As he sat and smirked in front of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on Thursday, one thing was clear: Martin Shkreli does not care for one minute that many people—most people—may perceive him to be a bad guy. An asshole. Worse.
All Shkreli, the ex-CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, needs to reaffirm this image right now is a white cat to sinisterly stroke. Or a waxed moustache to toy with.
Shkreli simply won’t relent from, or apologize for, or acknowledge anything suspect about, raising the price of the life-saving drug Daraprim from $13.50 to $750 per pill.
And in front of the House Committee on Thursday, Shkreli played his boo-hiss part magnificently: He treated the committee members as dolts, an inconvenience, and to be insulted and chided themselves.
“I intend to follow advice of my counsel, not yours,” Shkreli said, invoking the Fifth Amendment so often that eventually the Committee told him to bugger off, as he clearly had no intention of telling them anything.
It is rare to find somebody outside of show business, or the fictional mind of an author, so willing to embrace their villainous status.
In our real world, villainy is something judged by others, and conferred upon you. And so figures like Richard Nixon, widely reviled for their actions, rarely bask in the negative spotlight shined upon them. They seek to atone or explain, or disappear from public life.
Reality television may produce pantomime villain figures like Simon Cowell, Richard Hatch, and Omarosa Manigault—but even they, famous for their cruel put-downs or penchant for confrontation and upset, also seek to show different, more tempered sides of themselves. Or deny they are quite as bad as their agents, publicists, and the media tempest around them conspire to have us believe they are.
Fiction, television, and film have given us wonderful villains, some nuanced, some psychotic, and some unapologetically unapologetic like Shkreli. His opaque behavior thus far has resembled a primetime soapy baddie, like a grinning J.R. Ewing or Alexis from Dynasty, with dashes of the mysterious too (there are shades of Moriarty and the dead-eyed Patrick Bateman). His cruel price-hiking has led to him playing a role out in public akin to Cruella de Vil in a sober suit.
Social media loves villains. Social media is made for the generation of automatic, lightning-fast villainy. But again—depending on your political views, whether that villain is Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders or Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio or Carly Fiorina—this conferred villainy is partisan, personal, and bestowed from you upon them.
Only Trump, the ultimate creature of reality television, the showman whose outrageousness blooms under a Klieg light, courts villainy antagonistically, but even then he—quite unlike Shkreli—retreats to the embrace of his supporters and desperate TV bookers to try and make himself loved again.
Watching and reading about Shkreli is to observe somebody, almost admirably, in radical retreat from any bid for popularity or social acceptance. He is blunt, crude, and antagonistic. It is his way, or—well, not the highway, he just doesn’t care to engage with you if you don’t agree with him.
As the members of the Committee saw on Thursday, he feels he has nothing to explain or justify. Will there come a time for the eight-page, softening glossy magazine profile, where we discover some traumatic past life event, or where he seeks public acceptance? At this point it seems unlikely.
While there may be nothing admirable in what Shkreli stands for, in our era of people-pleasers—of playing at being camera-friendly when you are anything but; promising something, anything, to make yourself likeable and electable—here is someone who stands by their unpopularity, who has not backed down; indeed, who has merely placed themselves proudly adjacent to their benighted public image.
Shkreli is an original: a non-theatrical villain, a baddie at ease in his baddie skin, a roughly cast ball of bluntness who won’t make nice, and who defies us to make him nice, or make sense of his bold animus. He doesn’t want to empathize, he doesn’t seek to elicit more boos and hisses, but knows they will come. So be it.
When Shkreli smirked at the Committee, when his whole body eye-rolled its disdain for the Committee’s members, he bought to my mind other, very rare public villains who don’t much care what you think about them, because they will continue to do things their way, whatever the negative headlines blare.
Such brave swimmers against the public approval tide are rare, but include Leona Helmsley, the “Queen of Mean,” who thought taxes were only for little people and who once allegedly told a waiter get down on his knees and beg for his job after she noted some spilt water on a saucer.
Helmsley, who died in 2007, never sought to soften the image conferred upon her, or indeed the one she acted out. She lived with it—although she was generous to certain charities—and died with it.
Margaret Thatcher (less so her great pal Ronald Reagan, who possessed a folksier public image) was the archetypal conviction politician.
Friend or foe would have to acknowledge that all she did—waging war in the Falklands, the pursuit of privatization, the war on Britain’s unions, her lack of care for the poor and disadvantaged, the homophobia she signed into law—was done with certainty and an imperious arrogance that even the ministers in her cabinets shrank from challenging.
Even at her most unpopular, she did not seek approval; even when she was forced from power, she relished one last scrap in the House of Commons. Not one inch did Thatcher ever give.
Rand Paul has a touch of Thatcher’s bloody-minded intransigence. Other politicians do as well, but they seek to sugar whatever bitter pill they are selling to the public: Paul does not, though one wonders whether Paul could ever stand so aligned with such an overtly reprehensible act as the Shkreli price hike.
Shkreli certainly seems happy to, and in his proudly displayed, devil-may-care pursuit of maximum dollar—and for his blatancy in what he is doing, and why he is doing it—Shkreli has proved not only that the devil may get the best lines, but so far anyway, also the last laugh.