How relieved I was that he lost, and what might have happened if he had won
During the run-up to the 2020 election, I had this awful feeling in the pit of my stomach that it was a foregone conclusion. I was sure that Trump would win again. And nothing could sway that, nothing could assuage my fatalist melancholy. Even when polling swung in Biden’s favour, it just gave me — and anyone else with a memory surpassing a goldfish’s — flashbacks to 2016 and the widespread smug certainty that Hillary would win. I mean, she had a 98% probability of victory, remember? I certainly do. I also remember that we even had our pick of more sober, cautious, even downright skeptical projections, such as her having a 85% probability or a 71% probability. I learned a lot from the fact that those people whose polling data and forecasting models were so inconceivably, unbelievably wrong were able to so easily live it down and go on plying their trade. They just slapped themselves on the wrists, maybe threw a self-effacing tweet or two out there, and then carried on carrying on. Marvellous, isn’t it? A brief pretence of collective soul-searching was thought to suffice. As though that level of error is just bound to happen from time to time in any predictive field. As though meteorologists sometimes tell you there’s going to be a baking hot day and then it rolls around and a snowstorm occurs. Only in this case it was even worse, because it was a four-year blizzard we were treated to. Just think about how many Democrat voters saw all those headlines practically already celebrating Clinton’s inauguration and complacently sat home that November as a result. People expected — and I know this is shocking but bear with me — that the pronouncements of the pollster/analyst class would have some reasonably strong correlation to reality and I don’t blame them for their misplaced faith. They were sold a fraudulent bill of goods, and I don’t find it difficult to decide who should be paying the price for that.
Anyway, in 2020 it actually ran a bit deeper for me than merely being dead set upon not getting fooled by errant polling again. (Though that was indeed a part of it.) Trump getting re-elected just seemed like this horrible transcendental certainty. It had such an aura of inevitability to it that it was almost hard to even dread it; it became more a case of just pre-emptively steeling oneself to accept it coming to pass. I don’t know, it just seemed like all the prerequisites had snapped into place for it. I mean, conservative voters hadn’t exactly become less Trumpy during his first term, had they? Quite the opposite in fact. And Trump was going to have the GOP establishment wholly, full-throatedly on his side as he campaigned, rather than the somewhat ambivalent and/or halfhearted support he received from them back in ‘16 when they were tangibly still struggling to acclimatise to the embarrassment of having this dope as their standard-bearer. Plus, his campaign strategy seemed a bit more polished and his campaign staff seemed a bit more professional this time around. These various advantages added up to an obvious conclusion in my mind. So I just found myself thinking: here we are at this crucial turning point, this American penumbra, with one foot already firmly planted in midnight and the other foot not far behind. It really struck me as a done deal, I must admit. Trump seemed to have things all sewn up on his end.
I was also really flummoxed at the Democrats’ rather unpromising choice of champion. And more than a little mad too, given the paramount importance of the battle itself. Listen, I don’t necessarily have anything against Joe Biden. In a sense, I don’t really have any strong feelings towards him whatsoever. I know his policy platform and definitely have my issues with some of it — as I would with any Democrat candidate in the current climate, to be fair — but in all honesty I don’t know very much about him as a person. (I also haven’t yet boned up on all the particulars of his long history in politics, which is probably why I’m able to take refuge in relative apathy. Tell me if I’m wrong: it is sadly so often the case that the only way to preserve the non-loathsomeness of a given politician is to neglect to read their Wikipedia page in depth.) Just considering surface level stuff, he’s fairly likeable and, excluding a few unbecoming moments of ill-temper on the campaign trail, he at least projects the public persona of a decent man. It’s also hard to object to any of his very nice boilerplate about the need for a return to unity, civility, compassion, high-mindedness, reason, science, etc. For all the platitudes though, he really does talk like someone who authentically understands what’s wrong with the dire historical moment the country finds itself in, and feels deeply about how urgently it must be redressed. These are all box-ticking qualities which used to just be so par-for-the-course that they barely even registered, but the sad truth about having a wanton fucking hobgoblin in the White House for four years is that such things regain their importance and utility. It may make us uncomfortable to admit it, because it’s easier/cooler to insist that we only concern ourselves with substance not style, but there’s a real value to a president presenting themselves in a certain way, to a president not unashamedly being a dirtbag. Even if it really is just a pose of propriety or virtue, that still pays a sort of compliment to the electorate, because it acknowledges (and, in an odd meta way, reinforces — therein lies the value) that voters want someone with some moral fibre to represent them because it’s what they aspire to themselves.
My problem with Biden being selected as the Democratic nominee was primarily because I thought he was an unwise choice, practically speaking. I just didn’t think he had what it was going to take to win. First and foremost, there seemed to be little palpable passion for him as a person. There was just a lot of clamouring for anyone who could boot Trump out of the Executive Residence and a lot of talk about how a Biden-type could be a safe pair of hands and we could probably do a lot worse and so on. My point being that it just seemed like hardly anyone was excited for Joe Biden to become the president. Sure, he has a sort of charming good-natured grandpa-ish quality that some people enjoy and even on the other end of the spectrum it’s not exactly easy to find people who downright hate his guts (which, true enough, is a feat there’s definitely something to be said for.) And my impression is that in political circles he’s generally afforded a certain degree of respect as this old-school guy who somehow has good relationships with everyone of note in D.C. and knows how to get a tricky deal hammered out in a backroom if it comes to it. But, on the flipside, it just didn’t seem like all that many people felt a genuine emotional connection to him or his campaign, or that he really had much of a unique ‘message’ to sell the electorate on. It was just so hard to imagine him delivering some stump speech which gave you goosebumps, y’know? He could be saying all the right things but he just doesn’t quite have that rare oratorical gift where they actually penetrate and make you feel something, where for a brief thrilling moment they actually seem like so much more than just trite, focus-grouped rhetoric.
To my eye, it seemed like he was mostly just riding on the residual momentum from the now entirely rose-tinted Obama years, hoping to surf that powerful nostalgia right into the Oval Office. Can’t blame him for it, I suppose: when you’re pretty much nobody’s favourite candidate, you’ve gotta avail yourself of whatever assets you can. But, all the same, it just struck me as being… really rather weak-sauce. That kind of secondhand affection is something that other people — albeit in very different circumstances, obviously — generally try to parlay into securing a governorship or maybe even a spot in the Senate. But the presidency? Again, seemed a bit of a stretch. Seemed like he was overplaying his hand. It’s also something that’s quite hard to explicitly take advantage of, if you see what I mean. Just envision the type of preposterously tactless ad you’d have to deploy: “Hey America, remember that political messiah you were so deeply enamoured with? Well, umm, don’t forget, I was his lovably gaffe-prone wingman. Look at all these photos of us smiling and fist-bumping like we’re in some buddy-cop movie. Those were the days, huh? ~ This message was paid for by the ‘Elect Joe Biden, Because 2008 Was Dope As Hell!’ Campaign.” You really just have to hope that people will do that work in their own head. And I just didn’t think that capitalizing upon leftover fondness for an enjoyable, if overpublicized, bromance that concluded years ago could possibly be enough to propel him to victory. (It also didn’t help that it became so well-known that Obama strongly believed that Biden shouldn’t even run for president in the first place, and very conspicuously declined to lend him his full, outspoken support until relatively late in the game. That’s pretty cold, man. That has gotta hurt your feelings if you’re Biden, and it does rather puncture the treasured notion that they have this deep brotherly bond.)
The other reason I was displeased with Joe Biden being the candidate was that I didn’t think he himself was capable of getting the job done. It seemed to me that he just wasn’t going to be able to effectively counter Trump’s bullying and hectoring or outmatch him when it came to the silly ‘alpha-male’ contests of domination. These are Trump’s bread-and-butter and if you don’t have an answer for them, it’s not going to go well. And it was just very hard to see which personal strengths Biden could bring to bear when debating Trump which would win the day for him. I’m not trying to be mean, I’m just trying to look at this objectively: he’s not an intellectual powerhouse, or a spectacular orator, or even just especially witty. He’s not adept at thinking on his feet and he doesn’t have very good recall of specific facts and figures to browbeat an opponent with. But most importantly of all, he just doesn’t have that certain x-factor which makes a politician seem formidable. It was perhaps too easy for people to point to his age in order to explain this. And, to be sure, he is indeed a nigh-octogenarian with the attendant air of physical fragility, which doesn’t exactly help when it comes to seeming like a force to be reckoned with.
(I have to say though, all the hysterical rooftop-shouting from certain quarters about his supposedly very advanced mental deterioration seemed overblown, in my estimation. First of all, has Joe ever been the sharpest knife in the drawer? Don’t mistake my meaning there, I don’t intend it as an insult. I don’t think he’s stupid at all. It’s just that there are… levels. And I’m simply saying: has he ever had the sort of brawny, showy intellect that just totally blows your socks off? My magic 8-ball is telling me that “all signs point to no”, and I’m just not the type who’d dare try to gainsay such a respected oracle. And has he also now lost a step or two because of his age? Well, duh. Welcome to the unhappy reality of human senescence. But you take a guy who’s never been all that quick-witted or the best public speaker in the world and then stitch together a compilation of him misspeaking — whilst cruelly ignoring that he’s had to overcome a severe stutter — and claim it’s proof of Alzheimer’s? I’m not buying it, alright? I don’t know whether these claims made about him are true or not, and I’m open to being persuaded either way in future; I just know that as evidence goes, those videos are flimsy as all get-out. Maybe I’m too much of a stickler, but they just seem like a piss-poor basis on which to form a fucking brain-health diagnosis. I know, I know, call me crazy. I suppose I just happen to believe that you need a good amount of real, hard evidence before you start flinging extremely serious allegations like that around with an air of certainty. Moreover, a presidential campaign is famously one of the most mentally taxing and draining things a person can put themselves through, so it’s not super plausible that someone whose grey matter is coming apart at the seams managed to get through it successfully. No matter how many press conferences or interviews you dodge or how much your team tries to shield you, you still have a hell of a lot of unavoidable time in the spotlight, and I don’t see how you would be able to hide that you’re no longer remotely compos mentis. I’m not a neurologist but I have to assume you would have symptoms a bit more drastic than just verbal slip-ups or the typical ‘senior moment’ memory lapses…)
It’s not just the age thing though. There’s something missing which is hard to put your finger on, but you know it when you see it. He lacks a certain sharpness, a certain sureness, a certain forcefulness. A sense that he’s always in control of every situation he finds himself in and can effortlessly, expertly roll with the punches regardless of what happens next. You look at Biden’s competition in the Democrats’ overcrowded line-up of contenders and you can easily point to several people who possessed the formidableness I’m talking about. It’s possible to imagine Kamala Harris or Elizabeth Warren or perhaps even Cory Booker pummelling Trump during a debate. But Biden? Uhhh, not so much.
And sure enough, my fears were confirmed when Biden fared very poorly — to put it politely — in that first presidential debate. Yes, I’ll grant you, it was an utter shitshow all round, with an infuriatingly ineffectual moderator who didn’t have the balls to keep Trump’s rule-breaking in check. But you have to be able to adapt and improvise and get the job done no matter what, even if the circumstances favour your opponent’s style. And we saw just the opposite from Biden. He performed terribly. He more or less let Trump steamroll him. It would be a bit too akin to praise to say that Trump ‘won’ the debate, because he just did his usual childish bullshit which is only impressive to dunces, but he damn sure made it so Biden ‘lost’. I remember being astonished by Biden’s timidity and his inability to deal with Trump’s interruptions. He just shut down and clammed up, which is the last thing you want to see in someone auditioning for the most high-pressure job imaginable. (It’s frankly bizarre that the debate prep his team would’ve put him through didn’t train him to deal with this aspect of Trump’s offence better.) One thing that I thought Biden would have going for him at the very least was a sort of old-school, hard-nosed pugnacity if you will, but it was nowhere to be seen here. He just seemed befuddled and checked-out and downright overwhelmed. I was literally yelling at the TV at points because Trump was giving Biden comically perfect glaring opportunities to hammer him on something and yet Biden was somehow oblivious to it. His debating instincts were just so appallingly bad, I almost couldn’t believe it. It was crazy to me that someone could have spent so much of their life in the world of high-level politics and yet be so unable to now rise to this occasion.
I was pretty depressed after that first debate. It seemed obvious that if Trump was able to go on demolishing Biden like that, holding the election would just be a formality. I mean, the debates are so ridiculously important. A lot of people, as we all know, largely ignore politics until the last stretch before election day, and so the debates would be their first glimpse of Biden trying to convince them he’s fit to sit behind the Resolute Desk. And I suspected that, like me, they’d be really quite alarmed at how unimpressive and out of his depth he appeared in this first showing.
The second debate, thankfully, was a bit of a hallelujah moment then. I’m not going to pretend that this reversal of fortune for Biden wasn’t in large part due to the Presidential Debate Commission — an organization which, believe me, I rarely have anything good to say about — finally pulling their heads out of their asses and implementing new rules so that the debate could be a debate and not just Trump making a mockery of the whole thing by obnoxiously exploiting endless loopholes and leniencies. Frankly, I would look askance at anyone who tried to claim that this new debate format shouldn’t be the standard going forward. (I include the no-crowd aspect in that. I didn’t miss the applause and booing even one little bit. Not in any way, not for a single second. It’s just a distraction and sometimes even infringes on the candidates’ already very limited time to speak. People who moan that the loss of it eliminates the gripping ambience, or what have you, of the debates are letting you know they watch them for entertainment not information. I don’t give a fuck if this sounds pompous: their opinion should be regarded accordingly. Perhaps hand them a DVD box-set of ‘West Wing’ or ‘House of Cards’ and tell them they ought to just cut out the middleman. At least then you’ll be watching good actors do it.) You have to be out of your mind to think it’s not a massive improvement. The simple truth is that the best way to have a genuine, productive debate, which allows the voting public to hear a candidate properly explain and then defend their ideas, is to have a strictly controlled debate format. It’s not hard to do. This is some elementary shit we’re talking about here. You just have to have a moderator who’s empowered to maintain order and who’s unafraid to do so. And the event itself should be composed of alternating stretches of monologue protected from interruption (i.e. the other person’s mic is deactivated) where the candidates can answer questions and rebut their opponent’s answers. This removes the question of biased treatment when it comes to capriciously allotting extended time or cutting mics on-the-fly, because the rules are simple and rigid and necessarily applied equally.
That’s how you end up with debating. Not chaotic bickering. Not face-pulling and making gestures to the crowd. Not a shouting match. These things may make for amusing drama, but they don’t help to inform voters or to provide them with a sense of each person’s character and political philosophy. That it’s somehow become the norm that candidates only have to participate in two or three head-to-head debates is already bad enough, so the debates that voters do get to see should at least have their usefulness maximised. It’s such a breathtaking disservice to voters to hold broken, shabby debates that provide little illumination about who they can cast a ballot for. If you want to have a more informal event where there’s more freeform dialogue between the candidates and you get to see if they can hold their own during a contentious back-and-forth, organize a different kind of event instead. Maybe build that into one of those faux ‘town hall meetings’ or whatever. But that cannot and shouldn’t replace the traditional debate. Its function is crucial. And many more people should be speaking up on its behalf, instead of just passively accepting whatever flavour of botchery the Debate Commission tries to get away with each time.
To get back on track though: I came away from this second debate thinking that Biden actually did quite well. I was really surprised. He turned things around and put on a decent performance here, even providing a handful of stand-out moments for good measure. I mean, it’s the type of thing that wouldn’t normally be anything to write home about, but compared to the shut-out he experienced in the first debate, it was a sizeable improvement. I think this debate was probably pretty pivotal. I expect that the lasting impression it left in people’s minds, being that it’s the last thing many will have watched before voting, had a not insignificant effect on the election result. Because it wasn’t just that Biden finally looked good, finally looked plausible as a confident leader, it was also that Trump came across so badly. When he can’t just bully and speak over his opponent, making the debate into a circus, he’s screwed. No-one can have failed to notice that.
One main reason why the rule-changes affected him so much is because of his speaking style just generally. Trump greatly benefits from lax enforcement of time limits and being able to butt in and steal time from his opponent because he needs a lot of runway to finally get to any coherent sentence. His approach allows him to instantly start blabbering as soon as — or, often, even before — someone’s finished asking a question, without even a moment’s pause to consider what his answer should be. Because he just stalls by first lobbing out mangled non-sequiturs about either unrelated nonsense or self-aggrandizing nonsense and then he uses that time he’s bought himself to grope towards an actual point. You can see this unmistakably when you read transcripts of his off-the-cuff remarks: every one sentence where he’s actually making some kind of declarative statement is cushioned on either side by like six sentences of truly meaningless horseshit. (And as I mentioned earlier, it’s easy to get bamboozled/hypnotized by the inanity of that padding and thus neglect to realize how hilariously not-worth-the-wait that one semi-lucid comment ended up being.) In situations where Trump has all the control and all the time he needs, such as when droning on to a press gaggle, this approach can be quite intentional and strategic. In the high-stress, high-stakes arena of a debate, however, it’s something quite different. When his back is against the wall and he’s forced to relinquish control, he once again becomes a mere prisoner of his own limitations, rather than someone who can turn them into useful tricks up his sleeve. And therefore, in that context, it’s not that Trump chooses not to be concise, chooses to be rambling and circuitous and mind-numbingly prolix; it’s that the shoddy CPU in his brainpan cannot get him to where he wants to be fast enough, and he’s basically forced to throw up a sort of verbal loading screen in the meantime.
But what really sunk Trump in this second debate was that he was unable to go off the rails and rely on theatrics and ‘gish gallop’ tactics. And once you remove that, all that’s left is his floundering and his flailing when pressed to answer a serious question. When it really comes down to it, Trump’s Achilles heel is that he has practically zero ability to speak substantively about anything important — which is even crazier in a debate, because your team could’ve just had you memorize some pre-prepared lines, but Trump’s too cocky for that, I’m sure — and that sure came through loud and clear. I think it will have reminded a lot of on-the-fence viewers how disquieting it is that he’s a guy who very obviously has no passion or affinity for the battle of ideas at all, a guy who doesn’t really care about the specifics of a given policy or their implications. He just always wants to ‘win’, whatever that happens to mean from moment to moment, and to smash his opponents. That’s it, really. Everything else is just a means to that end.
(It reminds me of a great line that Gore Vidal once wrote in one of his typically vituperative full-scale attacks on William F. Buckley: “[he] himself has a simple mind; it is only his neurosis that is rich and strange.” Now, I think I would personally rather hesitate to impugn the intelligence of someone like Buckley in this absolute manner; one would need to have the towering intellect of a Vidal to dare sling such stones, or have them land credibly. But I’m sure you get the point. The fact that Trump wears his pathological lust for dominance on his sleeve — not even feigning discomfort at its obviousness — is just about the only genuinely fascinating thing about him, because it suggests that he’s so dependent on the self-soothing effect of those petty victories that all considerations of how he’s perceived can/must be subordinated to that. In most other respects psychologically, he’s merely a boring cliché.)
