In the world of hardball politics, self-immolation is a fine art.
What is politics if not the pursuit, accumulation, and application of naked power? Occasionally that effort is done for the genuine benefit of others. More often than not, however, it stems from a combination of self-interest and ambition, and any associated altruism is merely a happy byproduct. To grasp and maintain power is a balancing act in which sheer cunning, the need to deliver — at least in part — on promises, and selfish advancement are in a perpetual struggle with one another. Not everyone who gets into the game can pull it off; next November, count how many incumbent members of Congress lose their seats after just a single term.
And even those that can play the game aren’t always able to keep it up in the long run. Sometimes those exits are quiet and dignified — a low-key retirement from public life, or a pivot toward some other, less cutthroat enterprise than politicking. But sometimes, politicians fall from grace with such hubris and velocity that not only does it define any and everything they do from that moment onward, but it retroactively mars their past accomplishments as well.
With that in mind, it’s my unfortunate pleasure to introduce you to the inaugural class of the Mic’s Political Implosion Hall of Fame, an illustrious institution I made up last week, in which membership is both a badge of honor and a fecal spot on one’s permanent record. Because this is the Hall’s freshman year, we’ve included some all-time greats alongside some bright new talent. From classic acts of career suicide to ongoing instances of self-immolation, I give to you the six hallowed members of the inaugural class.
Who better to lead off the inaugural class of self-defeating has-been-coulda-beens than perhaps the most mocked former politician of the past five years whose name doesn’t rhyme with “schmonald schmump”? Truthfully, it’s hard to imagine a time when Rudy Giuliani wasn’t a national laughingstock (at least among people who don’t make their bedding decisions based on his expert opinion). Still, believe it or not, Giuliani was once a celebrated federal prosecutor who parlayed his tough-on-crime persona into a successful mayoral run. While the hype around Giuliani’s pre-9/11 tenure as mayor of New York City was an exercise in myth-making, rather than actual accomplishments, his time in office was largely defined by the terrorist attacks that marred the city’s skyline, bringing national attention to a man who’d come to be known as “America’s Mayor.” It’s a reputation upon which Giuliani would largely coast for the next decade and a half, through various failed runs for higher office, and — finally — as chief attack dog for the nascent presidential campaign of Donald Trump. It became so central to the Giuliani brand that in 2007, then-Sen. Joe Biden joked that all Giuliani needed to make a sentence was “a noun, a verb, and 9/11.”
It was in the Trump era, however, that Giuliani’s very public implosion would really pick up steam. From disastrous television appearances ostensibly designed to run interference for his client, the president, during Trump’s first impeachment, to allegations of a crippling drinking problem, the Giuliani of the past five years is — temperament-wise, if not philosophically — practically unrecognizable when compared to the relatively sedate, measured politician of the early 2000s.
So what changed? It’s hard to pinpoint a single factor in Giuliani’s precipitous fall. Clearly it can be traced to his enthusiastic embrace of the Trumpian template for brazen lying, overt racism, and shameless self-promotion. That obsequiousness toward his latest political benefactor, coupled with a series of unrelated but nonetheless humiliating post-election episodes, all but sealed his reputation as a total flop. And given his advancing age and reputation for world-class tippling, it’s understandable how Giuliani’s carefully crafted image as America’s Mayor could crumble in the 20 years between 9/11 and today.
So hail to thee, Rudy Giuliani! May your perpetually embarrassing implosion never cease.
To say Sarah Palin has undergone a political implosion is something of a red herring. Yes, the former Alaska governor and one-time vice presidential candidate was once in a position of relative power and influence — never more so than during the interstitial period between when she was nominated as John McCain’s running mate, and when she started actually opening her mouth.
But even at the height of her career in public service, Palin was already mired in the sort of scandals that pointed to the inevitable collapse of her “hockey mom” persona and its eventual replacement as the pre-Trump embodiment of the mash-up between reality TV and politics. From her start as a city council member, throughout her tenure as mayor of the small city of Wasilla, and on through her time as governor of Alaska, Palin’s governing style hinged largely on purging dissent and financial mismanagement. In one notable case, that purge overlapped with Palin’s personal life, after her office pushed to fire a state trooper who was, incidentally, involved in a custody battle with his ex-wife, who just so happened to be Palin’s sister.
