more to the point with a number of absolutely unbearable elected representatives who would manifestly be unable to hold down any job beyond the extremely important and highly public ones that they have, and which they will likely retain for some time.
It’s the nature of how and how badly the country is governed that most of these local creatures just kind of hang around until their districts are eliminated or until they encounter some more vicious and highly evolved mutant; Cunningham is an outlier here mostly because he actually faced some consequences for his actions, and at 79 could very well still be in office had he not. In the absence of anything like actual political agency due to various perversities and betrayals upstream, the abandonment that they perform and of which they are huffy living emblems just becomes normal, and delivers ever more abnormal and disturbing new realities. But, moment by moment and from one circumstance to the next, it mostly just makes itself inevitable. You only ever have so many choices, and those choices are only intermittently really choices at all.
Unless, that is, you have a billion dollars. In that case you will still be stuck voting for whoever will go on representing your district and state like everyone else, but you can also use your unimaginable and objectively unethical wealth to expand your agency. You can help candidates in districts far from your own, and in races far more competitive than the one in which you’re stuck voting. Or, if you are Charles B. Johnson, the 88-year-old billionaire and principal owner of the San Francisco Giants, you can just give the most money allowable by law directly to the absolute dumbest, loudest, and worst people possible.
“According to FEC filings,” SFGate reported last week, “[Johnson] maxed out donations to a dozen far-right political figures who’ve espoused disturbing beliefs, challenged the 2020 Electoral College results and used inflammatory, violent language prior to the Jan. 6 Capitol riots that left five dead.” They had reported earlier that Johnson and his wife, Ann, had maxed out their donations to Lauren Boebert, the cartoonishly thirsty QAnon-adjacent Colorado representative. Johnson, like many old rich people, has long supported the Republican candidates who, regardless of the areas they ostensibly represent, are likeliest to look out for the interests of him and his class. He has been much more generous than even his wealthy peers—an ESPN/FiveThirtyEight investigation showed that the nearly $11 million Johnson has donated to Republican politicians since 2015 was many times that of any other owner.
What is more remarkable, given that most members of Johnson’s rancid super-class do their giving through scammy foundations and PACs and other plausibly deniable administrative obscenities, is the extent to which Johnson went out of his way to write personal checks to the foremost trolls in American politics:
That list is as follows: Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala.; Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark.; Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga. (Johnson also gave $125,000 to the Georgia United Victory PAC); Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C.; Rep. Dan Bishop, R-N.C.; Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio; Rep. Bob Good, R-Va.; Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md.; as well as congressional candidates Laura Loomer, Jeanne Ives, Claudia Tenney, and Ted Howze.SFGate
Only the last and most anonymous of those were found to have received Johnson’s money through joint-fundraising outlets, which means that Johnson took the time to personally write a $2,800 check to everyone else—to the woman who chained herself to Twitter’s New York offices because she was banned for being too oafish a bigot, and to seemingly all of the most livid inflamed infections in American politics, and also to Literally Tommy Tuberville. It was a dense enough concentration of mutants, in fact, that Johnson was moved to issue a statement on it late Friday.
It is, as Johnson so eloquently notes, often difficult to predict the future. Sometimes it is easier than others, though. Money given to Lauren Boebert, for instance, is very likely to be used for Some Lauren Boebert Shit, very little of which is likely to benefit her constituents, or even honestly her donors, or really anyone but Lauren Boebert herself. But while Johnson somehow missed on all his predictions re: how the reactionary clowns he supported would behave in the future when given the chance to endorse a vague and flubby and finally ridiculous coup attempt on behalf of the single worst man of his generation, his failure goes beyond that.
Johnson is old enough to know better, and rich enough that it doesn’t remotely matter what all he knows, but the most important elision in his statement—you can find it right above the nonexistent sentence at the end where Johnson says that he has learned from his not-quite-acknowledged mistake—is also the one that’s done the most to get this country to this wildly uneasy place. What Johnson believes about who should be in government isn’t very interesting, or very surprising; it’s who would most reliably and with the least possible conflict consent to serve him and his narrow and cheesy interests. It’s the bit about the reasoned debates and the halls of whatever that sticks out, though, and which strikes the flattest note. Johnson knows that any Republican candidate would be likely to push the policies he favors. He still picked the ones he picked, not because they’re the most servile but because they’re the most entertaining in the corny and hectoring ways that are the state-of-the-art in reactionary politics. He was not moved by Lauren Boebert’s vision for America, which cannot be expressed beyond a vague and relentless resentment of various absent others. He just saw her on TV and liked it.
What Johnson can’t quite say in his statement is that it is very hard to tell who is sincere right now—which candidates talk endlessly about revanchist fantasies of terrible violence and ugliness because that is what they really want, and which just are willing to do so because It Gets The People Going. In a culture that reveres and conflates wealth and success as America’s does, there is always going to be the temptation to imagine that a rich and powerful and accomplished man like Johnson would recognize some kind of distinction where those fantasies and that rhetoric are concerned, or just have some fidelity to a principle bigger than Owning The Libs and his own personal bottom line. At some point, though, the distance between what Johnson claims to believe and the show he is paying to watch puts the lie to that idea, or maybe just clears it up. Most Americans have a degraded and degrading helplessness thrust upon them by the failures of our politics, and we live in the wreckage of that. The luckiest and wealthiest Americans, for their part, have access to much better seats.