The patheticness of that mentality really shined through in this debate. He just radiated the aura of someone who’s losing and knows it, and so is just bitterly trying to throw a few last below-the-belt punches for the hell of it. It wasn’t at all important to him that he get his points across or that he convey his vision for America, he just wanted to lay into Biden because his wounded pride and fear of impending failure demanded that he lash out. I thought Biden did well not to take the bait here and get dragged into the crude verbal brawl Trump was hoping for. I’m sure it can’t have been easy to maintain composure when Trump was taking cheap shots at his family. He was wise to remember the gist of the famous adage about why one ought not stoop to wrestling with pigs in the muck: you both get dirty, but the pig enjoys it.
I could also delve into some other miscellaneous misgivings about Biden’s campaign I had at the time, but I don’t want to get too lost in the weeds here because this piece isn’t about that. Just to highlight one example though: I remember I wouldn’t shut up about how it seemed so painfully obvious that Biden should issue a binding pledge to only serve one term — which, of course, he had rather flirted with in some noncommittal comments. I felt like that would be a tremendous masterstroke. In one fell swoop, you would make the prospect of your presidency seem way more attractive. Principally, you would mollify all the fretting about your age increasingly becoming a problem. (And, let’s be honest, those concerns undeniably have some credence to them. Biden’ll reach his mid-eighties in a hypothetical second term. To put that into perspective, Ronald Reagan was ‘only’ seventy-seven when he left office, and I’m sure I don’t have to remind you of the debate that still rages about the purportedly disturbing extent of his senility and/or dementia by that time.)
I felt like this gesture would really shock everyone with its selflessness and unsentimental pragmatism. It would really endear people to Biden. I think he would’ve been immensely respected for coming out and explicitly stating “yep, I know I’m an old man who’s a bit out-of-touch and a bit too centrist for some tastes, but all the same you know you can trust me to wipe away the stain of Trumpism. I’m willing to be the guy with the broom who comes in and does the hard, unglamorous work of putting the house back in order. I will inaugurate a return to the normality and stability we now all miss so dearly and then I’ll graciously step aside and enable a younger, more politically bold successor to take my place, to build on that re-established foundation.” I mean, come on, wouldn’t that have seemed so impressively self-aware and honourable?
And in terms of strengthening support for his campaign, it would particularly take advantage of the fact that — and surely this rather bizarre inversion must be unprecedented? — there seemed to be waaaay more enthusiasm for Kamala Harris entering the White House than Biden himself. (I have to say, Harris was a remarkably, not to mention surprisingly, shrewd choice of veep. I say surprising because I would imagine it was a little bit of a jagged pill to swallow due to her previous, hard-to-walk-back comments about Biden.) And given that Harris would be the heir presumptive when Biden steps down from his sort of transitory caretaker-presidency, you’re basically selling a vote for him as a quasi-vote for her future presidency too. People would have liked that novel package-deal element to it, I bet.
I guess it was naive to expect something as cleverly maverick as that though. But, boy, it would have been refreshing to see. It would have really turned the whole traditional presidential-campaign paradigm on its head. It also would have been one of the most dramatic no-question-about-it ways you could emphasize that you’re the opposite of Trump, because we all know why a noble move like that would be utterly impossible for someone of Trump’s nature. He’s more likely to declare that he ought to still be considered president even after he’s dead, so he can rule America from the grave like how Kim Il-sung necrocratically presides over North Korea…
Needless to say, I ended up being extremely wrong about Biden not being able to defeat Trump. And I can tell you I’m not sure I’ve ever been so incredibly fucking glad to be wrong about something. I really think the soul of America needed Trump to not just lose, but to get absolutely crushed in this election. And given he lost the popular vote by some seven million ballots and lost the electoral vote 306-232, I would consider that a pretty sound thrashing by any reasonable metric. I mean, it’s not exactly Roosevelt in 1936, but it’ll sure as fuck do all the same. One hates to say something as corny as this, unless completely unavoidable, but, yes, democracy prevailed. It performed its most wondrous and sacred failsafe: a bloodless tyrannicide.
And, by the way, I can’t tell you how much free hilarity I was gifted by all the conservative op-ed writers who penned something along the lines of “the media couldn’t shut up about the grief of heartbroken Hillary voters in ’16, so where’s all the sympathetic coverage of all the Trump voters who are now mourning in turn?” To which, I say this: hold on just a second and I’ll break out my world’s smallest violin. It’s the size of an electron. I have to take it to CERN to play it: they blast sub-atomic particles at it to pluck the strings. You can only hear the tiny little melancholy song it produces if you cup your ear and listen really, really closely. Now, for Trump’s older voters, it’s no problem. They can just turn their hearing aids way up. Or, if that’s still not sufficient, we could maybe splice the wiring and hook those up to a car battery and supercharge them. And as for the younger section of voters… well, there’s one sub-group in particular I feel very strongly ought to be
subjected to presented with this mournful melody. I’m talking, of course, about the malicious hordes of sniggering dimwits which constitute Trump’s online troll army. The ones who are so nihilistic and childish that they’re willing to be as vile as humanly possible just to earn the momentary amusement of triggering the ‘libtards’. For these charmers, I’ll happily park outside their homes in a rainbow striped eighteen-wheeler, blaring the diminutive violin’s soft requiem through an oversized roof-mounted loudspeaker. It’s really the least I can do. I’d hate for them to miss out.
My memory of election night and the following days is already a bit of a blur, honestly. Naturally, there was intense anxiety/trepidation leading up to it. And then I remember the frustration at how tediously slowly the results were unfolding and all the desperate, unhinged Republican conspiracy-mongering as they began to anticipate defeat, as well as the unsettling groundhog-day feeling each time I’d wake up and immediately check the news on my phone and see that somehow a victor still hadn’t been confirmed. Given that things were increasingly looking good for Biden, there was a sobering sense of caution that took over as a counterbalance. A jaded voice in the back of my mind which was saying ‘don’t let yourself get too excited; I don’t know how, but this will somehow still get ripped away.’ And finally there was just a big shapeless, soundless shockwave of relief that slammed into me when Biden officially won. (To be candid: it was much more like the weight-lifted feeling you’d get upon being told that your bloodwork has just come back and you don’t have that terrible disease anymore, rather than the ecstatic joy you’d experience upon learning that you’ve just received some great unexpected prize or something.) My girlfriend and I were in a very celebratory mood that day, believe me. There was no champagne lying around to toast the occasion with, so we bought some pizza and touched slices together in lieu of clinking glasses.
And, of course, I was also psyched when the Democrats regained control of the Senate not too long afterwards. And, frankly, no less surprised at that than at Biden winning. (Maybe even more so once Biden had won, because then hoping the Senate might flip suddenly felt like asking for a second dessert after getting to eat a brownie the size of your head.) Really did not see them pulling that one off, seemed like a bit of a long-shot. The feeling accompanying this news actually was like opening some great unexpected prize. Y’know, it was like you’re suddenly handed this beautiful gift-wrapped package and you just giddily blurt out “oh wow! Trump ended up costing the GOP the presidency AND the Senate? Gosh, you shouldn’t have! And to think, I didn’t get you anything…”
The one dour note was that that despined, unprincipled little toerag Lindsey Graham managed to hold onto his Senate seat. I don’t tend to get too invested in individual congressional races because at a certain point you realize that you’re really just multiplying your chances for disappointment, but that one I was keeping an eye on. It would really have been heartwarming evidence that karma exists to see Graham tossed out on his ass. He is exactly the type of malleable power-worshipping politician that should be universally loathed. You know what I’m saying? If there ought to be bipartisan agreement about anything, it’s that when we talk about why we disdain establishment politics, we’re talking about the Grahams of the world. The slithery rogues who cannot ever be taken at their word, who will opportunistically chameleonize themselves upon every change in prevailing winds, whose entire lives devolve into mere ciphers in service of their own unbridled ambition. You might be pro-life and I might be pro-choice, or insert whatever other hot-button difference of opinion you like there, but we must at least get on the same page when it comes to the imperative that such people be invited to collect an unemployment check as soon as possible. (Apparently ex-congresspeople aren’t eligible for such benefits. I would describe myself as… pleasantly astounded at this, at its rare example of moral prudence. In the case of someone as probity-challenged as Graham, however, it’s a shortfall I would happily attempt to cover: I would be glad to mail him a photocopy of desiccated dogshit. Okay, you got me, it’s not technically legal tender. But it’s also no more and no less than he deserves. So it has a certain judicious parsimony going for it.)
But, as it turned out, this consensus is a step not yet reached on the load, long road to utopia. A great many South Carolinians were apparently sufficiently unmoved by Graham’s countless duplicities and saleable ‘convictions’. I was pretty bummed about that. Alas and, to be sure, alack. It was also quite the humiliation for the Democrats, given that they pulled up a veeeery long line of Brink’s trucks full of cash to dump into their candidate’s campaign and all for nought. That’s not something you see every day. (Though I do appreciate them making a full-court press to oust Graham, because although in a sense it’s a disproportionate use of money, like I said earlier the symbolic value is substantial. That would’ve been a true moral-victory if ever I’ve seen one.) It’s pretty crazy really. How the hell can you achieve the biggest fundraising success of any Senate hopeful ever, and by a sizable margin too, yet still lose the election by ten points? I mean, ouch. Jaime Harrison’s donors will be licking their wounds over that one for a good while to come, I’d wager.
Speculation about the darkest timeline: what if Trump had won again?
Because I generally like to avoid lingering in the cloying molasses of happiness for too long, why don’t we put aside the fact that Biden won for a moment. It’s worth remembering that there were many other ways this thing could have played out, and I would venture to say that in most of them Trump would’ve ended up taking 2020. These counterfactuals should haunt us.
For instance, remember how Hillary Clinton repeatedly hinted that she might give it another shot, might throw her threadbare hat in the ring again? Keep in mind, she’s had two books and a documentary and whatever else to hawk in the course of the last four years, so it’s always hard to gauge what’s sincere and what’s just part of her endless, self-promotional quest to stay in the headlines. But… still. The fact is she said it. I mean, the fucking nerve of this woman. It’s just absolutely staggering. And you know what was really terrifying about that proposition? Well, on top of it revealing a level of selfishness and delusional hubris which borders on madness; though a sort of madness we should have very little sympathy or patience for. What made it so rattling was that it was so easy to imagine it coming to pass. First, there’s Hillary herself, and she’s unquestionably megalomaniacal enough to run again. She would somehow find a way to convince herself that she stands a chance, even after losing in a landslide the first time around despite having most of the media on her side and raising almost twice as much money as Trump. Second, there’s the DNC. And if you didn’t learn exactly what kind of organization that is, exactly what kind of machinations and dirty tricks it will stoop to, from the 2016 email leak, I fear that I couldn’t possibly offer you any more potent edification on that score. They would field Hillary as their candidate again, no problem. The thing about the brazen, ruthless political-hacks of this world (who are, I must regrettably assure you, legion) is that when push comes to shove they would rather lose any given election than cede the ability to dictate what happens in their party, and typically have to be pried out of power with a crowbar and great difficulty. They are kindred spirits with the Clinton-types (who mercifully, given their trademark titanic ambition, number far fewer) and thus find it very easy to form a symbiosis.
And then, thirdly, there’s Hillary voters. Not all of them, of course. But the devotees who got sucked in so deep that they started to lose the plot a bit. The ones who still, to this day, in public, under their own name, with no equivocation or caveat, dare to claim that the only reason Hillary lost in ’16 was sexism. (And as for all those women who didn’t vote for her? Must be ‘internalized misogyny’ in every single case, I guess. That sure is a lot of handmaidens to the patriarchy. It’s incredible that equal rights endure at all in America, given this inhospitable environment. Hell, you’d think this overwhelming majority of self-hating women would just band together at some point, officially form the ‘Barefoot and Pregnant’ party, and offer to voluntarily relinquish the 19th Amendment to please their bepenised overlords.) That’s right. That neatly explains everything, so you don’t have to think too deeply or be too painfully honest. And it’s always a good sign when your analysis takes only a fraction of a second. It was just good old-fashioned sexism. It wasn’t because she’s a severely tainted and objectionable candidate who has so much exceptionally well-known baggage. (No candidate ever has a spotless past, naturally. But, let’s be perfectly clear, few have baggage like Hillary Clinton has baggage. She’s on another level. She’s practically a walking suitcase-emporium.) And it definitely isn’t because no matter how competent and experienced she might be, she’s also precisely the kind of robotic career-politician who represents the do-anything, say-anything power chasing that people have come to passionately despise. No, no, no. Come now, however superficially plausible these alternate explanations may seem, they’re still total hogwash. It was all just because she was a woman.
And it’s that sort of ‘reasoning’ that will no doubt lead to another clearly fatally-flawed candidate being championed in the future.
Anyway, I digress. My point being that there were a lot of highly possible ways that 2020 could have gone differently and led to Trump retaining the presidency, and I think that before we all start getting too complacent under the anodyne normalcy of Biden’s tenure, we should reflect upon what could have been. Because the United States just dodged a bullet. And a frighteningly high-calibre, high-velocity one at that.
I strongly believe that if Trump had been re-elected, the psychic wound inflicted upon all those people of good will and good sense (and possessed of common decency) who opposed him would have been so much more grievous and lasting than the one which was inflicted in 2016. The explanation for this is simple. When Trump won the election, it was of course incredibly upsetting, but there was also a counterbalancing anger that kicked in almost immediately. The anti-Trump movement started applying their war-paint and beating their ploughshares back into swords to race towards the fray with. The enemy was clear, the fight was straightforward. They were able to keep themselves from languishing in the paralysis of despair because they had such a weighty, achievable goal in front of them. That’s the thing about defiance that people often forget: it’s just a useless fleeting emotion unless it has purpose to sustain it and harden it into a mindset. And at that time, it seemed like everything was still to play for, so a sense of purpose wasn’t hard to come by. Because by seeking to ensure Trump will be a one-term failure, you’re not just attempting to physically remove him from the White House, you’re trying to kill Trumpism itself. By proving that it’s emphatically not a viable political strategy. By proving that once the electorate got to see it in action they couldn’t stomach it any longer. This symbolic victory is arguably far more valuable that the defeat of a single man. You’re salting the earth before his poisonous ideology can ever truly sprout roots. To ensure Trump cannot become the harbinger of an even more vile successor.
However, if Trump had won again in 2020, the game would have seemed lost in some conclusive way. Trump would always be able to claim that he received the all-important, indelible two-term stamp of approval from the American people. Voters saw who he was and what his agenda entailed and decided that “yes please, we want more of that!” — it would have been undeniable. And sure, the #resistance could still endeavour to make his remaining years in office as difficult/hard-fought as possible, but the reality is that the chance to actually defeat Trump is lost forever. He may have to leave after eight years but it’ll merely be because of that finicky old 22nd Amendment, not because the country demanded he pack his bags and darken the doorway of The People’s House no more. And you can bet your ass this is a difference that won’t be lost on anyone. The opportunity to repudiate him and what he represents, to claw back what America ought to mean, came and went. As a result, I think that a sort of severe depression would have settled upon the majority of those opposed to Trump. I think they would have had even their ameliorating anger pummelled out of them, and all that would be left is feeling beaten-down, exasperated, dispirited. The melancholy of those who gave it their all and were bested nonetheless. It would have been a very dark, gloomy four years in that sense.
Those ensconced in that sadness would have lost faith in their fellow Americans. Which is bad enough. But those small pockets who managed to retain their — now even further intensified — gung-ho fury would likely take that a step further. I suspect that those violent antifa versus alt-right clashes which have been a continual feature of Trump’s first term would pale in comparison to those that might have occurred in his second. Don’t get me wrong, things were already escalating, but Trump’s re-election would have exploded the powder keg. (And obviously it’s not like this stuff will just miraculously vanish under Biden. Far from it. But there’s still a stark difference in the probable severity of outcome, and it’s worth taking into account.) The antifa types feeling like they’re resistance fighters battling to reclaim occupied territory; the alt-right types feeling like their president and their country are squarely, unmistakably behind them and both must be defended at all costs. And both camps eager for open warfare in the streets, because the nobility and urgency of their cause seem to demand it. I can’t help but think there would have been a great deal more bloodshed and loss of life than we’ve seen so far. Once the violence begins spiralling out of control in that way, there’s no telling where it will end.
It’s also particularly worth contemplating what Trump himself might have done if he’d managed to stay in power. (I know I’m not exactly breaking new ground by fretting over this. The left has made a hobby out of this anguished-speculation handwringing ritual. But, it should be added, for good reason. Important lesson entailed there: just because the messenger is shrill doesn’t mean their message ain’t worth hearing.) He was reckless even in his first term, when he had to worry about re-election. So it really is chilling to imagine what he’d attempt once he felt unchained and untouchable and, if he’d won in a landslide again, able to boast about a supercharged mandate. Especially because you don’t have to flex your imagination very hard at all to come up with his wishlist. Remember all those ‘jokes’ Trump would make about doing totally unthinkable, banana-republic things? (E.g. the countless times that he talked about somehow contriving to stay in office permanently.) Who in their right mind doubts that these ‘jokes’ are his way of floating ideas to the drooling, cretinous focus groups which are his rally audiences, in order to see which tyrannical maneuverers might be tolerated if only he has the moxie to actually try them. The question that Trump is continually asking, in various forms, is “what will you let me get away with?” He desperately wants to know whether they’ll still have his back should he decide to really cross the line. I think it’s obvious that if he had his druthers he’d like to rule more like a dictator, but he’s not quite willing to commit to creeping towards that unless he perceives there’s a reasonably large segment of the population who will support him doing it. That’s the absurd truth about Trump: he’ll probably only dare be a autocrat if he thinks he can be a popular autocrat, because that would be the ultimate win for him. He would have power and adoration, which are the things he desires most in this world.
And that’s not exactly an impossible goal, sadly. This is something which I think often goes unstated because it’s so disturbing, but there is a minor — though evidently growing — segment of the American populace who do not feel wed to the institutions and norms of American government at all and who in fact increasingly feel disaffected with democracy itself. They’re become deeply wearied by the constant push-and-pull of it. Every time their side gets into power, it gets hamstrung by rules or voted out before it can achieve the radical changes they’d like to see. Wouldn’t it be so much easier and more agreeable if one person, whose politics were simpatico with their own, was empowered to bypass all that stupid tug-of-war crap and just get the needful things done? That idea has the potential to be very attractive to the people I’m talking about; it just has to be put to them as a live proposition, rather than a dusty hypothetical. Make no mistake: they’ll grab it with both hands, given half a chance. The truth is, they’re often already open to dismantling the checks and balances currently in force and shunting the whole system in a less democratic direction. It’s a desire that runs remarkably deep. And manifests in some really bizarre ways. Hell, just look at all the anglophilic Americans who proudly declare that they‘re fond of the British monarchy and would quite like to see it transplanted in some form or another in their own country. This will never cease to amaze me. (These people, almost invariably conservatives, don’t seem to realize the comical contradiction inherent in saying this but also celebrating, say, the fourth of July. This is particularly baffling because I take it that the cause and aims of the Revolutionary War isn’t exactly a neglected topic in the American education system. I can tell you that the schooling I received here in England didn’t care to mention it, and yet I can still claim to know that the United States was born because being reigned over as subjects will ultimately prove intolerable and untenable for free men and women. Funny that.)