In spite — and perhaps unaware — of Palin’s, er, “bumpy” career history, McCain chose Palin to be his vice presidential candidate during the 2008 presidential election, elevating the first-term governor to a figure of national prominence. In doing so, he also gave her that much farther to fall when the campaign imploded. And fall she did. In the immediate aftermath of Barack Obama’s electoral victory, Palin quit her job and launched a failed reality TV series and a failed digital subscription service. She also made time to accuse people linking her picture of then-Democratic Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords’s congressional district under a crosshairs to Giffords’s subsequent shooting of having committed a “blood libel” against her, invoking the notoriously antisemitic terminology reserved for the bigoted myth that Jews eat Christian children.
While Palin’s subsequent dabblings in politics have been mostly limited to ignorable candidate endorsements, she has managed to stay in the limelight, mainly as a source of ongoing tabloid-esque headlines that center on Palin family drama and crass grabs for relevance more than for any policy opinions. After years of repeatedly failing to recapture the spotlight she briefly enjoyed as a serious political figure, Palin remains a draw in the small but thriving world of MAGA grifters and fever swamp denizens willing to shell out 200 bucks for a personalized message on Cameo. But it’s clear that with each abortive effort to be a major national figure again, she’s only managed to implode a bit more.
There was a time not all that long ago when California Republican Rep. Devin Nunes was in a position to leap out of the pack of generic doughy-faced conservatives and really make a name for himself as a major player in Washington. Nunes — a former dairy farmer — assumed the chairmanship of the powerful House Intelligence Committee in time to oversee the years-long investigation into Hillary Clinton’s role in the 2012 Benghazi attacks. The investigation ultimately yielded absolutely nothing of substance, but was nevertheless able to galvanize conservatives against the former secretary of state as she plotted her run for president and became a star-maker for a few otherwise unremarkable Republican congressmen, including Nunes, South Carolina’s Trey Gowdy, and Utah’s Jason Chaffetz.
It was from that same perch on the House Intelligence Committee that Nunes was also able to repeatedly hamstring investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election — an obviously threatening prospect for then-President Donald Trump, to whom Nunes had conspicuously hitched his political wagon. Nunes repeated this pattern during Trump’s impeachment trial, serving as one of the main GOP pointmen on the president’s behalf. As a defender — and beneficiary — of Trump’s, Nunes seemed poised for bigger things in the conservative ecosystem.
But, like Icarus flying too close to the sun, Nunes’s profile-raising time in the Trump-tinged spotlight was in the end the catalyst for his inevitable implosion. His eagerness to file lawsuits at the merest hint of mild criticism helped define the congressman for many as unserious and thin skinned. In particular, a suit asking for $250 million in damages against Twitter, political consultant Liz Mair, and — hilariously — the parody social media account “Devin Nunes’ Cow” both solidified his reputation as a litigious lightweight and, in a strikingly predictable instance of the Streisand Effect, boosted the parody account’s follower count dramatically.
With the Democratic takeover of the House in 2020, Nunes’s political clout is much diminished, and he has been reduced to the sort of stunts reserved for those looking to keep their name in the headlines without having any actual power to do so. Still, with Republicans in serious contention to regain the congressional majority in the coming midterm elections, it’s possible that Nunes’s implosion might just be a temporary affliction.
Kris Kobach has worn a lot of hats during his career in politics: Kansas’s inept Secretary of State, toothless voter suppression attack dog, failed gubernatorial candidate, failed Senate candidate. It’s the sort of conservative CV that inspires both a measure of begrudging respect for the sheer energy expended, and also a significant sense of pity at Kobach’s perennial loserdom.
To be clear, even as Kansas’s secretary of state, the writing was on the wall for Kobach’s inevitable implosion. When you’re a high-ranking state official in the year 2018 and your voter suppression effort is so riddled with basic legal mistakes that a federal judge tells you to go back to school — not as an insult, mind you, but as an actual “you don’t know the law well enough so you need to take the following classes” order — let’s just say it doesn’t bode well for your political future. However, buoyed by Trump’s uncanny ability to identify and then elevate the most uninspiring, medium-talent backbenchers imaginable, Kobach’s political star continued to rise nonetheless.
Which isn’t to say he actually accomplished much. The voter suppression panel Kobach was charged with running became a depressing farce before it was finally put out of its misery. His return to state politics was marred by members of his own party endorsing his Democratic opponent for governor (Kobach lost), and his second swing at a run for office never made it past the primary stage. For someone with a national profile in a red state that voted for Trump by double digits in 2016, Kobach’s ability to spend years glued to his patron’s side and still lose over and over again is sincerely impressive.
