Anthony Weiner changed the course of American history when he tweeted out a picture of his dick on May 27, 2011.
This is not an exaggeration. There is a direct line between Anthony Weiner’s penis and the rise of far-right media, the current state of the country’s biggest city, and the election of Donald Trump. Anthony Weiner is omnipresent over the last 10 years: It is inevitable that if there is a major political moment, Weiner is somewhere on its edges.
He personifies the decade in US politics: Weiner began the 2010s with roaring hope and ended it in total defeat. His scandal is unquestionably funny — until you question it, then recognize how much personal tragedy undergirds the whole thing.
Weiner was one of the biggest Democratic stars of the early Obama years. Just before the start of the decade, in 2008, he was a “dashing bachelor” who had represented his New York City district in the House for about 10 years. His old roommate and good friend Jon Stewart hosted one of the most influential shows on TV. Considered a potential future mayor of New York City, at a minimum, he was one-half of a political power couple: In July 2010, he married Hillary Clinton’s close aide Huma Abedin at a wedding officiated by Bill Clinton.
Marrying a politician can be tough, Bill Clinton reportedly teased at the wedding, because it’s “easy to distrust them.”
At the turn of the decade, Weiner was everywhere. By 2010, with his infectious energy and charisma, he had begun to outshine his former boss and mentor, Sen. Chuck Schumer. Late that July, he became one of the first members of Congress to go truly viral online, with a speech on the House floor screaming at Republicans for not backing a bill to give health care aid to 9/11 recovery workers — a model speech for how to use your platform to own the new politics of the social media era.
Then, in May 2011, things changed. A link from a third-party image host called yfrog appeared on Weiner’s Twitter account — a link that led to a picture of his underwear-draped penis. The way the picture was released, how it spread, and who spread it was the first pivot point for Weiner’s decade.
“Hacked or hung?” asked BigGovernment, Andrew Breitbart’s site, which amplified the picture. Weiner initially said he was the victim of a hack; Breitbart and others kept digging in.
The days following the release of the first picture featured some of the first-ever high-octane internet sleuthing, with professional and amateur journalists scouring Yahoo forums and social media for forensic evidence of what Weiner was really up to. Even before the initial tweet, a group of right-wing activists had been carefully tracking Weiner’s tweets, a practice that was a novelty then and is standard now. Results included: shirtless Weiner pics, radio hosts tweeting an alleged picture of Weiner’s penis obtained from Breitbart, and much theorizing about the woman Weiner appeared to have tweeted at.
By June 6, under immense pressure, Weiner decided to hold a press conference in New York. The first person at the podium was Andrew Breitbart, clomping right over the decaying remains of the wall separating what was online and what was off.
Breitbart, who said he was in New York coincidentally, strolled up to the stage at a Sheraton hotel before all of the assembled press waiting for Weiner to show up, introduced himself, and took questions from reporters. He asked Weiner for a personal apology for what he’d said about his reporting. When Weiner came to the podium, he confessed that he had sent sexual photos and messages to multiple women online over a period of years, and said he “deeply” regretted his actions but would not resign from Congress. He announced he would resign from Congress 10 days later.
There was poetry here: Anthony Weiner exiting in disgrace, Andrew Breitbart arriving triumphant. Breitbart would die less than a year later, but it was just the start for his far-right media empire, launched with Anthony Weiner rocket fuel. By 2016, the platform and network Breitbart had created (and that some argue spun away from what he’d intended) would help revamp nationalist and racist politics in America.
Weiner’s dick pic downfall also helped inspire the first true Sext Panic. “Even though the word does not appear to have not made it into any major dictionaries yet, it has now been splashed across news stories nationwide,” the Atlantic wrote in a June 2011 exploration of where the word came from. According to Google Trends, interest in “sexting” was on the upswing by the time Weiner left Congress, peaking in July 2014.
Weiner was ready for a revival by 2013. In the 2010s, nobody was ever truly done and there was always a comeback to be found, even if it meant dancing on network TV. Weiner and Abedin opened their lives up for a New York Times profile that April, and he acknowledged that he was looking at that year’s New York City mayoral race. “I want to ask people to give me a second chance,” he told the Times. He formally announced his campaign a month later, saying he’d learned “some tough lessons.” The race was crowded, but Weiner had a clear chance — around the time he announced, he was polling second in the primary. A documentary crew was filming his comeback.