This is the latent constituency which Trump is hoping to reach with his ‘jokes’ about becoming a full-blown tyrant. He’s trying to gauge their size, as well as the size of those in any way sympathetic to this leaning, and their willingness to back him if he ever does resolve to pull the trigger. He had a traditional Exploratory Committee to help decide whether or not to run for president back in 2016; now this temperature-taking served as his ongoing surreptitious Exploratory Committee to help decide whether he should try to become more than president, to transcend the position and its long-established constraints. And, of course, it’s nauseatingly palpable how much he gleefully relishes the plausible deniability of it all. (I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that Trump takes great pleasure in outsmarting everyone. And I hope you find it as odd as I do, given that it doesn’t seem to have ever happened. Not even once.) The reason he thinks it’s such an exquisitely clever strategy is because if he doesn’t get the implicit greenlight he’s hoping for, he can then just back away from the idea by claiming that it was always nothing more than throwaway humour or caustically trolling the press. It doesn’t faze him that this cover story isn’t believable. He most likely mentally blocks out that fact, just as with all other inconvenient facts.
Regularly talking about it also serves to get people used to the prospect of Trump’s line-crossing, to make it seem less taboo or outlandish. If some guy you know suddenly buys a TEC-9 and holds up a liquor store out of the blue, you’re like “holy shit, he did that?! That’s fucking nuts!”; if he does it after frequently cracking jokes about how he ought to just go rob that particular liquor store, you’re instead like “ah, so he finally did it…” It may seem a subtle or unimportant difference, but familiarizing someone with something before you do it does have a psychological impact, a slight cushioning effect. You get them ready for it beforehand, even if they don’t realise that’s what’s happening, and because it’s less shocking when it then occurs, it inherently becomes easier to swallow. On some lizard-brain level, Trump gets that. He has a certain intuitive knack for conditioning people to favourably revise their conception of the unacceptable. It’s all just a matter of repetition. How many times have you heard Trump bluntly declare about some alleged abuse of power: “actually, no, I didn’t do X, but as president I could have, because I have an absolute right to do X all I like”? He always formulates it just like that. And what do you think he’s laying the groundwork — or, rather, creating the opening — for doing in the future? Let’s just say it looks like the plus sign’s drunk-ass cousin and it sits between W and Y. It’s not just idle pining for something he wishes he could do but can’t, he’s telegraphing his intentions. How anyone can doubt that Trump will try to get away with anything he can is beyond me. It just doesn’t make any sense. They see Trump doing his utmost to systematically maim… and with surgical precision to boot… every single institution which exists to check his power, but then they still kid themselves that in the end he’ll somehow decide that breaking the actual rules, both legal and unwritten, which govern the presidency is a step too far. As if he’ll suddenly have an epiphany and put his trembling hand on his heart and say no, you know what, wait, no this isn’t right, this is the one thing which is too sacred to break and remould for my own benefit. That is a self-contradictory delusion, if ever I’ve seen one. And in my opinion anyone who subscribes to it makes a fool out of themselves. It’s frankly incredibly fortunate that the presidency isn’t as all-powerful as a lot of conservatives would like to see it be, because then instead of Trump trying to gradually normalise things in people’s eyes before he dares attempt them, we’d witness him just straight-up going for it, come what may.
Lastly, I think there’s definitely something to be said about how Trump’s re-election would have affected/changed the Democratic Party itself. You know, because at that point they would have thrown both Clinton and Biden (who are traditional, status-quo career politicians) up against Trump to no avail. They’re not going to want to repeat the same mistake again. Given that the next general election would certainly be contested against either a fully power-mad, fire-all-the-generals, third-term-seeking Trump or at the very least a candidate in the same non-politician mould — who, the emerging electoral-tastes pattern will suggest, is by far the shoo-in — they would surely feel forced to take a different tact. Something big and bold, that’ll shake up the race. The little hamster-wheel in their brains will be spinning as fast as an uranium-enrichment centrifuge, and I bet I know the conclusions they’ll have drawn when it finally slows to a halt. It’ll be a “can’t beat ’em, join ’em” type of thing. Let’s recruit someone whose principal selling point is being a mega-celebrity with a Q score that’s off the charts, not experience or aptitude or even just a bushel of fresh new ideas. Maybe that’s the ticket to victory in this
brave depraved new world.
I mean, it’s not exactly far-fetched, is it? The Democrats have already had flirtations with that kind of thing in the past. How many times has there been buzz about Oprah Winfrey running for president? (I’m pretty sure most major newspapers keep a generic ready-made article about it on file at all times, for whenever it next springs up.) A lot of people clearly would have been overjoyed if she did. I don’t feel particularly sanguine about putting a talk-show host in the Situation Room myself, not least because of how well putting a game-show host in there worked out, but there you go. I really don’t mind swimming against the tide on that one. And even more recently, there was all that blithe chatter about how maybe Michelle Obama would make a good president, maybe she’s exactly what we need right now. I couldn’t believe that was being said in earnest. The woman’s relevant qualifications are solely matrimonial as far as I can tell. Being married to a well-liked former president doesn’t suddenly make you presidential material. And there are a bunch of other names I could drop here, but you get the point by now, I’m sure. I think you can probably tell I’m in a harshly pooh-poohing mood.
This is just a very dangerous and unwise road to start going down. If the Democrats felt so backed into a corner that they bite the bullet and go with a, say, Dwayne Johnson in 2024, all they’d be doing is showing that they couldn’t beat Trump properly and so now they’re just going to try to replicate his political-outsider/celebrity success and hopefully eke out a cheap win. If that had happened, who knows if there would be another genuinely qualified presidential candidate for the foreseeable future. What’s the point in picking some dusty old statesman with twenty years under his belt in congress and barely any name-recognition outside of his home state to show for it when you can cut right to the chase and just tap some telegenic star with a nine-figure follower count on Instagram? They have a massive PR machine and a country-sized fanbase and they’ll always have avoided controversy to protect their sponsorships and they definitely already know how to perform for the camera — what else do you need? Okay, you might have to pay someone to privately tutor them, so they at least learn a thing or two about the Bill of Rights or the Louisiana Purchase or bicameralism and won’t get too thoroughly embarrassed during a debate. But these are just little niggles that can be worked out as you go along. The important thing is that when they do an impromptu livestream, you can count on it having more viewers than a ‘Game of Thrones’ season finale.
The inescapable problem here is that I bet there are a lot of Democrat voters who now rather want their own version of Trump. I don’t mean that in the sense of someone who will cause chaos and do outrageous things and just generally raze everything to the ground for the fun of it. What I mean is, Trump fans have had a fucking ball these last four years. Trump provided them with endless entertainment. Beforehand, they may not have ever paid close attention to presidential doings, but now they read every tweet, every official statement, watched every White House event, every interview, every debate. And, like I said, I think there are plenty of people on the other side of the political spectrum who want a taste of that for themselves. I mean, how many people are going to be tuning into Biden’s press conferences? They’re gonna be boring as hell, no question about it. But, shit, if you’ve got The Rock up there at the podium, wearing a suit so well-fitting it looks like it was painted on and making charming quips as he discusses campaign finance reform or something else that’s usually unbearably dull, you’re probably going to tune in. He’s not box-office gold for no reason. He’s just a very watchable guy, you know? That’s the appeal: in a way, it would be kinda fun to see The Rock be president. It would have a certain surreal, movie-like quality that I don’t doubt would be compelling. And, yeah, you’re damn right, the memes would be great. I’m not going to sit here and try to tell you that the memes wouldn’t be great.
I hate to be a fuddy-duddy about this, because frankly I have a personal brand as a chill dude to protect, but I have to say: all things considered, I think it’s for the best that the presidency not be entertaining in the slightest. We have to all take a deep breath, do our best impression of being responsible grown-ups, and make this teeny little sacrifice. The office is just too important. Its effect on people’s lives is just too important. There are some things you simply can’t afford to fuck around with. Give me someone thoroughly drab and straitlaced but who’s nonetheless capable and knowledgeable and has a breadth of applicable experience and who can be relied upon to properly execute their duties as president. I’ll take that any day of the week. Keep in mind that you’re ultimately just hiring an administrator to oversee and direct America’s business: the hiring criteria should be effectiveness and effectiveness alone. (The same way that if you were a shareholder in a company, you would expect its CEO to maximise profits, not win you over with their wacky personality. And you’d think someone an idiot if they preferenced the latter at the expense of the former.) I don’t care if their jokes are about as funny as receiving a notice for jury duty. I don’t care if they have all the charisma of a sack of potatoes. All that should be required from the person running the country is that they run the country well, not that they create must-watch TV. My motto is: Make Politics Boring Again. An uninteresting, uneventful presidency ought to be the goal, after all. It’s a sign that the train is still very much on the tracks and chugging along exactly as it ought to be.
Trump’s petulance and evil liemongering during his loss and afterwards
It was perfectly obvious to anyone who was paying attention that Trump was definitely going to claim that the election was rigged against him if he lost in 2020. (This is not merely 20/20 — no pun intended — hindsight either, I hasten to add. I’ll fucking show you the carrier-pigeon messages I exchanged with friends about this very certainty at the time. It’s all written on those tiny little scrolls. You can carefully unfurl one and use a magnifying glass to read it. Go right ahead. “TRUMP GONNA WHINE AND TRY TO STEAL THIS SHIT, FOR REAL!”, it’ll say. In overexcited messy cursive that my handpicked self-taught handwriting expert will testify under oath is an exact match for my own.) There were of course hints that this was his intention for quite a while — in minor flare-ups and complaint sprees, he was often prefiguring the final nation-shaking tantrum he was eventually going to throw — but I’d say that the unmistakableness of it really solidified in the last year or so of his term. That’s when he stepped up his efforts in laying the rhetorical groundwork for it. For example, he started talking way more frequently about how mail-in voting is unsecure/unsecurable/just a Democrat scam. And I mean to the point of absurdly shoehorning it into unrelated speeches or conversation, just to ensure it had gotten a mention at whatever public appearance he was doing. It was clear that this was very purposeful repetition, intended to implant that idea into people’s minds. Ready to be detonated, like landmines buried at shallow depth, if defeat came.
And, as I’m sure you remember, insisting that the use of postal ballots is rife with fraud was just the tip of the iceberg. He really threw everything out there he possibly could as soon as it became apparent that he had likely lost the day, hoping something would stick. It was really remarkable how many different angles he came at it from. There were the undocumented immigrants being slyly paid to pull the lever for Biden. (A true classic of the genre. I’d be willing to bet that Republicans have been trotting out variations of the ‘countless busloads of illegal aliens taken to and from polling stations’ fever-dream since buses were invented. And before that they were probably grousing about wagonloads of shady foreigners being pulled around by shady foreign horses and how their desperado ballot-stuffing racket was swinging elections.) There was the wrong information on how to vote which was only given to those wearing MAGA garb. There were the voting machines which had been pre-programmed to delete or switch votes for Trump. There was, as always, the soulless, devious liberal-media cabal which conspired against him in a massive, carefully-coordinated, finely-calibrated propaganda campaign. There were the deep state officials undermining anti-voter-fraud efforts from the inside. There was the Democratic Party circulating falsehoods about him and his proposed policies to deter undecided voters. (And boy if that isn’t the pot calling the kettle as black as an infinite midnight…) There were geopolitical foes like Russia and China interfering to try and help Biden win. (Hard ditto on that one.) There was the permitting of votes which were cast after election day. There was the calculatedly lenient signature-matching effort, which enabled fraudulent ballots for Biden to be counted. And, lastly but by no means leastly, there were those colossal and altogether phony middle-of-the-night ballot dumps which helped skyrocket Biden’s totals whenever they started to fall behind. A deus ex machina intervention which was divine only in so much as it stunk to high heaven, where some Judaeo-Christian deity was no doubt looking down on the heinous left-leaning political corruption in his favoured nation and shaking his head.
And I’m quite sure that I’m leaving plenty of other forms of
ludicrous excuse-making machiavellian plotting against Trump out. But I expect at this point you probably get the picture. Everything and everyone was arrayed against Trump, it was Trump versus the world, it’s all just so incredibly unfair, it was the most tragic and wicked regicide history has ever witnessed, a single tear is slowly snaking its way down Lady Liberty’s big impassive metal face, wah wah wah.
Obviously we’re all very upset about this plot, especially because it succeeded in screwing over our beloved President Trump, but once you’ve choked down your rage and grief, you’ve got to give the devils their due, don’t you think? The Democrats — or maybe the high council of demonic, transdimensional, adrenochrome-gorged pedophiles who secretly control them — managed to execute this highly-complex, well-oiled conspiracy. And yet, presumably out of respect for the hallowed drama which livens up elections, still contrived to make it so that Biden didn’t win quickly/decisively and the whole thing ended up being a protracted, contentious ordeal. They also made it so they only barely won back the Senate and only at the very last minute too. Instead of ensuring they had a comfortable working majority, I guess for believability’s sake they decided they’d better settle for a rickety quasi-majority where the VP is constantly having to wade in to tie-break (which is frankly a terrible look) and they can never afford to have even one person from their side break ranks (which surely shouldn’t ever be a concern, given they caucus with two independents and even fairly conservative outliers like Joe Manchin…) Again, it’s all extremely brilliant when you think about it. Given the fix was in across the board, they could have won as many horse-races as they liked, but they purposely chose not to. Pretty sneaky, Democrats. You dastardly rascals.
But, anyhow, all jokes aside, it’s hard to stress just how pernicious, just how abominable Trump’s sustained campaign of lying about election-rigging was. He has made it so that a great many of his brainwashed followers consider Joe Biden an utterly illegitimate president: someone who actually staged a clandestine coup, who performed an end-run around democracy itself and usurped the presidency like a burglar swiping the deed to a house and then having the gall to take up residence there too. Imagine what it means for that many Americans to truly, vehemently believe something like that. What must it feel like, to believe that you just witnessed the broad-daylight assassination of the democratic process? To believe that your country is now ruled by an evil fraud who’s desecrating the highest office in the land with his very presence? I’d imagine they feel a little like resistance fighters against a despotic regime. This volatile delusion, and accompanying hostility, is the evil that Trump has wrought. It will likely have long-lasting after-effects. To have so many of its citizens think of their new government in this way represents dangerous uncharted waters. Especially for a nation which is already caught in the midst of such tumult and calamity due to other factors.
I found it so ridiculous that so many conservative commentators glibly remarked that this state of affairs was basically liberals’ just deserts, for having done much the same in 2016 in an attempt to delegitimize Trump’s presidency. This is sloppy thinking taken to the nth degree: residual bitterness and a recrimination-urge wholly substituting for reason. Because, to be clear, the two situations are categorically different. Whatever you may think of the veracity/significance of the assertion that targeted Russian interference (e.g. disseminating memefied agitprop on social media) helped sway the 2016 race, the implications of that being true are orders of magnitude less serious than what’s being claimed in 2020. Even if those affected Trump voters bought into the bullshit filling their Facebook feed and were thus duped into hating Hillary and loving Trump, they ultimately still cast legal ballots. They may have made a bad judgement based on faulty research, but they weren’t forced to do it, it was a free choice. Personally, I tend to believe that if you’re going to vote, you should consider yourself to have a certain civic responsibility to properly educate yourself about what or who you’re voting for. But reality never maps very well onto the stark topography of idealism. People decide how to vote based on stupidity or fake news or just plain old arbitrary whim all the time. And, hey, like it or not, that’s their prerogative. It doesn’t somehow negate the validity of their vote. It’s just one of the necessary weak spots in the democratic principle. Don’t get me wrong, you can and should prevent foreign adversaries from strategically deceiving your citizenry. But, listen, the Russians don’t have a monopoly on misinformation. Even if they’re removed from the picture, there’ll still be plenty of domestic distortion to go around, that’s for sure. There’s no getting away from it. The carrying out of democracy is messy, and there’s no way to extricate or sanitise that messiness. Nor should we want to. All things considered, it’s part of a feature, not a bug.
Whereas the thing about Trump’s claims is that they allege the election itself was an utter sham. The idea being that illegal activity to guarantee a Biden victory was extremely wide-spread. One side of the coin is that various methods were employed to prevent legit Trump votes from being added to his total — and, of course, that means all those voters were invisibly disenfranchised as a result. (The irony here being that Trump and his legal team were the ones aggressively trying to disqualify individual ballots because of arcane technicalities. And even trying to have whole swaths of perfectly legal votes thrown out for deeply spurious reasons, like not enough Republican poll-watchers being in exactly close enough proximity to the exact instance of counting.) The other is that a massive quantity of phony Biden votes were created out of thin air and injected wherever required. And so the election was irredeemably corrupted. This is a profound accusation, because it asserts that something both fundamental and sacred was taken from the people: their right to collectively choose their own leader. That’s a BIG fucking deal, to say the least. It’s not just infringing or impairing, it is straight-up wholesale robbing them of one of the most important rights of all. Now do you see what I mean when I say ‘categorically different’?
Y’know, I would sometimes wonder to myself what exactly Trump’s plan was if he happened to win. Because he’d spent so long furiously decrying so-called unsolicited mail-in ballots. (The notion that a citizen should have to explicitly ask their government to provide them with the means to safely vote during a deadly national emergency is… well, the type of backwards logic that true conservatives would usually be predisposed to reject out-of-hand. It makes voting seem like a privilege one must request to exercise, rather than a basic right conferred by citizenship which all provisions should automatically be made for. Like I say, conservatives used to abhor this sort of surreptitious, disempowering inversion. But being bewitched by Trump has a funny old way of clouding the mind.) The question I’m getting at is: if those ballots are inherently illegitimate, what was he going to say once they’d contributed to his victory total? Furthermore, what was he going to say in the yet more interesting scenario where he’d gotten by far the greater share of mail-in votes and maybe it had even been instrumental in him winning? I mean, yes, no doubt the answer is that he wouldn’t say squat. We all know that he does not feel handcuffed, in even the slightest way, to any principle or commitment whatsoever. He doesn’t need to; his supporters don’t demand that of him. He has taught them that the only thing which matters is victory, and also that victory overrides and overwrites everything else, even absolving all the ugliness needed to achieve it. As such, predictably enough, they just expect that he find a way to win. Four More Years, Four More Years — by hook or by crook(ed bullshit). So my guess is that he’d just assiduously dodge the question whenever it was raised, and simply bask in the rewards of his hypocrisy. But, anyhow, my point is that when I began thinking about this flipside proposition, I realized that an even deeper reason why Trump wasn’t concerned about this potential snag is that it seems like perhaps he himself didn’t believe he would be re-elected.