Still, hope springs eternal, and Kobach has evidently decided that the third time’s the charm. This past spring the perennial loser announced plans to once again run for statewide office — this time as Kansas’s attorney general. It’s a lofty goal, but given Kobach’s apparent, erm, difficulties actually understanding how the law works, it’s perhaps not the best use of his time. Or anyone else’s.
When former professional wrestler and beer salesman Jesse “The Body” Ventura won his race for governor of Minnesota in 1998, he proudly proclaimed he’d “shocked the world.” As a third-party candidate in a state with a healthy liberal bent, Ventura’s surprise victory over then-St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman and Skip Humphrey, a former Minnesota attorney general and senator as well as the son of beloved former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, was at the time as unexpected as Donald Trump’s would prove to be nearly two decades later. And while Ventura’s tenure as chief executive of the North Star State was marked by unprofessional optics and missteps, his administration was largely a conventional, if disappointing, one; his chief political accomplishment belonged in the decidedly un-shocking arena of metropolitan public transport.
But after leaving office, the Body-turned-Mind put his newly free time to use, hinting at (but never pulling the trigger on) future runs for office, pushing conspiracy theories about the 9/11 terrorist attacks, palling around with Alex Jones, and hosting shows on Russia’s RT network.
While Ventura has used his post-gubernatorial national profile to speak out against U.S. military action while supporting cannabis legalization efforts, and same sex marriage, he has largely relegated himself to a limited role as a vocal libertarian gadfly whose actual influence is limited to the occasional “he used to be governor” remembrance. It’s not quite as spectacular an implosion as others on our list, but considering the seismic political reshuffling his initial election wrought, it’s easy to imagine a separate timeline in which Ventura stayed with politics, tightened up his act, and went on to even bigger things. His, then, is an implosion of possibility — of what might have been, compared to what ultimately was.
There was a time, way back in those halcyon days before the 2020 presidential election, when former Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard was a little known legislative backbencher with almost no name recognition outside of her home state of Hawaii. Then came her quixotic — and ultimately unsuccessful — run for the White House, and suddenly Congress’s first Hindu and Samoan-American voting member was a national figure, holding her own on the debate stage with political heavyweights like Bernie Sanders (whom she’d endorsed in 2016) and Joe Biden.
Still, Gabbard’s increased visibility in the political arena brought with it renewed scrutiny of her political past — and thus planted the seeds of her eventual implosion. Despite apologizing in 2019 for her long, well-documented history of homophobic, anti-gay advocacy work, Gabbard nevertheless went on to introduce a deeply transphobic bill that would effectively bar transgender athletes from playing women’s sports. She also introduced a separate bill to “protect” newborns that “survive” abortions — a redundancy in the medical field that seems more appropriate coming from a hard-right, anti-choice Republican — and routinely dabbles in overt Islamophobia while at the same time playing conspicuously coy about Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s use of chemical weapons on his own civilians. Indeed, Gabbard’s unexpected, top secret “fact-finding” trip to Syria in 2017 was largely condemned as a bizarre, right-wing-tinged foray into dictator-coddling from a Democratic congresswoman who’d already declared her willingness to side with then-President Trump on his staunch anti-interventionist policies.
After resigning from Congress during her presidential run, Gabbard has since been free to leverage her newfound national reputation as a springboard for multiple interviews with Tucker Carlson on Fox News, where she’s defended drone strikes that have killed entire families of innocent civilians and accused fellow Democrat Adam Schiff of being a “domestic enemy.”
While Gabbard’s regular media appearances (she’s also launched — of course — her own podcast) have likely kept her in the public eye long enough to ensure she maintains a national profile for the rest of her career, it’s hard to imagine her running for any higher office as a Democrat, given the trail of torched bridges she’s left behind. And while many of her politics skew conservative — particularly around issues of foreign policy and national security — there’s almost certainly no place for her in the MAGA-fied GOP either, thanks to her broad support for progressive causes like universal health care and gun control. A onetime presidential candidate without a political home, Gabbard seems content to snipe at Democrats from Fox News, for now — and to join the inaugural implosion class of course.
I’d like to congratulate all of this year’s inductees into Mic’s Political Implosion Hall of Fame. Truly, you’ve all racked up a lifetime’s worth of failures that sets you each apart from your peers. This freshman class of flops, failures, and has-beens sets an awfully high bar for implodees in the future, but I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that somehow there’ll be plenty of new nominees in years to come.