He did shit like this:
But he also did shit like this:
In July, new photos and messages showed up from Weiner acting under the confounding alias “Carlos Danger.” The pictures were first published by the Dirty, an early demonstration of the power even previously unknown online media could have in politics. At a press conference soon after publication, Weiner, with Abedin beside him, admitted that he hadn’t stopped sexting after he resigned from Congress. “There is no question that what I did is wrong,” he said. “This behavior is behind me.”
Around that same time, a former Weiner campaign intern wrote a tell-all about her experience on the campaign for the New York Daily News, saying that the very messy campaign struggled to hire and retain staff interested in more than just getting in with Abedin ahead of a likely Hillary Clinton presidential run in 2016. The Weiner campaign went apeshit on the intern in response. The tell-all was an early published byline for the intern, Olivia Nuzzi, who would go on to become one of the decade’s best political journalists.
Weiner’s mayoral campaign began to quickly sink. The comeback was over, the documentary became something darker (you can now stream it on Netflix). The collapse, a complete circus that pulled in even more national media than New York normally gets, helped open up a path for Bill de Blasio, a long-shot leftist. In a backward way, Weiner wound up having a role in one of the first big progressive electoral victories of the decade (your mileage may vary on what has happened under de Blasio since).
But nothing proved Weiner’s incidental influence more than the 2016 presidential election.
With Abedin working as one of Clinton’s closest aides on her campaign, Weiner in 2016 began to pundit more on TV. New public appearances for Weiner could mean only one thing: new leaked pictures of Anthony Weiner’s sexts, this time in a New York Post spread with a photo of a shirtless Weiner in bed with his 4-year-old son.
At first, the new sexting allegations were merely personally devastating: the scandal pulled Weiner's personal failings back into the news and Abedin announced in late August that she and Weiner would separate.
The political devastation followed: By late September, Weiner was under investigation by the FBI for a whole separate episode involving his sexually explicit communication with a 15-year-old. As part of that investigation, the FBI seized Weiner’s iPad, cellphone, and laptop. On that laptop, investigators found emails that Abedin had forwarded to Weiner that the FBI deemed “pertinent” to its previously closed investigation into how Clinton used a private email server.
Just days before the presidential election, James Comey, then the FBI director, informed Congress in a letter that the FBI had found emails on the laptop, reigniting the cooled Clinton scandal. The letter, FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver wrote in 2017, “upended the news cycle and soon halved Clinton’s lead in the polls, imperiling her position in the Electoral College.” As Silver and others have since argued, without the letter Trump very likely would not be president. If the letter never existed, “I believe the evidence shows I would have won,” Clinton said in 2017.
“If I could change time, Hillary Clinton wouldn’t have used a private email server,” Comey, now a too-earnest Trump critic, said at 2018’s New Yorker festival. “Anthony Weiner certainly wouldn’t have a laptop — maybe wouldn’t have even been born.”
After his collapse, Weiner still held the imagination of the tabloid press and its giant audience — a perfect celebrity heel for an era that loves to hate, or at least revel in someone else’s embarrassment. On Nov. 4, 2016, four days before Clinton would lose the presidency to Trump, the New York Post published exclusive photos of Weiner in treatment for sex addiction at an equine therapy center in Tennessee. Weiner, the Post reported, “turned decidedly glum when approached by The Post and asked for comment. He refused to say a word before riding slowly off.”
The following May, Weiner pleaded guilty to transferring obscene material to a minor. "I accept full responsibility for my conduct," he said in court while crying. "I have a sickness, but I do not have an excuse."
Abedin took her young son and mother-in-law to see Weiner in prison for Father’s Day last year, and the Daily Mail had a photographer capture every moment; you can see Weiner’s son carrying an Amazon package, and you can see Abedin sitting alone in a car. Weiner served 18 months in prison and was released this spring.
The “dashing bachelor” of 2008 is a bachelor again, but now his dates are subject to jeering in Page Six; “Who would date him?” an unnamed source in the paper asked this summer.
Weiner's influence is stamped all over the 2010s. He helped create social media politics, fully embraced it, and was quickly swallowed by it. He rose on YouTube and crashed on Twitter. He was the protagonist of American politics’ first sexting scandal and helped elevate Andrew Breitbart and nontraditional journalism in the process. His comeback attempt was the kind of moral theater the 2010s lived for. It sucked in national camera crews and it wound up leading to a leftist mayor of New York. Through an inexplicable inability to control his online impulses, he further entangled Hillary Clinton in her email investigations at exactly the wrong time and altered the 2016 election.
Weiner’s life choices are the butterfly effect of the 2010s. If he didn’t make the decisions he made, if the former director of the FBI had his way and he’d never even existed, would our politics look anything like they do right now? Would Donald Trump be president? ●