That’s just a hunch, but I’ll explain how it arose. During the 2020 campaign, I remember Trump often having this very odd mopey vibe to him. Back in ’16, he unforgettably had this sort of gleeful confidence to him, characteristic of a long-shot political insurgent who was pleasantly surprised by things increasingly starting to go his way. It was quite unsettling to watch, actually. It really seemed like he was having fun with it. You could see that he felt in control of the race, that he was sure he could easily bludgeon anyone or anything that opposed him, and he was just taking such pleasure in knocking all the elites he’d always despised for a loop. But jump forward to 2020 and his emotional complexion was quite the opposite. Despite the fact that he was ostensibly contesting an election from a much more powerful position, he just seemed… downbeat, dispirited. He looked like he was now just mechanically going through the motions, without even the hope of an eventual victory to bolster him. He’s usually pretty good at putting on a brave face and weathering things, but I think four very long, profoundly stressful years in office had worn him down and cracks were finally starting to appear. Again, it’s just a guess, but when you’re at your lowest ebb, that’s generally when the worst doubts set in, isn’t it? Maybe he saw some ominous internal polling or maybe he simply began reflecting on the effect that a first term of wall-to-wall mega-scandals would have on voters’ confidence in him, I don’t know. But there were definitely times when you’d be listening to one of his rally speeches or his rants when he’d call into Fox News, and the best way I can put it is that he seemed pre-emptively bitter about losing the upcoming election. (I know it can be hard to determine which particular variety of self-pity Trump is engaged in at any given moment though. Despite having been the beneficiary of immense luck in so many aspects of his life, he still manages to be a veritable polymath of bitterness. He’s like one of those child prodigies who can expertly play any kind of music. But instead of music, it’s whining. He’s the type of guy who’d kvetch about not having been born into a rich enough family and you wouldn’t be able to help yourself from nodding your head in begrudging admiration and thinking “well, he is pushing the genre forward with his daring innovations.”) Though I noticed it at the time, I didn’t really give it much weight because, as I discussed before, I was so dizzyingly wrapped up in the belief that his re-election was somehow appallingly inevitable. Now, however, I’m able to see it more clearly, to put the pieces together. In those moments, he seemed like someone who sensed his own doom on the horizon. Someone who’s panicked and splenetic and flailing in response to that realization, sure, but also someone who’s already feeling the gravity of that feared-eventuality and is trying to think of ways to protect his fragile sense of self-worth. Hence, the incessant ‘rigged’ talk. If you don’t have even an ounce of honour or humility, that’s exactly the type of crutch you reach for when you’re bracing for a drubbing.
Trump was never going to go quietly, never going to admit defeat. It’s not who he is. And I don’t just mean in terms of keeping up his persona, I’m talking about the most basic circuitry of his psychology. He doesn’t lose. He has never come up short in any endeavour, he just succeeded in it in a different way, by his own metric; he has never been bested in any competition where his opponent didn’t cheat or the game wasn’t stacked against him; he has never had a business fail without extenuating circumstances which made it downright impossible to keep it solvent. These are the axioms upon which he has built his personhood. His boundless ego is his beating heart.
And watching his slow-motion meltdown between Biden being declared the winner by news outlets and the Electoral College convening — not to mention the supreme high-school-level pettiness of declaring in advance that he’d refuse to attend Biden’s inauguration — really hammered home that this is an unhinged, emotionally unstable old man who feels like he’s getting his heart stomped on in front of the entire world. And Trump’s resulting tantrum must surely count among the most harmful in all of American history: having lost the game, he flips the board over and even tries to set the building on fire on his way out.
(By the by, did you ever hear that disturbing anecdote about Nixon? About how in his final days of burgeoning madness his Defense Secretary informed the military top brass that if their president should suddenly order a nuclear strike, they were not to obey it without getting it co-signed by a cabinet member who still retained their sanity? Scary fucking stuff. Really sends a shiver down your spine. And what’s the betting that something roughly along those lines — though probably more concerned with the imposition of martial law or the like — happened behind-the-scenes here too? I mean, given how many hush-hush conversations were supposedly had throughout Trump’s term about invoking the 25th Amendment, it’s not exactly a stretch to imagine that efforts would be made to heavy-duty bubble-wrap his destructive eleventh-hour urges.)
Do you remember all those
super-cool, super-edgy contrarians smug people with five-watt brains who, scoffing at the fear Trump provoked, used to hold up propositions like “Trump will one day try to muscle his way out of leaving office!” as merely the laughable fantasies of performative paranoiacs? Hmm, that sure aged like milk, didn’t it? We all just watched it happen. In real-time. Out in the open. And there was no ambiguity whatsoever. He wasn’t using coded language or beating around the bush with a thousand little nit-picky criticisms. Trump went full-bore. He was literally calling for the election to be ‘overturned’ and for millions of unfavourable votes to be invalidated so that he could remain president. (I suppose you have to give him credit for consistency though. As you no doubt recall, he was always insisting that more COVID testing was actually just making him look bad because it resulted in more positive cases being reported. Here that idea has been neatly transposed onto electoral math: counting more votes means too many Biden votes being added to the total — ergo, stop counting votes and everything will be just dandy. This is clearly a lesson cribbed from one of Trump’s favouritest picturebooks, ‘The Plucky Ostrich’s Guide to Problem-solving’.)
He even came at it from many different angles too. That’s how you know it wasn’t just pride-preserving theatrics; he really was deadly motherfucking serious about getting it done, about flipping the result. He hoped that he could sweet talk or intimidate local officials in key states like Georgia such that they’d do his bidding during vote counting and re-counting. He hoped that his Justice Department, headed by his usually-compliant consigliere Bill Barr, would rush through a ‘voter-fraud’ investigation and cook up some useful findings about disqualifying shenanigans. He hoped he could chip away at Biden’s lead via dozens of localized court challenges (READ: a diarrhoea-waterfall of frivolous hail-marys) across the country. He hoped the Supreme Court, which he was preposterously lucky enough to be able to stack in his/the GOP’s favour during just one term in office, would finally swoop in and gift him a concocted win… or at least grant him a favourable nudge, à la ‘Bush v. Gore’ in 2000. He hoped that his most loyal cronies in Congress would somehow be able to prevent the Electoral College vote from being certified. He also hoped that Mike Pence would infinitely overstretch his ceremonial authority in the matter and do the same. And, look, these are just the ones off the top of my head. (By the way, I was fairly — in both senses of the word — surprised that both Barr and Pence ended up turning their backs on Trump in the end. I wouldn’t have given that very good odds at all. I mean, what with both having evinced such perfect willingness to be counted among the big guy’s servantry for so long.) I’m sure there’s more manoeuvres by Trump or his camp that I’m forgetting, and I’m guessing there were other secretive efforts which haven’t even been dug up by journalists yet. And that’s just constraining ourselves to the realm of what he actually did. Let’s also not forget that he allegedly pondered such hare-brained and unthinkably outrageous ideas as A) designating a dependable lunatic, who wanted the government to seize voting machines as evidence of a ‘crime’, as Special Counsel, and B) deploying the military to forcibly enact and oversee a ‘do-over’ of the election. If you happen to be craving a little dose of melancholy, just spend a moment or two contemplating the fact that, in that aforementioned pivotal moment, we had to rely on the craven, self-interested knuckleheads who populate Trump’s orbit talking him out of having heavily-armed soldiers spill out of APCs and occupy polling stations. When this is the quarter you’re relying on to provide deliverance from catastrophe, you know shit is mega-mucho-fucked.
Again, it all adds up to a sitting president doing his utmost to disregard the electorate’s volition and illegally remain in office/hold onto power. This puts him in would-be dictator territory, plain and simple. There’s no grey area or open questions anymore. It’s undeniable now. And if Trump had succeeded, America would have ipso facto ceased to be a democracy in any meaningful sense. I repeat: the continuity of American democracy would have been severed. A president would have taken power, not been given it. And, what’s more, this hostile takeover — as he probably thought of it — would have been conducted OPENLY. That’s the part that’s so insane it’s hard to even wrap your head around. Trump was so consumed by his obsessive, compulsive desire to stay in the White House however possible that he did not care if the whole world saw him nakedly attempt to rip up the constitution and overrule the express will of the people, if that was what it took to keep his grubby little mitts wrapped around what he valued most. Someone who’s willing to do that, and who thinks they’ll get away with it regardless, is a dangerous, dangerous man. Make no bones about it. Right-wing op-ed writers have long enjoyed cackling about statements like the one I’m about to make, but it is nonetheless true: figures like Trump pop up periodically throughout history, and though they may have different aims and philosophies, they always try to wreak as much havoc and consolidate as much power as their historical moment will permit. They understand that chaos can be utilized as a sort of rocket-fuel for dark ambitions. And they know full well the solipsistic, nihilistic thrill of seeing all their enemies consumed by the mile-wide blooming conflagration they’ll leave behind after lift-off.
Unfortunately, I think it’s going to take a while for the true magnitude of what almost just happened to really sink in for a lot of Americans. First there was the sheer jubilation that Biden had won, and now people are kinda just savouring this return to comfortable political-normality. For the time being, they just want to forget the horribleness of what occurred, to enjoy the dividends of the sanity that prevailed in the end. And I can’t really blame them for that. It was an emotionally harrowing four years and it somehow ended with an even more disturbing bang; people do deserve to finally breathe a sigh of relief and let that deep tenseness built up inside of them dissipate. Still, sometime in the not-too-distant future there needs to be a reckoning. Some sort of collective acknowledgement of and grappling with how profound a wound American democracy nearly suffered.
The only problem with that occurring after time has passed is that, as we all know, the more temporally distant you are from some awful event, the more inclined you can be to inadvertently downplay it or attempt to gloss over it. And I really fear that as a result some people’s takeaway might simply be “wow, the system worked! I don’t know what we were all so anxious about, Trump never really had a chance of getting his way!” This would be exactly the wrong lesson to derive from this ordeal. The thing is, there’s justifiably a lot of faith in the ‘checks and balances’ which undergird the American form of government. But also, sometimes, a little too much. If Trump had succeeded in availing himself of just a few loopholes, of breaking the wills of just a few election officials, he could still be president now, despite losing in a landslide. My point being that there is a type of close shave where it’s fine to just say “phew!” and touch wood and go about your business like normal, and then there’s a type of close shave where the only appropriate, rational response is to freak the fuck out and do everything in your power to ensure nothing like that can ever happen again. I don’t, I’m sure, have to tell you which one I think this is. It should be terrifying that the guardrails of democracy barely stopped this guy. They just aren’t really designed to deal with this kind of thing. Disaster was averted not primarily because there were robust protections against it, but rather because of a mixture of dumb luck and bungled execution and the fact that a few key figures, despite having a history of behaving unadmirably, finally remembered their sense of right and wrong (or just got cold feet) at the very last minute and refused to go along with Trump’s craziness. If that doesn’t make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, then you obviously shaved the back of your neck with a straight-razor very recently, you weirdo.
The lesson we ought to take from this depressing episode is the following. When you give someone like Trump the reins — someone who disdains the system of rules he’s been elected to protect and obey, someone who feels no duty to put his country first but solely evaluates every decision in terms of gaining or losing power — you cannot easily revoke that mistake and hand those reins to a successor. You will have to wrest them from him. And it is by no means a sure thing that you will be able to. Act accordingly.
I followed the attack on the Capitol Building in real-time, reading the updates and looking at the photos/videos in horror and utter disbelief. It was the type of surreal moment I can only remember happening a few times before in my life. I hate to say it, because I don’t want to seem like I’m making light of it, but it really did look like something out of some dumb, hokey action-movie (of the ‘Olympus Has Fallen’ variety). You know how there’ll be an expositional montage which shows how the country is falling apart, how civil unrest and anarchy is spreading uncontrollably, and it’ll crescendo with fake news-helicopter footage of masked rioters overrunning some big, important marble-pillared government building and letting out a disquieting cheer of triumph? That’s exactly what it reminded me of. It was absolutely insane. I kept thinking to myself “holy fucking shit, I’m watching a violent coup d’état attempt take place in the United States.” And then there’s a sceptical/worrywart part of your brain that says wait, that can’t be right, surely you’re being too melodramatic in the heat of the moment. But… no. When an armed group storms the location where an election is being certified in an effort to forcibly halt it and get it flipped to their preferred candidate, who actually lost fair and square, that’s a coup d’état. No ifs, ands, or buts. You gotta be able to look this kind of thing in the face and call it by its proper name.
I must add that it was mind-jarringly inexplicable to me that the heart of American government seemed to be defended by such a small and ineffective police presence. I watched some of the videos of them feebly trying to push the mob of insurrectionists back with truncheons and it was a ridiculous sight. It was practically just a token gesture of resistance. And I mean, look, I get it. You could tell they understood the hopelessness of their predicament. The Capitol Police contingent that was stationed outside were overwhelmed so quickly it was unreal. They were clearly cowed by the huge numerical disparity and the aggressive forward-pressure and were constantly retreating further and further back until eventually all the outer barricades were abandoned and the mob forced its way into the building itself. And then inside, of course, it was utter bedlam. The Capitol was ceded to lunatics. Rooms trashed and defaced, computers breached, documents stolen. Members of congress handed gas-masks and locked in a basement for their own safety. One of the intruders sitting proudly in the speaker’s chair, raising a fist and whooping like a guerrilla savouring conquered territory. There really are no words to describe how incredible that is. (One of the images which is indelibly burned into my memory, as it will no doubt be in the collective American cultural consciousness too, is that of plainclothes police officers — or perhaps Secret Service agents, I’m not sure — tensely standing guard in front of the entrance to the House chamber as the mob tries to force their way in. They’re all aiming their pistols at the hastily-blocked doorway, with fingers very much on triggers. It is about as striking and dramatic a ‘last stand’ photograph as you are ever likely to see.)
I also wanna address the right-wing downplaying of this event in no uncertain terms. I have heard it nonchalantly asserted, and I know this is a sentiment echoed by a lot of (some even quite respectable) conservative pundits, that this whole thing has been overblown by the media: it wasn’t really an ‘insurrection’ at all, it was just a dime-a-dozen riot that managed to be unusually successful in terms of the high-profile place it extended its trespassing into. This is partisan drivel. And it shouldn’t be dignified as anything other than that. It’s an absurd, nonsensical take that is going to age spectacularly badly. I don’t want to put too fine a point on this because I have a hard-won reputation for politeness to uphold, but, listen, straight-up, the people saying this shit are basically shoving an arm through a little temporal wormhole and holding a lighter up to the hair of their future selves. No matter which way you look at it, they’re just flat-out wrong. As aforementioned, there’s the us-vs-them angle to it. These people might not actually feel any true kinship or solidary with those who sieged the Capitol, but there’s clearly some automatic “they’re right-wing, we’re right-wing; the left-wing media is trashing them; we’d better man the ramparts of partisanship” type of thing happening on a subrational level, I think. (Or perhaps I’m just being naive by hoping it’s not occurring as a conscious thought-process.) If this had been a Black Lives Matter or antifa mob who’d done this, many of these same conservatives would have been left spluttering and blinking from pure, white-hot rage. Their next op-eds would have read like the shellshocked screeds following Pearl Harbour. And, gosh, Fox News personalities would have been tearing up as they decried how the sacred Capitol Building — “the seat of American democracy for christ’s sake! The symbol of all we hold dear!” — had been raped by this horrific anti-American invasion. And then the ensuing monologue-rants would have been legendary. There would have been steam coming out of their ears and calls for those responsible to be hanged for treason on a livestream to serve as an example. Phrases like “domestic terrorists” and “unforgivable” and “lasting national trauma” and “never again” would have slid off tongues with the greatest of ease. We all know this to be true.
Then there’s just the simple matter of definitional accuracy. I heard someone whose political commentary I typically tend to hold in quite high esteem say that the reason this didn’t fit the bill of insurrection comes down to the fact that the attackers were nowhere near an organized enough or sufficiently powerful force to actually overthrow and replace the government itself, all they could really hope to do was wreak some minor physical destruction and sow chaos for a very short period of time. (Weirdly, this reading almost seems to imply that it was basically just ‘propaganda of the deed’ style direct-action meant to create distressing scenes on the easily-spooked normies’ TVs and simultaneously inspire likeminded red-pilled people to join the cause. More of an advertisement than a political act.) This is a pretty slippery way to reframe things, to say the least. It raises the bar to the point where the word is practically useless in a modern context. It also just plainly doesn’t comport with the actual long-standing commonly understood meaning of insurrection, which covers concerted, violent attempts — large and small, successful or unsuccessful — to rise in revolt against a current government: in order to either replace it entirely or to alter its form/make-up or to simply prevent it from functioning. And, moreover, the thing about the Capitol attack is that it was, by any fair-minded reckoning, neither small nor totally unsuccessful. You can’t just brush it off as some minor event, some unpleasant footnote to the Trump era. It was historic, in the worst possible way. It was the first time in two-hundred fucking years that the Capitol building has been breached and occupied by a hostile force. And it technically achieved its main objective, though only briefly, which was to disrupt and prevent the certification of Joe Biden’s election to President of the United States. I say again: a rampaging mob stormed the Capitol and utilized the threat of violence to force a convened session of Congress to disperse, with its members fleeing in fear of their lives, and managed to temporarily prevent it carrying out one of its most important duties. That’s just objectively what happened. And the right-wingers who claim to be highly patriotic, who claim to love this republic and its constitution, who claim that they want ‘law and order’, are telling you that this isn’t a big deal? (Not to mention, they’re usually the fiercely pro-police crowd. And look at how many police officers were injured or worse. Somehow this doesn’t seem to faze them very much this time… In fact, they’ve even rather turned on some of the officers who’ve spoken up about their experiences that day.) They’re telling you that this really isn’t meaningfully different than any group of political activists breaking in somewhere and getting into a few physical skirmishes and causing a bit of property damage to make a point? Say it with me now: get the fuck out of here with that noise. No-one’s buying what you’re selling. And it’s frankly embarrassing that you’d imagine anyone might be stupid enough to.
And, lastly, just to conclusively dispel the zero-brain-activity-detected idea that, you know, aw shucks, these were mostly good upstanding folk, and this was just a ruckus that got a little too rowdy, it’s worth remembering some of the other things that the Capitol attackers also wanted to do if the opportunity arose. (And thank heaven they weren’t able to.) There were the people who wanted to physically force the congress to declare Donald Trump as the election’s winner, to literally stand there on the floor during the proceedings like the thugs lurking behind the camera on forced-confession videos and let their armed presence intimidate elected officials into doing their bidding. There were the people carrying around bundles of zip-tie handcuffs, which were intended for all the anti-Trump members of congress who they intended to mass ‘arrest’ (READ: kidnap and do god knows what with). There were the people heard openly talking about how they wanted to find the vice-president and execute him on the spot for his disloyalty. I could go on, but you get the picture. Anyone who tries to convince you that the occupation of the Capitol was somehow just a more rough-and-ready form of civil disobedience is A) disgracing themselves with their own lies, and B) seeking to make a fool out of you. Be on your guard for horseshit like that. The dirtbags who perpetrated this attack had some very, very dark intentions. If they had gotten luckier with their timing or if there had been laxer security protocols, this could very well have been a massive hostage situation or even a bloodbath. They ‘only’ ended up terrorizing congresspeople and stalling a certification vote not because that’s all they wanted to achieve, but because they were prevented from doing much worse. That’s the takeaway here.
I mean, obviously there’s going to be an inquiry into how in the fuck this attack could be allowed to happen and the truth of the matter will out, but I have to say that based on the footage I saw, the initial kneejerk blaming of individual Capitol Police officers for letting the rioters get past them and venture further into the building does seem a bit unfair. I get all the emotional comments being made about how if these had been POC protestors, instead of predominantly white guys wearing American flags, the police would have just opened fire without question and at the very first provocation. And although it’s a rather crass way to make the point, yes, that does have an element of deeper truth. But to what exact degree did elements of racial (or perhaps even just political/ideological) bias affect the outcome of this event? Impossible to determine. And so probably somewhat fruitless for me to speculate on. However, from what I saw, the initial failure to counteract the crowd bum-rushing forward with sufficient force and effectiveness is readily explainable simply due to the facts on the ground. The Capitol Police just seemed so underprepared and ill-equipped and outnumbered. So I think the blame should be primarily laid at the feet of those higher up the totem pole who permitted that state of affairs to happen in the first place. That shit is inexplicable and unpardonable. Heads have gotta roll for it.
I read an account from an officer who had been swarmed and badly beaten up, and he basically said that he realized that even if he pulled his gun and started shooting in self-defence, there were just so many aggressors surrounding him that they would have speedily wrestled it away from him and almost certainly killed him then and there. I understand what he’s saying and also the decision he made. The situation should have been infinitely better managed all round — both in terms of general preparedness and also on-the-day strategy — so that a mob was never physically able to get past the outer defences and into the Capitol itself, so that individual officers were not put into those kind of impossible predicaments. You can’t give a guy a handgun, a can of pepper spray, a modicum of training, and a handshake wishing him good luck and expect that he’ll miraculously be able to stop a hundred berserk and mostly armed people from overpowering him and/or getting past him in a confined space. Even a Navy SEAL armed to the teeth isn’t going to fare very well in that situation.
There’s no question in my mind that Trump is straightforwardly morally culpable for inciting the attack on the Capitol. (This is another one of those things that you never imagine you’ll have to write about someday. A sitting president siccing a violent, destructive mob on the congress, to besiege it and occupy it and seek to prevent his election loss. Seriously, re-read that fucking sentence. Who can doubt that our crucial ability to be shocked will be irreparably impaired post-Trump?…) The largest reason why is because so much of his ‘election-stealing’ rhetoric leading up to this event clearly laid the foundation and provided the impetus for it happening. He was whipping his most deranged supporters into a frenzy and feeding them lies to make them feel like they had to battle to save their president and their country. But, more specifically, you have things like Trump tweeting about how the planned ‘protest’ would be “wild” and instructing those who were going to attend to “StopTheSteal!” To actually stop something from happening, you can’t just sit at home, printing out new photos of Pelosi for your dartboard and reorganising your bug-out bag. You have to turn up and do something about it, right? I wonder what that could be… Well, ahem, thankfully Trump understands the art of subtlety about as well as he understands constitutional theory. He isn’t one to brook any mealy-mouthed crypticness. He wanted to make sure the call-to-arms was transmitted loud and clear. During the rally speech he gave right before the attack, where he encouraged them to march to congress for him, he told the crowd they needed to “fight like hell”; about Biden’s certification as president, he told them “we can’t let that happen”; he talked about how “you have to show strength, and you have to be strong” and about how “when you catch somebody in a fraud you’re allowed to go by very different rules.”
Yes, alright, you got me, he didn’t point at the Capitol building and explicitly say “flip your safeties off and go take that over for me, would you kindly?” But you’ve gotta have two glass eyes and a pretty goddamn shaky hand if you can’t draw a very short, very straight line from those above-mentioned comments, and others that preceded them too, to the idea that this is a do-or-die moment for our republic and our president wants us to go forth and bend the congress to our will by any means necessary. That’s that, as far as I’m concerned. Trump’s defenders can argue semantics all the livelong day and desperately try to parse his comments in any number of implausible exculpatory ways, but the reality is that most people are smart enough to be able to read between the lines and intuit Trump’s intentions here. Hell, his preference has always been to, whenever possible, get expendable warm bodies to soak up all the risk and do his dirty work for him. This was no different. He was hoping to spur his followers to do something dramatic on his behalf. I don’t think he could predict exactly what form that would take, but when he flicked that first little domino over, he knew that by the time the big hefty one at the end toppled, it would surely fall with a resounding boom. When you further amp up an enraged, spoiling-for-a-fight crowd with a speech which tells them their country’s about to be taken over by an illegitimate usurper and this is their last stand and then send them off towards the Capitol, you know what the fuck you’re doing, okay? You know the kind of thing you’re unleashing. They ain’t gonna go stand outside and just glare at it and wave placards and link arms and chant slogans. There’s going to be some kind of violent ruckus, at the very least. Probably more. (And just in case you’re wondering if Trump’s reaction to seeing the attack unfold on television might give us some clue about whether he wanted it to happen, the New York Times reported that “Mr. Trump was initially pleased… and disregarded aides pleading with him to intercede” and a Republican senator stated that he heard from “senior White House officials” that Trump was “excited” and “delighted” about seeing the attempts to forcibly enter the building. Something to chew on, I’d say. Do these responses seem congruent with someone witnessing an unintended, undesirable event?) Furthermore, many of the rioters themselves sure seemed to understand what Trump was trying to convey to them. They made it very plain to anyone who would listen that they were there invading the Capitol at the behest of their president, that they were his chosen vanguard responding to his call to prevent this vote certification by resorting to extreme measures. Let’s just skip past the fascinating serf-mentality of being overjoyed to be the ones incurring physical harm, life-ruining notoriety, and prison time to satisfy the whim of a billionaire narcissist who would shudder and take a hand-sanitiser shower if you or your unwashed-poor friends ever got too close to him. Here’s the bottom line: if it seems like someone is asking a group to do something, AND they think so too and do it, when it comes to the question of ‘incitement’… I’m personally willing to accept that the thing which quacks is indeed a duck.
Now, whether Trump’s legally culpable for the attack too is a matter I’m not remotely knowledgeable enough to weigh in on. The hedge-maze of laws surrounding inciting harm by speech has always baffled me. I do know that impeaching Trump for a second time was, although one could make an argument for it being an ethical imperative, politically boneheaded though. He was already dead in the water and his future political prospects seemed maimed, so my advice would probably have been to just leave ‘good enough’ alone. But, alas, the Democrat leadership loves to punch a gift horse in the mouth, if they possibly can. (It’s a sidenote to expound upon another day, but on the basis of Trump and Bill Clinton’s examples, I find myself convinced that bipartisan impeachment was and is and forevermore will be an impossibility. Unless a video emerges of some future president spraying a burlap sack full of kittens with a submachine gun, the only way they’re getting removed from office is if the opposing party has congressional supermajorities and rams it through unilaterally. Both parties seem like they’d be perfectly happy to do so should the opportunity arise, it should be noted.) Also, someone with an ounce of nous should have told the Democrats that “you come at the king, you best not miss” is more than just a cool line from ‘The Wire’. In this case, by engaging in multiple failed dethronings, you just make impeachment itself seem increasingly fatuous and it probably even lends Trump the exciting air of a bullet-dodger, which will just feed into the weird hero-worship that animates much of his base. It doesn’t matter, or really even occur, to those people that the reason Trump escaped removal in both cases actually had nothing to do with him at all. It wasn’t some brilliant outmanoeuvring on his part. In fact, to the contrary, he shot himself in the foot more often than not — he cheaped out on lawyers in the second trial, and the team of incompetents he then resorted to went on to present the sort of shambolic comedy of errors that really has to be seen to be believed. No, he escaped because the Democrats picked numerically unwinnable fights. They could do no more than simply keep throwing themselves against a GOP phalanx of intransigent party-loyalty.
The Democrats appeared to believe that the awful optics of waging not just another futile impeachment spectacle but an accelerated one at that would be far outweighed by the opportunity it would provide them to publicly berate Trump and outline his sins. Moreover, they were confident they could make hay out of backing the congressional Republicans into a corner and forcing each of them to explicitly back or renounce Trump for all the world to see. I sighed so hard when I originally realized this that it probably looked like I was blowing out invisible birthday candles. A lesson that the Democrats steadfastly refuse to learn is that many prominent Republicans truly don’t care about integrity or fidelity to any avowed principles. Believing that chasing power is worth a tarnished reputation, they do not even slightly flinch at the prospect of having to say something now whilst knowing full well that later it’ll be prudent to say the exact opposite. To recur to Lindsey Graham — one of the foremost modern-day exemplars of this skin-crawling ethic — just take a look at his statements about Trump during Trump’s downfall and then just a scant few months afterwards.
DURING: “All I can say is count me out. Enough is enough.” As well as “When it comes to accountability, the president needs to understand that his actions were the problem, not the solution” and “It breaks my heart that [Trump]… would allow yesterday [the Capitol riot] to happen” and “I’ve enjoyed my relationship with him. I hate that it ends this way.”
AFTER: “What I’m tryin’ to do is just harness the magic [of Trump].” He declared that the Republican Party should move forward “with Trump, not without Trump” given that only Trump can make it “bigger… stronger… more diverse.” (Donald Trump, famed champion of diversity. Uh-huh. Of course. Say no more.) Oh, and he also made sure to add “I still consider him a friend.”
If you were very charitable and very naive, you might call this mildly schizophrenic and be done with it. Hopefully you’re neither and are therefore able to see my point here, dear reader. Because the Democrats, due to unknown hindrances of acuity, seem incapable of doing so. They are wed to the exorbitantly moronic idea that getting people like Lindsey Graham to say something unequivocal on the record provides you with leverage which can then later be used against him. Either to shame him or better yet to force him to do as he said he would. (See his intensely disgraceful little switcharoo about confirming Supreme Court justices in a president’s last year for how well that latter option usually works out.) But what they seemingly don’t understand is that, really, it’s like grabbing hold of an elusive lizard real tightly with a cry of triumph, and then a moment later it just nonchalantly sheds its skin, slips out of your grasp, and waltzes off into the sunset. Actually, scratch that. I know they don’t understand it, because they’ve been lizard-grabbing for as long as I can remember.
Yes, Trump is gone now. I know it’s hard to believe, and I also know recent years have conditioned us to flinch and distrust anything hopeful like mistreated shelter dogs, but it’s true. The besuited man-shaped black hole who caused so much trouble has finally been escorted outside and instructed to vamoose and even told with great relish that unfortunately his Uber Black ride home won’t be reimbursed.
And with him, thank god, goes the scummy riffraff he surrounded himself with. That veritable clown car full of creeps and crooks and dunderheads which comprised both his inner-circle and his larger roster of minions. The fact that we were forced to give such people even a second of our attention is a dire affront we ought not forget. In a legal context, I believe it would be termed an ‘irreparable harm’. It doesn’t matter if the Democrats win the next fifty presidential elections, we ain’t getting back all that precious time we wasted watching, say, Giuliani or Sean Spicer or ‘The Mooch’ or Kellyanne Conway or Scott Atlas ply their idiot-trade. And don’t even get me started on someone like Roger Stone, who’s one of those colourful — to put it far too politely — characters you almost can’t even believe is a real person. (I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the tattoo of Nixon’s beaming face he had inked between his shoulder blades, but I promise you it will haunt your fucking nightmares’ nightmares. So weigh clicking on that link carefully. Know full well beforehand: I offer no memory-erasure services.) Truly olympic calibre uber-scoundrels like him, who’ve been sowing chaos as part of the political rogues’ gallery for decades, are few and far between. And for very obvious and very damning reasons they gravitate to Trump and Trump gravitates to them.
Anyhow, aye, we’re finally seeing the back of Trump. It’s been a long time coming and will probably take a while to sink in, as semi-miraculous instances of good fortune invariably do. However, much as I hate to put a dampener on all the hooraying and champagne-popping so soon, I do have to point something out: the work is not over yet. Not by a long shot. Just like when you eventually manage to evict a godawful tenant, you’re still left to deal with the unpleasant effects of their residency. Trump may have physically departed, but he’s left behind a long-lasting eye-watering stench in every room that responsible grownups are going to have to try to scrub out of the carpets and drapes. And don’t bother thinking we’ll get to use his security deposit to fund this effort: it was provided in the form of a cheque and — surprise, surprise — it’s gonna bounce like a trampolinist in microgravity. I mean, consider who we’re dealing with here…
It would be exceptionally difficult to properly catalogue the full range of harms that Trump has inflicted upon the United States. (I’m sure there will be a cottage industry of books attempting to do just that in the coming years though.) This is not just because there are so many, but also because they take so many forms. Large and small; short-term and long-term; material and abstract; strategic and unintentional; fixable and unfixable; known and as-yet unknown. So on and so forth, you get the idea. The more you try to grope towards even a partial accounting of what he has done to the country, the more you realize that his blight is metastatic, is polymorphic. It seeks out whatever can be attacked, and attacks it however possible. Yes, we’ve seen other unpleasant presidents target specific things they wanted gone and covertly swing a sledgehammer at them, but Trumpism stands alone in that it isn’t even contained or highly-focused in that same sly way. It is wildly expansive and indiscriminate, as any political philosophy which has at its heart the maximised consolidation of power simply for power’s sake must be. Of course, even deeming it a ‘philosophy’ is too kind, being a misnomer. That connotes a level of concerted thought, a degree of analysis and theorization, which Trumpism does not and has never possessed. Trumpism has easier, baser aspirations. It isn’t interested in trying to actually say anything insightful; it’s just pointing at hot-button topics which provoke emotion in people, waiting for the boos or applause, and then taking a bow. It’s quite remarkable, it really does have almost no real ideological content at all. It’s like when you try one of those crazy diet sodas that boast they have no sugar, no sweeteners, no colourings, no flavourings, no caffeine, no calories, etc, and you just think “what in the fuck am I even drinking then? This is just canned FDA-approved liquid and that’s about it. It’s only ‘soda’ by virtue of them being brazen enough to label it ‘soda’.” (I mean, this vacuousness should come as no surprise. Trumpism was not born as a worldview or a political program, it was just an electoral strategy. Or, better said, a bettor’s formula. That’s it. An all-in wager that weaponizing [populism + xenophobia + anti-elitism + white resentment] x a ripe moment of American decline/societal polarization = blank check for a power grab. And, as it turned out, that was a safer bet than we all hoped, and after the 2016 election Trump got to take his slip to the counter with a big shit-eating grin.) In fact, Trumpism is such a brainless force that it often palpably doesn’t even understand the systems it’s seeking to destroy, but, then again, it doesn’t need to. It can identify what stands in its way and crude methods of removing them — or, if that’s not possible, ways to sufficiently denature or perhaps assimilate them — and that’s good enough. And asking why it attacked a particular thing is… well, it’s a bit like how it’s pointless to ask why a wildfire laid waste to some patch of forest. Wildfires abhor coexistence, because wildfires cannot find equilibrium with their environment, they can only consume it for their own propagation. They are just inherently inimical to practically everything they come into contact with. It’s the type of disturbing simplicity which tends to baffle those who assume there must always be a deeper or more complex answer. But it doesn’t defy explanation, it just obviates it.
The other thing to keep in mind is that the reason Trump succeeded in doing so much damage comes down to contextual factors which are much bigger than him, which were simply a matter of luck — in this case, good luck for him, but bad luck for everyone else. What I’m getting at is the perfect-storm-ism of it all. There truly is something a little awe-inspiring about the sheer cumulative reverse-serendipity at play here. He was the worst possible president for the worst possible moment. The most dire wrong-turn to take at that exact historical juncture. A cancer so supremely well-suited to exploiting American society’s every vulnerability, you’d almost think it was a lab-grown disease. (Or perhaps some kind of divine punishment from an angry god. Which could potentially be an interesting inversion of the finger-pointing declarations from hyperscum like the late Jerry Falwell, who you might recall once said that 9/11 was homosexuals’ fault for displeasing the heavens with their deviancy. My feeling is, maybe god inflicted Trump on America because it still isn’t yet gay enough. It’s a supposition which is impossible to disprove, one can’t help but note. I think it’s best to err on the side of caution and accelerate the queerification of the nation to avoid incurring ‘Trump 2: The Trumpening’.) It’s an intriguing thought-experiment to ponder what would have happened if this presidency had been transplanted into a different — perhaps near-future — moment. It’s conceivable that if a Trump-type had sprang up at a less favourable time, confronting a more stable and healthy country, the immune system of the body politic would have been better prepared to just absorb and neutralize the attempted-ravages that come along with something like that. But, then again, presumably/hopefully he wouldn’t have even been able to get elected in that more felicitous national context, so I guess it might be a moot point. Still, a hypothetical to torture yourself with in idle moments, if you’re so inclined.
Anyhow, for the sake of some modicum of brevity, I’m just going to comment on one area where I think he’s had a particularly damaging and lasting effect, as an illustrative example of the broader phenomenon. I’ll be talking about reputation, which is a much more impactful factor than is often conceded. First, how the institution of the presidency will be viewed going forward. Second, the country’s international renown itself.
There’s really no question that he has made the presidency seem ridiculous. On the one hand, yes, ridiculous in a comical sense. He cannot help being a cringeworthy buffoon and it’s now very clear what happens when you give someone like that a position of unparalleled importance, a position which is supposed to be imbued with enormous dignity and gravity and grandeur, and then tell people that they nonetheless ought to grant him respect because of that office he holds. Not only will people not comply, because they aren’t mindless automatons who’ll just ignore what they’re seeing with their own eyes, but they’ll also realize that no matter how lofty it is, the office cannot hope to elevate the buffoon — but it sure as fuck can and does get dragged down to his level. You know why? Because, to put it as plainly as possible, wherever a buffoon calls home is de facto a place fit for a buffoon. This is just a general principle. Of course the occupant has more power to reshape and redefine their dwelling than vice versa. Even a palace will soon start looking like a hovel when you let a bunch of filthy squatters adopt it as their den. And the result being: if a dopey asshole like Trump can become president, then people get to thinking “gee, what’s so impressive about being president anyway?”
On the other hand, Trump has also made the presidency seem ridiculous in an extremely dark sense too. Who, over the last four years, hasn’t had cause to reflect on how crazy it is that one single person, one highly fallible mammal, is invested with so much authority and responsibility? (I don’t at all lament the prompting of this question, personally. Because presidents are far too akin to democratically-elected short-term monarchs for my taste. But those who hold the presidency to be a well-proportioned locus of power, or think it’s crucial that that be a widespread view, surely do lament it greatly.) It’s easy to not fret too much about that when there’s some sane, competent person at the helm. I won’t lie, I didn’t lose a lot of sleep when Barrack Obama was in a position to command the armed forces, veto any non-supermajority legislation he liked, sign any treaty he liked, nominate judges on all the courts which matter most, issue overpowered executive orders, pardon anyone for any federal crime, oversee and direct the fifteen executive departments which collectively handle the entire business of the country, and so on. Nor was I really tearing my hair out worrying that he might pull the plug on domestic internet access merely because it was in the “interest of… national security” or that he might fling world-ending warheads at some foreign country who’d stoked his ire. I mean, I still wasn’t psyched about any of this stuff; it just didn’t seem like such an urgent or menacing problem. But then Trump steps into the picture and you’re looking at the same office from a parallax angle. It suddenly seems unbelievable and unbearably unconscionable that one man could be entrusted with not just running the country, but profoundly shaping it too. Trump may now be gone, but he got to maliciously pull a lot of levers while he was sitting in that big regal leather chair with terrible ergonomics. The irreversible ripple-effects of his impact on America will be unfolding on a timespan of decades, not years.
And as if it wasn’t shitty enough that Trump was a president with bad intentions, he was also an extremely lazy and checked-out one when it came to fulfilling the office’s vital core functions. I think his tenure reminded everyone that there’s no hard and fast rule that says a president has to take his position seriously, no mechanism to ensure that happens. As in, there’s no special quality that the presidency has which compels the person to rise to the occasion. If you put some witless, self-absorbed chump in there, don’t be surprised when he’s a delinquent leader. He can clown around and make a mockery of the office if he likes. He can delegate the real work to subordinates and treat it like a sinecure if he likes. Who cares? Not someone like Trump, that’s for sure. He sought to run the government like he runs his hotels, with ‘image management’ always being the main priority: just try to present a passable impression of competency to the customers, even though the staff are screaming at each other behind closed doors, the linens are infested with bed-bugs, and the room service is liable to give you food poisoning. That impression is all you’re really selling. That impression is all that really matters. As long as you can fool the customer into thinking their money was well-spent, they won’t ask for it back. Another day, another dollar at Trump Inc. Ka-ching! (Of course, it was beyond his comprehension that the American people were actually not his customers, they were his employer. But that’s a whole different matter. And probably futile to seek to remedy. I’d imagine that explaining an unwelcome concept like that to an unrobust mind like Trump’s would be a feat surpassing the pedagogic abilities of man.) Unfortunately for Trump, this hospitality-industry inspired style-over-substance approach falls apart when the hotel is the size of a very large country, its guests are an inconvenient hybrid of permanent residents and shareholders, and the guests also spend a fair amount of time paying close attention to the management and overall welfare of the hotel. Another difference, thankfully, is that when the facade does finally disintegrate and the scuzzy reality is laid bare, you don’t just get a mean review on Yelp…
Okay, so you put these two ridiculousnesses together and who’s going to view the presidency the same way ever again? I’m not saying that Johnny Flagwaver is suddenly going to stop getting teary-eyed when watching inaugurations, nor peel off that yellowed bumper-sticker which proudly declares “I 🤎 my president!” It’s just that a sliver of doubt may have been introduced. The office has a bit of a different feel now. I mean, how could you not look at it at the very least a little askance, seeing how easily/unpreventably it may be won by a blatant dirtbag and how easily/unpreventably it may be ill-used?
Something far, far more grave than the presidency being knocked down a few pegs in people’s estimation, however, is the United States itself suffering the same fate on the world stage. Anyone who knows anything about anything understands that one of the reasons why America is such an international powerhouse is due to the enormous soft power derived from its prestige. America trades on its reputation like practically no other country can. It is a fascinating, singular country with a grandeur that makes observers all over the globe revere it and even irrepressibly draws some of them to it no matter the cost. This special status is impossible to buy or fake— and impossibly valuable to have. It has to emerge and solidify organically, but even once it has, it can be highly susceptible to peaks and valleys.
Trump’s presidency proved this point only too well. It’s absolutely flabbergasting how much, in just four short years, he has ruined America’s reputation as a geopolitical actor in the eyes of the world. (Yes, I appreciate that it was already, uhh, rather ailing in some quarters, but you know what I’m saying. It’s all relatively speaking.) He has made it seem like an inept bully trying so desperately to look tough, like some meathead flexing every single muscle as they walk and pointlessly mean-mugging anyone they pass. He has made it seem like a fool who doesn’t know what the fuck they’re doing and is just praying no-one will notice. He has made it seem like a cruel and selfish boor who is so parochial, so xenophobic that they’re fast losing all traces of humanity. And Trump’s ascent, as a cultural phenomenon, has made the American people seem little better. America now comes off like a nation which longs to be ruled by a tyrant who’ll roll back the clock of progress a good forty or fifty years. A nation where hatreds are the most common currency, where everyone is always at everyone else’s throat. A nation of anti-intellectualism, where churlish, vulgar, bovine stupidity reigns supreme and art and science are distrusted or scorned. Et cetera, et cetera. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that this is all just scratching the surface really. The long and short of it is that he has made America seem like a country which is somehow both very embarrassing and very scary. A bleak circus on the verge of horribly imploding, and liable to burp out far-reaching ripples of carnage from its epicentre when it does.
The rest of the world has been scrutinizing the side of itself America revealed under Trump and isn’t soon going to forgot what it saw. The measurable effect of this has been… substantial. I would draw your attention to some polling concerning international opinion about the U.S. done near the end of Trump’s tenure, which found that not only has he dragged it down across the board, but in “several countries, the share of the public with a favorable view of the U.S. is as low as it has been at any point since the Center began polling on this topic nearly two decades ago.” And also very much of note is the fact that in various allied countries, as helpfully charted here, positive sentiment about the U.S. is as low or lower than under President George W. Bush. And that’s not to say that it’s just been in the toilet from Bush onwards, and Trump was just an unlucky recipient of that ossified status quo. It actually jumped way back up during the halcyon days of Obamamania — in fact, right back up to the levels that Bush himself inherited and then managed to crash — and then Trump was just as much of a lead weight when handed the chance to plummet them. He repeated the feat, in other words. It’s kind of hard to put into words just how fucking stunningly insane that is. Trump damaged America’s standing with some of the countries it relies on most to the same degree as a president who, among many other spectacularly unlovely things, initiated two separate wars. (And wars which if I was a newspaperman schooled in the art of faux-objective non-speak I suppose I’d suffice with merely describing as being ‘profoundly divisive’ at home and abroad.) And don’t forget Trump managed to do it in half the time! I say again, he was arguably more successful at disgracing his country than the bumbling nepotism-president who made America seem like a surveillance-state which loved nothing more than conquering and torturing! I mean, holy shit. What a prodigy of reputational-destruction. The folks at MasterClass™ should put a camera in front of him and have him spend ten hours teaching how to do it, as the world’s foremost expert. I, personally, would love to learn what his secret sauce is. I’m guessing that just innately being a weapons-grade fuckhead probably does a lot of the heavy-lifting for him, but it’d be good to see his methodology minutely broken down so I can know for sure. I ain’t spending $180 a year on that subscription to NOT be edified by the greatest minds of our generation, you know?
It’s a real bummer, but my gut tells me that it’s going to take quite a while for the image of America to get built back up in people’s judgment overseas. Trump’s tenure was like a sustained carpet-bombing campaign on the ‘hearts and minds’ of anyone paying attention. Every other week you’d see a headline which read like a dispatch from some hopelessly corrupt third-world banana republic, only to discover it was about Trump’s shenanigans instead. That impression of what America is like in its lowest moments will have lodged itself in observers’ memories fairly deeply, and will be difficult to overwrite. Biden’s really got his work cut out in that regard. But it’s a vital, vital endeavour. The Biden administration, and probably several subsequent administrations too, will need to emphatically repudiate and undo Trump’s besmirching of what America can and should mean. As I touched on earlier, America is quite rare in that it’s not just a nation, it’s also an idea. Many people far from its shores buy into that idea, respect and admire it, are enraptured by its glimmering allure. This is such a major asset. (Hell, it’s part of why America enjoys such stupendous, unrivalled success with its vast array of cultural exports. As I’m sure I don’t need to tell you, they’re practically a force of nature unto themselves. In particular, it’s amazing that so many non-Americans will habitually pay to watch movies which are essentially solely about Americans wrestling with what America means to them. Think about all the preconditions which must be present in someone’s mind for something like that to be so captivating to them. To be intensely fascinated not just with a foreign country, but even with its citizens’ own troubled and mercurial conceptions of it. How many movies will those same people have watched about, for example, Italians simply doing some dramatic soul-searching about the changing face of Italy? Or about Brazilians doing likewise? Or Australians? Or Canadians? Or Japanese? All important, high-profile countries in their own right, but they just haven’t captured such a wide swath of the international imagination in the same way. America is far and away best-in-class at making people want to pay attention to it and try to understand it.) That asset has been marred and devalued by Trump, but it most certainly can be returned to its former glory. It’s just going to take a lot of patience and hard work to prove to people that the Trump phenomenon was no more than an ugly blip. An aberration which warred with the true soul of America, and merely fuelled itself with the heat from that clash, but never genuinely embodied it.
So too, the U.S.’s relationships with foreign governments are going to have to be painstakingly rehabilitated. How many of them lost faith in America being a productive, stable, trustworthy partner for cooperation during the Trump years? Trump insulted them. Belittled them. Spurned them. Threatened them, both implicitly and explicitly — even, on occasion, making good on those threats with gratuitous punitive actions. Often revealed how unknowledgeable he was about them, even on a basic tourist-guidebook level. Flouted diplomatic norms. Artlessly sought to wheedle them into making hysterically bad deals which only benefited America. Went behind their backs whenever possible. Behaved bellicosely and imperiously. Behaved erratically, saying one thing on Tuesday and then the complete opposite on Thursday and then when Sunday rolls around indignantly denying he’d ever said either. Sneered at the prospect of multilateralism. Fought against even the very notions of international order or justice. Went nuclear when asked to abide by longstanding, uncontroversial standards of conduct. Breezily pulled out of treaties, reneged on commitments; severely scolded other countries for ignoring treaties, for failing to live up to commitments. Made it abundantly clear that his own recklessness was the only dependable thing about him.
(For the record, I don’t think Trump’s ‘middle-finger isolationist’ tendencies derive from any basis of political philosophy whatsoever. I think it’s more like… well, have you ever heard the much bandied-about anecdote about how not only is Trump’s favourite movie Van Damme’s ‘Bloodsport’ but he customarily has someone fast-forward through all the scenes between the fights? That’s an apt metaphor for Trump’s foreign policy style. It’s not just that he’s bored by all the long talky bits which allow countries to find a way to compromise and work together, it’s more so that all he cares about is looking cool, like Van Damme does when he’s roundhouse kicking a stuntman. All he cares about is serving his own ego and burnishing his (imagined) public image as a chest-beating, take-no-shit bad-ass. That’s why he’s snubbing other world leaders during photoshoots and melodramatically storming out of sit-downs and slinging jingoistic invective over Twitter. It’s not a strategy; he’s just a vain asshole, a slave to his own sordid id. He’s trying to show himself dealing with the rest of the world like a VHS of an action movie with all the non-exciting parts cut out. It really is that simple and that pathetic. Everything with Trump comes down to worrying about perception, to trying to mould some superficial persona. Even if it comes at the cost of the country’s best interests, so what? He’s not overly concerned about the condition he leaves the country in, he just wants to make sure there’s enough iconic images of him (supposedly) alphaing other heads of state that he’ll have cheaply weaselled himself into being remembered the way he hopes to be. It’s a play to mislead future generations. A lot of people do, it must be admitted, interface with historical figures only in surface-level ways like that. I mean, how many Gen Zers know, say, JFK or MLK only from the famous photographs of them and what they suggest?)
Just ask yourself: if you were an allied country’s leader and this F-5 tornado of bad-faith antics and spiteful antagonism was what you had to deal with when it came to interacting with the United States, wouldn’t you try to reduce the importance/extent of your relationship with it? Wouldn’t you try to find other countries to take its place in your foreign-policy plans and trade needs, countries you could better rely on to act rationally and amiably? Or perhaps the question is more aptly posed like this: how could you not do so? When faced with the possibility that Trump might be around for four more years (or, if given the chance to realize his dark fantasies, even longer), it seems to me that you’d be negligent in your duties as a leader if you didn’t start looking at alternative ways to source whatever the United States used to provide you. It isn’t the only game in town, let’s not forget. Plenty of other countries are nipping at its heels in various areas, and would be more than happy to make good use of a vulnerable moment where it has alienated its former friends and abdicated its central role in world affairs. It’s the sort of no-cost, no-risk bonanza that can usually only be dreamed about. It will attract every possible taker like a siren song. If the U.S. wants to throw away positions of influence and opportunities for gain, like a baby lobbing toys out of its pram, those rivals will be following close behind and silently picking each one up with smirks of disbelief. I sure don’t envy Biden, because he has to find a way to reverse as much of this haemorrhaging as he can, as fast as he can. He has to make America marketable as a reliable and, dare I say it, safely predictable partner once again. To put it mildly, this will take some doing.
One of the grand ironies of the long-running love-affair with isolationism in most branches of conservatism is that America is actually much less powerful when it tries to go it alone. (Given these are usually the same people who subscribe wholeheartedly to the idea of ‘American exceptionalism’ and need no encouragement to join in on “USA is number 1!” chants and so on, it always makes me laugh that they want their country to withdraw from directly competing with the rest of the world. Because all claims of relative supremacy would then become untestable and unprovable, and thus moot. A bit like how it would be embarrassingly silly to claim you’re the fastest sprinter on earth if you continually boycott the Olympic games…) By the by, I find it baffling when people quote from the founding fathers as if it’s such a solid, unanswerable basis for that preference for isolationism. The United States need not have a static destiny set in stone long ago. Thomas Jefferson once warned against fostering any “entangling alliances” — an ominous coinage which has never stopped ringing in the ears of those aforementioned conservatives — but, you know what, he didn’t exactly have a perfect batting record when it came to prescience. I’m not trying to be a smart aleck here, but, I mean, the guy was a staunch agrarianist who thought that his country’s destiny lay in the hands of farmers, not industrialists. So perhaps we should admit that there were at least a few things he just didn’t quite get. There’s certainly no shame in it. No man has infallible judgment; the answers to some questions fall beyond each of our ken. Trust me, I’m firmly of the school that it’s better to venture one’s best guess and miss the mark than hold one’s tongue for fear of being wrong.
Besides which, listen, the world was a very, very different place two centuries ago. Almost unimaginably so, really. When he spoke those words, humanity was less than one seventh of its current size, and both the steam-powered train and the typewriter hadn’t even been invented yet. What I’m getting at is: wisdom depends on the context of its utterance; it is not always, and is in fact quite rarely, evergreen. Jefferson could have scarcely fathomed the possibility of wars which engulf the entire globe, or interminable conflicts with evasive and diffuse terrorist groups, or small rogue states gaining access to doomsday weapons. Or supranational organizations such as the U.N. or the WTO. Or that corporations would start accruing obscene amounts of wealth and influence, and wield it as though they were landless kingdoms unto themselves. Or that a transformative technology like the internet would make borders meaningless, communication instantaneous, and commerce frictionless. Et cetera, et cetera. I think the simple reality of modern geopolitics is that you pay a heavy price if you want to play at being a lone wolf. The world is now interconnected and interdependent in such a deep-rooted, inextricable manner that pretending that other countries can be treated as though they were little more than distant trading posts to exchange goods with is a foolish anachronism. There is a certain type of conservative who — though they may not admit it, may not even dare articulate it in their own mind — would quite like to live like people used to do a long time ago, back in America’s youth. I don’t share this wish, because I think that electricity is fun and dysentery isn’t. But, y’know, historical romanticism is a hell of a drug. If you want to live in a log cabin and write with a quill and hunt elk with a musket and eat foraged berries… well, I’m not gonna try to dissuade you from your eccentricities. Go nuts. I hope you enjoy yourself. I can’t wait to read your ye olde zine about federalism, published on parchment and hand-delivered by some bearded delivery dude wearing a coonskin cap and holding a lantern as he drives his wagon. (I won’t lie, I am normally pissed off by the high delivery fees for Etsy items anyway, but they will no doubt be truly astronomical in this case. A transatlantic wagon ride can’t come cheap, surely.) At the same time, I’m very strongly of the opinion that LARPing isn’t a fit hobby for nation-states — and that’s especially true for ones which have a unique opportunity to set a positive example for others to emulate.
The U.S. is just not well-served by becoming inward-looking and self-obsessed and blinkered, by withdrawing from world affairs like some rich hermit who’s fast losing touch with how things actually work. Don’t misinterpret what I mean by that either: yes, it’s fine to make dealing with your pressing domestic problems and taking care of your own citizens your first priority. But despite what the Trumpian ‘Populism of and for Idiots™‘ may claim, that aim doesn’t require that you forsake all other matters. Not at all. And America is too big, too important to sit out of the larger game being played anyway. In the final analysis, and any way you care to cut it, vigorous engagement with the course of world affairs is essential. You either steer history or risk merely getting pulled along in its wake. (I’m British, remember. We know a little bit about this unhappy transition…) By relinquishing — or, in Trump’s case, sabotaging — your own global relevance, you really just circumscribe the range of options available to you. How can that be a good outcome? How can having shrunken agency possibly serve your interests or empower you? I’m not saying America has to have a finger in every single pie it can see on the horizon. Believe me, I am not a fan of reckless, ego-boosting foreign adventurism, nor of flirtations with military-bases-in-lieu-of-colonies sly imperialism. But it seems pretty obvious that America is far stronger and has a much wider sphere of action when it maintains tight-knit relationships with allied countries as well as a robust reputation as a nation that keeps its word and is well worth cooperating with.
It’s funny, the countervailing part of the above-mentioned quote from Jefferson states that “friendship with all nations” is desirable instead. Personally, I don’t really see how countries can be deemed ‘friends’ in any meaningful way if they are not formally allied in mutual assistance. Otherwise it’s like the concept of sister-cities — impossible not to mention here that, as it happens, my hometown claims to be the originator of that practice — which has always slightly bothered me because it seems so hollow and mawkish and lame. Just a way of fabricating an impression of solidarity which costs nothing and achieves nothing. This kind of pointless charade is one you can ill-afford if you want to actually get shit done. And there is little doubt that America has problems it cannot solve by itself, enemies it cannot defeat by itself, ambitions it cannot realize by itself. Ceremonial ‘friendships’ won’t cut it. You might be friendly with your neighbours and exchange pleasantries when you pass by one another, but that doesn’t mean that they’re going to come and help you if your fridge stops working and all your food is beginning to go bad. Or, I don’t know, if a roaming gang of rabid possums is giving you grief and they need a bit of a thrashing with a broom to clear them out. My sense of things is that America, far from being some standoffish loner, should have mutually beneficial alliances — and yeah, I do mean full-fat formal alliances, not merely the exchanging of friendship-bracelets and handshakes and gift-baskets — with any country who wants one, who warrants one, and who would be an appropriate partner. If you ask me, you turn your nose up at such opportunities at your own peril.
My hope, also, is that Trump’s example will indelibly imprint in people’s minds how isolationism is cynically used for domestic political ends, so that the tactic will be less effective in the future. Let me start by saying that leaders like Trump unfailingly try to foster discord and division inside their own countries by fanning the flames of polarization/demonization/etc. It makes the individual feel isolated, alienated, threatened, and anxious. And overall it dissolves any unifying sense of social cohesion or collective purpose/values. At that point, people often turn away from one another entirely — having been poisoned against their fellow man and losing faith in even the possibility of dialogue, let alone reconciliation — and instead look to political figures who project a comforting image of strength, of certainty. Figures who claim that they alone can fix society (which they helped break in the first place) and reunite the fractured populace with the (always faulty, never durable) glue of patriotism. This is how they get into power: they sow a feeling of desperation, and then market themselves as the only remedy. They are the last, best option. Forget about everything else. Everything depends on them. Place all of your trust in them. This messianic force has all the answers, don’t you worry. And Trump tried to take this trick and redouble its effect by making America feel isolated on an international scale too. He ranted until he was blue in the face about how other countries don’t respect America enough, don’t provide enough special privileges to it in return for its vast beneficence, don’t pay their dues, don’t meet their obligations, don’t scruple against pilfering precious trade opportunities for themselves. These other countries — even the allied ones, perhaps especially the allied ones — are taking advantage of America, are making a mockery of it. They’re spitting in its face, even as they go through its pockets. This is why leaders of courage and vision like Trump are so justified in pulling back from the rest of the world. America should stand alone. It can fend for itself. And it’s sick of being blamed for so many ills, when it’s just trying to help. No more
humanitarian aid glorified welfare handouts to ungrateful countries who continue to badmouth it anyway. America has been a bedevilled scapegoat for far too long and borne it far too graciously. The old ways clearly aren’t working, so why not let’s try speaking much louder and carrying an even bigger stick. Through its might and its ingenuity it can, under entirely its own steam, reassert its peerless dominance and reclaim its pre-eminence in every area of human endeavour. You get it by now, I’m sure. All that usual red-blooded, fist-pumping guff. And once again, this self-isolation means that Americans are even more dependent on their president, because now his or her attempts to pull the country up by its bootstraps are the only thing they’ve got to rely on. This suits the Trump-types because then, claiming you need all possible tools to get the job done, you can leverage it to accrue even greater power. And granted by the enthusiastic consent of the people themselves to boot. What a dream, huh? Like I said, hopefully people see through this shit a bit better now. Because it’s been in the political playbook for a very long time and will surely be employed again.
Trump establishing his own media empire?
I was really stunned when pretty much all the social-media platforms outright banned Trump in unison. I’d thought they were too fond — in a tacit/behind-the-scenes way, of course — of the immense traffic his presence drives their way. And also quite frankly I never imagined they’d have the balls to actually do it. I mean, who wants to court that wealthy and wrathful of an enemy? I’m guessing that the protective ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ quality of them all dropping the banhammers together is no doubt what made it possible. Diffusion of responsibility does, famously, tend to have an emboldening effect.
It’s just that… however happy it may make us to see Trump finally face some genuinely impactful repercussions for his conduct, I think we all also know that this move is a bit dodgy when you really sit down and ponder it. Throughout Trump’s presidency, many of these same companies took refuge in the reasoning — which, to be fair, although it obviously has a self-serving angle for them, I don’t find entirely unpersuasive — that certain figures, like world leaders, whose pronouncements have massive practical import will be immunized from bans, because those pronouncements are news unto themselves and people need to be able to read them. Yet then Trump has just seconds left on the clock in his term and his power is at its lowest ebb by far, and this reasoning is thrown out the window. Suddenly his tweets have such exigent potential for inciting or sustaining violence that the special rule which had already overwritten the normal rules had to in turn be overwritten by a new emergency special rule. This despite the fact that Trump had already sent out numerous sabre-rattling messages to foreign countries (Iran, North Korea, etc) during his stint as president which are arguably infinitely more dangerous, because they threaten to instigate actual wars, not just pockets of domestic turmoil.
So there’s just no way to make it make sense. Whether or not we particularly want to say it out loud, as though it’s the type of too-good-to-be-true thing that’ll vanish if you dare acknowledge how ill-deserved it is, we all ultimately understand that using this particular moment as a pretext to finally exile Trump from his social-media kingdom was simply arbitrary and opportunistic. They just saw that he was weak, moribund even, and his allies were deserting him. This presented a rare chance to strike, and they collectively took it in order to give each other cover. It was, in other words, yet another example of ‘make it up as you go along’ bullshit, which is an operating principle these companies have a long and storied history in perfecting. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times: don’t cheer them for going back on their own rules or for acting in ethically dubious ways just because it resulted in someone you don’t like getting the shaft. Give them an inch when it suits you, and they’ll take a mile when it doesn’t, and what will you be able to say then? After having vacated the moral high ground by previously granting them the green light to capriciously target your enemies? Some people say that they’re very tired of hearing this kind of talk. But, well, you know, too fucking bad. I’m willing to be a bore about it. I really am. These admonitions about the dangers of hypocrisy here need to be repeated ad nauseum until they finally stick.
(If you’ll permit me a semi-related digression, I also think something needs to be said about the fact that all the major news outlets have seemingly entered into this unspoken industry-wide pact to report on Trump as little as possible going forward and to feature that coverage much less prominently. It’s quite remarkable. As I’m sure you can vividly recall, it used to be that there would be a news article occasioned whenever Trump said anything remotely notable — and often even when his babble hadn’t contained anything notable whatsoever. Now this happens only infrequently, and even then it’s generally very palpable that the author is trying to minimize how much of Trump’s actual comments they directly reprint. As if his words have some dark-magic power to hypnotize or corrupt you merely by being read verbatim. Sometimes you even read news stories about some speech he gave where they literally do not quote him at all, they just summarize the broad strokes of what he said — making sure to omit mention of anything they find too objectionable, such as his reliably Tourette’s-like recurrence to claims of election fraud — and they also overstuff the article with as much factchecking and debunking as can be managed. I understand the motivation behind this shift in approach, okay? You have this nutso chump who’s continuing to spread incredibly dangerous, destabilizing lies, who’s saying he’s somehow still president, who’s absurdly declaring that he’s some kind of victor-in-exile. I can sympathize with anyone who feels like this insanity ought to be lent as little signal-boosting as possible.
Many journalists also evidently have the added guilt factor of feeling like they gave Trump way too much coverage early on, because he was so good for clicks and views, which aided his political rise in the first place. And so now that he’s ‘only’ a former president, they’re using that as an opportunity to atone by drastically reducing their coverage of him, and I’d bet they’re hoping that how dramatic an overcompensation it is will be masked in the transition. But the reality is that journalists should not be choosing what to report on and how in-depth to go on the things they do report on based on their personal conception of what’s in the public’s best interests to know or not know. That kind of condescending, arrogant paternalism has no place in the grand old profession. You’re being trusted to put serving your readers ahead of your own personal feelings about the subject matter. It’s very simple: the news is the news. You just find out what it is and pass it on. Journalism is noble precisely because it’s supposed to be selfless; you’re providing important information to those who do not have the means or opportunity to uncover it themselves. It is an act of conduitry, come what may. And sure there are rare edge cases where it’s perhaps a little bit of a judgement call to decide whether something’s genuinely newsworthy, but for the most part the newsworthiness of a given event is fairly obvious and objective. When Trump says something crazy, it’s a very recent ex-president saying something crazy. That’s still extremely necessary to report on — and not in a bowdlerized or scanty form either. No question about it. You may want to starve his lies of oxygen in hopes that they’ll just wither and die, but, as is always the case, by so conspicuously trying to avoid mentioning Trump or what he’s saying, all you’re doing is stoking people’s curiosity and encouraging them to go straight to the videos of his speeches or his website to get it from the source. So, besides being extremely questionable from a journalistic ethics standpoint, it’s also a totally self-defeating endeavour. You’re just driving people towards the thing you’re hoping to keep them away from. Stop treating him like he’s fucking Voldemort and just trust your readers to be smart enough to see through his pathetic horseshit.)
With Trump having had his beloved online megaphone snatched away, he’s apparently already investigating the possibility of building a media empire for himself on his own terms. I’ve read that, in typical Trump fashion, he’s reportedly planning to half-ass it. Oh boy. You’ve got to laugh, haven’t you? Setting up an actual ‘Trump News’ channel that would be broadcast on television is supposedly too complex, time-consuming, and costly for his tastes, so he’s thinking about settling for the easier, less prestigious option of establishing some kind of paid online streaming service. And I think I can field a fairly good guess at the level of ‘talent’ he’ll get to populate it… No, no, he won’t be trying to poach some Fox News stars to give himself a leg up from the get-go. That would have been a smart play, to be sure. But still, no. Their contracts are pretty much penned in 24k gold ink; they get paid the big bucks, and Trump clearly isn’t willing to shell out that kind of money on this project. As usual, he’ll be seeking the cheapest, shittiest option possible. And, thankfully, that’s abundantly available and much closer to home to boot. Remember, he’s got a whole roster of gormless cronies who are now hurting for work post-election. These are people who have no discernible skills besides kissing Trump’s ass and defending him from criticism. He could reward their loyalty by sticking ’em on the payroll as talking heads, where they can continue plying the only trade they know. This arrangement would no doubt suit and/or please Trump greatly: he sure seems like the type of guy who feels like he can only really trust a person if they owe him something, and depending on him for your livelihood is pretty much as good as it gets in that regard.
I’ll be straight with you: there’s something kind of enjoyable about how pitifully lame this career pivot is for Trump. I do try to resist the dark allure of schadenfreude where possible — although when recalling Trump’s own grotesquely malnourished sense of compunction when it comes to mockery, the allure of having fun at his expense does suddenly seem a skosh less dark — but this right here is just such a humdinger that I can’t help it. To go from President of the United States to trying to get a rinky-dink steaming service off the ground? Good grief. What an immeasurable downgrade. Most former presidents focus on, to put it mildly, somewhat loftier ambitions: writing a several-volume memoir, building a presidential library in their name, dedicating themselves to philanthropy, etc. Whereas Trump is so desperate for attention, so desperate to remain relevant and able to shape the narrative that he’s merely hoping to launch the grandiose rich-guy equivalent of the classic Twitch stream & Patreon combo. This is a deservedly sad next move for him. The only thing that could make it any better is if during the press conference where he unveils it, his pants spontaneously fall down and a circus-clown honks a horn and throws a custard pie in his face. If you happen to know any fully trained and accredited circus-clowns who are into absurdist political stunts or engineers who can create some kind of remotely-activated self-unbuckling belt, hit me up. I think I can scrounge up the, what?, $20 to bribe his no doubt highly amenable Secret Service detail to look the other way. Let’s make magic happen.
How successful this media endeavour will actually be though is anyone’s guess. I mean, naturally his most besotted diehards will flock to it initially, to show support for their fallen, humbled king. But I’m talking about can it gain a real foothold and attract a wider audience? Will it have legs long-term, or will it flop and get euthanized quickly like some comical other examples? Again, hard to say. I do know that Trump’s certainly been creating fertile ground for his followers to want him to keep feeding them his warped view of the world though. He has spent four years tearing down the mainstream press, spewing venom at them and insisting that they’re not trustworthy in the least. There’s little doubt that he’s prevailed in not just diminishing their authority, but actually fully turning many of his followers against them. It’s worth noting that this, of course, is the quintessential cult-leader tactic. You tell your adherents that you’re the only person they can trust, the only fount of truth, and any independent third-parties who don’t echo your message are dangerous liars who deserve only hatred and hostility. The potency of this mental conditioning stems from how interlinked these two claims are. One entails and reinforces the other, and vice versa. Recall the duality of Trump’s sloganeering here: the press isn’t just ‘FAKE NEWS’, they’re also the ‘ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE’. And once that idea has been implanted nice and deep in his followers, the idea that the so-called journalists are just trying to deceive us, then, yeah, I suppose it would be pretty easy to segue to the sales pitch of “for the low, low price of $25 a month, you can watch me, your beloved president, and my handpicked disciples of immaculate honesty tell you what’s really going on. We’ll clue you in to everything the media elites don’t want you to know!”
Still, I would say that there are some practical barriers to consider. Fairly fucking big ones too. (More ‘Alaska barrier’ than ‘Jersey barrier’, in other words.) Someone should really clue Trump in on the fact that a good portion of his supporters aren’t watching video on their laptops, phones, etc for any prolonged period of time each day, nor can they be enticed to. I’m primarily talking about old people here — a demographic which is, after all, the GOP’s lifeblood. And, listen, I’m not just pulling this assertion out of my ass. For instance, according to a Pew report from a few years ago, only around 40% of U.S. seniors even own a smartphone, and only around 20% own a tablet. That tells you a lot. Furthermore, let’s be real, those figures would not be distributed evenly if there was a way to break them down even further, by political leaning. I have a strong hunch that sunset-years liberals adopt new technology and become fully conversant with it at an appreciably higher rate than sunset-years conservatives. But, anyhow, my point is that these elderly Trumpists are set in their ways and they know what they like. It’s proper, old-school TV channels or bust for them. After a long hard day of playing bocce ball or bridge, they’re used to kicking back on the couch in front of the flat-screen, simply pressing a button on the remote, and watching the likes of
Bill O’Reilly Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity spraying hour-long, hate-seasoned verbal diarrhoea. They enjoy that set-up. It’s easy. It’s comfortable. It’s familiar and deeply-ingrained. It’s what they would want Trump to replicate, so they can effortlessly transition to tuning in to his content instead. I suspect he’s going to get a harsh lesson in the pigheaded laziness of consumers if he doesn’t heed that fact.
As for what Trump plans to use this new media venture for, I think I can hazard a few guesses. Obviously, the low-hanging fruit prediction would be that he’ll spend the next four years using this propaganda-vehicle to keep his base fired up and to surreptiously campaign for running again in 2024. And naturally this would entail sniping from the sidelines at every single thing President Biden does. Proclaiming how Biden’s ruining the country and sending it to the poor-house and squandering all the amazing progress that Trump made. You know the deal. Now, you might remember that during the run-up to the 2020 race, when Obama finally, belatedly started venturing some — in my opinion, lamentably restrained and mealy-mouthed — criticisms of Trump’s performance in office, Trump pretty much blew a gasket. He, and his eager echo-chamber in the right-wing media, kept whining about how this, y’know, outrageously violated the unwritten ‘ex-presidents don’t criticise subsequent sitting presidents’ rule. (The usual addendum to this point from the Breitbart set was the contention that Obama only wanted to reclaim the spotlight with his public carping because A) he had a book coming out soon, and oodles of free press is a fine complement to a marketing budget, or because B) he knew Trump was such a nigh-unbeatable juggernaut that he’d have to lend any, even unscrupulous, support to the Democratic nominee that he possibly could.) It goes without saying that the blatant hypocrisy involved here wouldn’t make Trump hesitate for even a hot second when it comes to ripping into President Biden’s every word and deed. He’ll be more than happy to unleash a non-stop, high-powered firehose of bile.
However, there’s an interesting potential wrinkle to consider. I keep reading quotes from unnamed friends and lackeys of Trump which say that they strongly doubt he will indeed actually run again in 2024, because he fears that the incredibly, heinously bad taste he left in the country’s mouth could result in another humiliating loss for him. I don’t know how true that is, but if Trump does have any clear-eyed advisors left who are willing to be brutally candid with him, this would surely be the counsel they’re giving him. Whether or not that’s enough to make him see reason, who the fuck knows. He’s a guy whose need to prove everyone wrong about his limitations is baked into him at a very basic level. It’s also very possible that he could be thinking pessimistically now, in the doldrums and self-doubt of defeat, but then when the race starts heating up, he’ll get drawn back in like an addict whose most prized fix is tantalizingly dangled right in front of their nose. If he judges that the GOP primary line-up doesn’t have any especially formidable frontrunners or if the Biden administration gets enmeshed in some scandal that cripples its public-approval numbers, he may well decide to throw caution to the wind and trust that even the strong residual national animus towards him can be overcome by that cure-all ‘Trump magic’ which heart-eyes groupies like Lindsey Graham speak of. A “fuck it, I’ll give it another try!” outcome like that simply can’t be ruled out. The whims of ego are potent even for the average person; for Trump they are a chain-leash around his neck, and can drag him into doing practically anything.
But, for the sake of argument, let’s run with the idea that Trump’s ultimately planning to call it a day, presidentially speaking. What then would be his main objectives in running some new media operation? (I’m talking about besides the obvious self-indulgent side-benefit of getting to soak up all the attention from people scrutinising his every statement because they assume he’ll be Biden’s opponent once again and they want to get a read on him.) I would say it will likely all revolve around Trump settling into his new role as the GOP’s resident kingmaker. This will still be a very dominant position for him to occupy, and I don’t doubt he’ll greatly enjoy flexing his power. He has this enormous, rabidly loyal base who hang on his every word like it’s scripture and who, really, when it comes down to it, feel far more strongly emotionally attached to him than to the party itself. Many of them, although perhaps having cast ballots all their life, were not truly ‘politically activated’ into raving partisans obsessed with the culture war until the 2020 election; this means they’ll forever associate their political awakening, so to speak, with Trump, which gives him massive psychological importance to them. They’re under his spell, they are his to command. To them, his endorsements are worth their weight in gold and his scathing disavowals are worn by recipients like a scarlet letter. And don’t forget that Trump has already made it very plain that he wants to see Republicans who opposed him — or, for that matter, who just didn’t kiss the ring enough — be aggressively primaried and replaced with a slavering pro-Trump alternative. This would allow him to continue remaking the party in his image and to assert a great deal of control over its future direction, even from the sidelines. So I’m betting he’ll do everything he can to make sure these little switcharoos are successful. The most direct way will of course be to get on air and simply tell his viewers to vote for this candidate over that one in every applicable case, and I don’t doubt that will be all it takes for a lot of his most obedient diehards. (Though he will presumably be pissed when he finds out that he can’t just offer an alternate paywall for his service which is just you submitting photos of yourself voting for Trump-approved MAGA Warriors™…) But he can also do it in a slightly more roundabout fashion too. I know I would be insulting your intelligence if I bothered pointing out that any quote-unquote news network Trump creates will have no shred of independence or objectivity or integrity whatsoever. And one of the many, many ways that will be useful to him is that he can just run extreeeeemely positive coverage of the new insurgent candidates he wants to win, can incessantly invite them on to get their soundbites out there, can choose to run their attack ads all the time — and do the exact opposite to the candidates he wants to lose.
Another objective of Trump’s is, quite clearly, sticking it to the almighty Fox News. That is to say, he’ll want to try to siphon off some of their audience and thus simultaneously diminish their importance AND hurt them financially. I know it seems batshit that Trump would want to punish Fox News, given that they’ve only ever been his faithful hound. And, yes, you’re quite right. It absolutely is batshit. But the thing about Freud’s ‘narcissism of small differences’ is that it’s amplified tenfold when you’re an egomaniac who feels like king of the world, and can escalate into, really, a sort of full-blown madness. This right here is an object lesson in exactly what that detachment from reality looks like. Because if you know anything about Fox News — and, let me add, it’s well worth sampling some of their programming from time to time, if only to briskly check which way the weathervane of mainstream right-wing spin happens to be pointing — you know that it has been the house organ of the Trump administration from start to finish. It routinely went significantly harder when exculpating Trump than even Trump’s official PR minions would dare to, which is really saying something. I have seen some of its on-air personalities employ the most absurdly expansive and intricate and convoluted ‘logic’ that could be imagined in order to try and defend Trump after he has done the plainly indefensible. They don’t just erect a house of cards of lies; they spawn whole grandiose planetscapes of nonsense and misdirects.
Here’s how it’ll go. Trump will have blurted out something profoundly offensive in a cabinet meeting. Leaping into action, some smarmy, white-teeth stooge on Fox News will address this by ranting about how “antifa spraypaints satanist, communist slogans on Christian churches which are far more vile — and by the way, did you know George Soros is secretly funding this graffiti as globalist psychological warfare targeted at the common man on his way to work? — and the presence of that kind of thing in our once-great, now-failing Democrat-run cities forces Trump to up the coarseness of his rhetoric, practically against his will, because part of a president’s duty is to reassure the nation and in this case he has to implicitly reassure us all that he can’t be discomfited by the harsh or disgusting language these AOC-loving anarchists use. And also, very probably, he never even made that alleged statement to begin with, and that was just yet another distortion by his anti-America, anti-Israel enemies in the deep-state, who are secretly in cahoots with the big social-media companies to ensure that this regular drip-feed of leaks and lies is always somehow magically deposited at the very top of your Twitter or Facebook feed. And anyway Trump was really just shrewdly baiting the outrage-addicted prestige-press with these cleverly worded comments and proving that they’d rather report on trivial crap than on how he’s totally revitalised our VA hospitals nationwide. And please don’t forget the crucial transgender bathrooms angle to all this as well — which will, after all, affect YOUR son or daughter — because the thing that the Black Lives Matter cop-hating pro-abortionists would have you believe about this harmless off-the-cuff bad joke from Trump is…” You get the picture by now, I’m sure. You can probably even recall a specific example of what I’m talking about. They fire off these chaotic whorls of non-sequitur non-argument which spin and glint like buzzsaw blades and bury themselves into the viewer’s cerebellum with about as much subtlety. It can be quite the thing to see in action; you feel downright fucking dazed by the end of it, and barely know which way is up anymore. That’s the aim of it, of course. They just want to befuddle and overwhelm you, and have gotten very, very good at it by now. Not even the most slippery trial lawyer could hope to do better. I’m serious, no amount of courtroom ‘pounding the table’ can equal the virtuosity of this style of obfuscation. For one thing, you’d soon exhaust the patience of even the most permissive judge and get scolded back into the rules-laden realm of sensemaking. Whereas here the only constraints are ad-breaks and/or run-time. Just load up the teleprompter with the political-debate equivalent of ‘Jabberwocky’ and awaaaaaay we go.
There really was almost nothing Fox News would not say to try and get Trump off the hook perception-wise. I’m only belabouring this point in order to sufficiently emphasize how crazy it is that Trump ended up feuding with them to the extent that he actually wants to hurt their business to teach them a lesson. And the reason why this feud arose is, quite simply, that ‘almost’. They only gave him 95% bootlicking and bodyguarding. That other 5% was seemingly spent on trying to retain some quantum of credibility. (A distinctly ridiculous effort, like a bald guy spending a little bit of each conversation with someone trying to convince them he actually has a full, luscious head of hair, but there you go.) This was extremely minimal stuff, I can quite assure you. We’re talking about small symbolic gestures like rarely inviting on some ineloquent Trump critic as a token counterbalance and giving them maybe two minutes of much-interrupted air-time. Or occasionally declining to fudge polling which returned unfavourable results — by which I do naturally mean fudging it no more than their biased questions and sampling methods already had. Or once in a great while having one of the pro-Trump hosts pause in the middle of some monologue of slavering admiration to briefly express gentle disapproval about some minor, totally unimportant thing the administration did. Et cetera, et cetera. It’s all very perfunctory and transparent, but I guess they felt that if they didn’t at least make the tiniest effort, it would become even harder to deny they were Trump’s very own ‘Pravda’ wannabe than it already was.
What they didn’t account for is that Trump, like all men who dream the tyrant’s dark dreams, can brook the airing of no dissent at all from his lapdogs. None. Not even the faintest shadow of it. Anything less than unceasing, maximal praise will stoke his ire something fierce and then he’s bound to lash out sooner or later. This is a fact about Trump’s psychology which he amply demonstrated time and time again with regard to how he treated the ensemble of courtiers he surrounded himself with. They’d heap lavish praise on him all the livelong day, seven days a week, january to december. But then he inevitably does/says something so heinous that they feel forced, just this one time, to make some mild public statement sort of vaguely distancing themselves from it, and… BLAM! You’re fucked. Actually, scratch that. You’re mega-fucked with rainbow sprinkles on top. First of all, despite the fact that he should be far too busy running the free world to even notice — let alone pay attention to — any trivial bullshit on the sidelines, he’s 100% guaranteed to see that little comment of yours. No matter how hard you try to keep it as low-key as possible, it’s just not going to matter. You could even dig up your old Friendster account and post it on there in ancient Akkadian cuneiform and he’d still manage to ferret it out and get pissed off about it. (I’m telling you, the man has like the psychic equivalent of setting a google alert for your own name, it’s pretty wild. He can straight-up feel a disturbance in the force whenever one of his flunkies so much as mouths an errant word against him.) And then he’s going to come at you hard. He’s gonna tell the press that you’re just a nobody hanger-on with single-digit IQ who he’s only met once or twice, and anyway frankly you should probably worry more about all the shady stuff he’s heard that you’ve done. Because Trump is the king of the strategic overreaction, a practitioner of ‘massive retaliation’ in a way that no-one else in politics can afford to be. His version of giving you the cold shoulder is shooting a shoulder-fired RPG at you.
So the mechanics of his petulant rancor have been laid out for the whole world to see for quite some time now. But the shot-callers at Fox News evidently declined to heed this lesson. Perhaps because they thought they were an altogether higher, most valuable class of ass-kisser to him and would consequently be immune to this phenomenon. They thought they had made themselves too indispensable to be turned on. Well, as it happens, not so much. For at least the last year or so, Trump’s been trashing them every chance he gets and promoting their competitors as better alternatives and now he’s even eager to go head-to-head with them himself. And keep in mind that he has an added layer of bitterness toward Fox News because he feels like they owed him. There was an implicit, ongoing quid pro quo arrangement between the two of them, and they’re reneging on their side of the bargain. The terms of this deal were straightforward. They would give him nothing but extremely glowing coverage, which would boost him politically. (One of my favourite age-old rackets from the scuzzier side of the TV news business: you spend 24 hours a day telling your viewers that someone is fantastic and then you do an opinion poll asking how they feel about that person and they overwhelmingly report having positive feelings about them. You almost can’t believe the anchors manage to present that crap with a straight face. It’s like scientists leaving a trail of treats guiding a lab-rat through a maze and then publishing a paper whose thesis is “wow, I guess rats are just really good at solving mazes or something?…”) And, in return for their crypto-PR scutwork, Trump would greatly boost their ratings because people love tuning into coverage of his controversial antics. On top of which, he was willing to give them frequent interviews — where he’d sometimes make big-news announcements which the network could boast about as exclusives — and even promote those with his presidential megaphone when they aired.
You can be sure these were the terms of the deal because, towards the end, when his… how shall we say?… ‘working relationship’ with Fox News was breaking down and he was getting mad at them, he increasingly slipped up and made these unspoken terms more explicit. Like when he bemoaned that “@FoxNews is doing nothing to help Republicans, and me, get re-elected on November 3rd” or that “Fox isn’t working for us anymore!” And wherein lies the ungratefulness which compounds this betrayal? Oh yeah, that’s right, “they forgot what made them successful, what got them there. They forgot the Golden Goose.” I mean, he’s spelling it all out for you in black and white. You just have to put the two halves of this equation in apposition. After all he’s done for them, how could they not help him get elected again?! I don’t know about you, but I really feel his pain on that one. How could they not repay him for the largesse of his endless TV-gold public stupidity? The horrible injustice of it, right? Like, you can’t see it, but just trust me: a single solitary tear is empathetically snaking its way down my cheek as we speak.
The other really enjoyable side-effect of Trump potentially starting up TNN (the Trump News Network), or whatever stupid name it’s gonna have, would be that all the little barnacles that have clung to the hull of Trump’s success will get their just deserts. I’m talking about creepy outfits like OANN, Newsmax, etc. That ilk of ‘news’ organizations — really, I’d have to quarantine that word in five or six sets of scare quotes to properly convey how far from actual news reporting the toil occurring at these places actually is — which are somehow one step worse than even something like Fox News, because they don’t bother trying to maintain even the faintest monomolecular facade of detachment or fairness. They fully, openly admit that their whole raison d’être is to be a full-throated cheerleader for Trump. If you think I’m kidding or exaggerating here, let me go ahead and reassure you on that count. To stay with the two examples I previously listed, OANN once described itself as “one of his GREATEST supporters…” And the founder of Newsmax, in the very pertinent context of criticising Fox News for failing to maintain utterly unbroken Trump-adulation, has said that it officially has “an editorial policy of being supportive of the President and his policies.” By the by, that guy troubling to make the distinction of editorial matters is pretty funny because their ‘news policy’ is simply presenting Trump and Trumpworld’s talking points as though they’re a mixture of hard fact and divine wisdom, and their ‘editorial policy’ is just taking those same talking points and reiterating them in your own words so that hopefully it seems like you’re somehow offering commentary instead of just parroting them. (And, gee, people say that conservatives don’t see the value in recycling… )
I find it hard to even begin to imagine the mindstate of the people who are drawn to this line of work. You have to be willing to completely prostitute yourself for the goal of leader-worship. It’s nothing short of grovelling, drooling self-abnegation. You know when you see those pinched-faced, dead-eyed North Korean spokesmen who issue extravagant paeans to Kim Jong-un as though he were their god, and it’s so pitiful because you can tell that there might as well be a rifle barrel pressed to their temple as they say it? Well, the people who labour for the OANNs and Newsmaxs of the world act in a similar vein, but totally voluntarily. It’s really remarkable. These organizations are crematoriums for all personal dignity and reputation and self-respect.
But there is, of course, a reward to be had for this sacrifice. The stark lesson of pro-Trump Fox News inexplicably still incurring Trump’s wrath has been well-heeded in the sector we’re talking about. These organizations saw that there was a gap in the market. Whereas Fox News hit the rocks by ‘only’ giving Trump (and the MAGA zealots who never want to hear a bad word said about him) 95%, they decided that they’d try giving 110% instead. It worked out well. Enormously well, in fact. They leapfrogged their behemoth competitor and became his new favourites. Trump started linking to them a lot and talking them up. Sometimes even explicitly telling his Twitter flock to ditch Fox News and jump over to these more reliably sycophantic alternatives. Being meted out these few crumbs of relevance is a big deal if you’re a small company, and I’m sure they basked in that. Having the President of the United States not just mention your name but even go so far as to enthusiastically recommend you is nothing to sneeze at. I’m sure it spectacularly skyrocketed the number of eyeballs these upstarts’ content received.
Nevertheless, vaunted sages throughout history have told us that all good things must come to an end, have they not? And boy is that ever true in this case, Because now, alas, all these opportunistic little bootlicker-entities are about to come unstuck. They’ve dug their own graves (as, one can’t help but notice, those who do a good turn for Trump usually have.) And the satisfying poetic justice is that it’s Trump himself who’s going to be responsible for their downfall. All these organizations have been doing for the last four years is glorifying Trump and ensuring his supporters stay hyper-loyal even post-presidency, and now Trump’s potentially going to turn around and use that to start his own media empire whose whole purpose is glorifying himself and giving his supporters what they want to hear. Which will, deliciously enough, make OANN and its brethren totally obsolete, totally surplus to requirements. It’s game-over for them. It’s “thanks so much for your years of tireless service to help the MAGA movement, now here’s a dagger in the back in lieu of a gold watch and a handshake.” Because, think about it, what’s the point of watching some robotic, no-name OANN anchor with the charisma of a dishrag sing Trump’s praises, when you can just go straight to the source for your fix: watching Trump on his own Trump-branded channel telling you how great Trump is. I love this turn of events, personally. I love that these organizations are so fucking dumb they didn’t even realize that all they’ve been doing is laying the groundwork to put themselves out of business. They only ever had any remotely notable success at all because Trump was giving them a steady IV-drip of shout-outs, and, hmm, I wonder if Trump is going to keep promoting a direct competitor once he has his own news network to try and sell to the masses? A real head-scratcher, that one.
The plausibility of Trump staging a comeback in 2024
Trump sure seems to be indicating that he’s gonna be back for vengeance in ’24. (Hey, the guy has a shitty-action-movie mentality. I’m just phrasing it in the same chest-puffing way he probably is behind closed doors.) If this turns out to be true, it will not be pretty. I have to say, I can’t imagine that a humiliating defeat and four years spent stewing on the sidelines will have resulted in a Trump who’s more level-headed, more restrained. Quite the opposite. I think all his worst qualities will be dialled up to eleven and all his dark ambitions will have been supercharged. The presidential campaign itself would unquestionably have ugliness and venom and weaponized lies galore, ripping the country apart once more. And if he did indeed secure a belated second term, I’m positive it would make the first one look like a dry run. And just to make that prospect even scarier: given how unlikely it is that we’d see a recombinant Trump-Pence ticket again because of the latter’s unforgivable disloyalty in refusing to wipe his ass with the constitution at his liege’s request, my gut tells me that this vacancy will no doubt result in a wildly more heinous Vice President pick the second time around. How does someone as unhinged as Marjorie Taylor Greene being one old-man heart attack away from taking command of 5500 nukes grab you? That would be a real hoot, huh? (I dare say it’d make us long for the days when the emptyheaded Sarah Palin was the height of insanity in terms of running mate choices.) She’s the type of veep I see Trump going for because although her vileness makes her a harder sell electorally and it’ll take a bit of work to pull her across the finish line with him, she’ll be a worthwhile investment for him. When they’re sitting across from one another in the Oval, she is guaranteed to not even blink when Trump proposes doing something stupid or despicable. That will appeal to him immensely. He wants a lieutenant who’s in perfect lockstep with him ideologically. Greene certainly fits the bill, as someone who wasn’t even politically conscious until she CTRL+C and CTRL+V’d Trump’s 2016 campaign manifesto right into her own brain to save her the trouble of coming up with ideas or convictions the arduous old-fashioned way. He also wants a lieutenant who won’t ever say no to him, no matter how unthinkable the favour being asked for. Ensuring that reliability will surely be Trump’s priority moving forward. He learned a painful lesson in 2020: you can’t take over the country if your most crucial abettors rediscover some vestigial trace of a conscience at the eleventh hour. You need people who’ll go all the way with you. People who won’t so much as blanch when you finally unsheathe the dagger and make your move.
All that being said, perhaps more important than the ‘will he/won’t he run?’ and ‘how bad would Trump’s second act be?’ questions is the ‘could he even win?’ one. And answering it isn’t easy. Although Trump’s political viability has been significantly damaged, it would be overly optimistic to suppose that it has been mortally wounded. The course — and, perhaps more crucially, emotional tenor — of the next four years is going to determine whether he would have, should he choose to try for it, any real shot at that rare non-consecutive second term. In this regard, a hell of a lot is resting on Joe Biden’s shoulders. It’s absolutely vital that, if not necessarily hitting it out of the park, he at least has a solid first term with no major screw-ups or ugly imbroglios. Otherwise he’ll just be opening a window which may let Trump clamber his way back into power. But, again, this is easily avoided: just don’t fuck up really badly, Biden. That’s all there is to it. It’s that straightforward. He just needs to remind people how nice it is to have a fairly bland bunch of experienced professionals in the White House, simply doing their jobs and making sure everything’s running smoothly. That alone will seem like fucking manna from heaven, if only because it’s juxtaposed with the hellish omnishambles which preceded it.
I would also say that he’d be wise to try to keep his administration’s political rhetoric fairly… toned down, let’s say. Probably best to not keep incessantly attacking or antagonizing Trump voters once you’ve already won the election, right? Biden’s signalled he wants to be a reconciling, even healing, force for an America at one of its lowest, most fractured points in living memory; like it or not, that requires choosing your words carefully and filing down your fangs a bit. You’ve got to play nice if you’re going to attempt to re-bridge the gap between the sane-left and the sane-right and hopefully build some middle-ground consensus so that compromises are actually possible again. (Still, don’t fret, it’s fine to have party members who are lower down the totem pole issue the strongly-worded statements that you sometimes need out there in their most strident, confrontational form. That’s what your rank-and-file are there for. And, besides, when employed as a strategic measure, it can even help the milder statements coming from the top seem more attractive and gain more traction, via the ‘radical fringe effect’.) That’s got to be your north star. Anything that helps lower the temperature of the country, that helps emphasize how tiring/silly it is to listen to the current all-bluster iteration of the Republican Party issue spitting-mad fighting words in response to every single little thing that the Democrats do or say. I think people are generally able to intuitively grasp that much of the high-energy animosity which characterizes party politics is performative, just a theatrical device meant to help rile up your base and show them that you’re really, y’know, fighting hard for them in the trenches or whatever. (I mean, if you can consider being paid almost $200k a year to sit in comfortable chairs in a big room the “trenches” and inconsequential bickering with the other side “fighting”. But, gosh, forgive me, let’s not pierce the fiction of bloodthirsty political battle in the congress deciding the fate of the country. It’s important — for, uh, reasons? — that we all keep pretending it’s anything more than just a high-school debate team competition with a hell of a lot more pomp and circumstance and, due to the presence of C-SPAN cameras, a lot more amateur dramatics.) And if you show people how much better everything is when you discard as much of the histrionic bullshit as possible, I tend to believe they’ll gravitate towards that, especially in high-tension, high-anxiety moments in history such as ours. People have become so incredibly fatigued with all that. They’re looking for a way to escape it, to maybe just catch their breath again for a while. Biden can offer that, if he’s smart. And it could become a major selling point for him. One that Trump not only won’t be able to match, but literally couldn’t if he tried: it would mean contravening his core nature as a shitty person who thrives in drama and chaos. I picture it being like a robot with steam coming out of its ears as it tries its hardest to disobey one of the Asimov laws on which its whole programming is based.
Anyhow, there are also a few other miscellaneous things which, if they happen, could put the nail in Trump’s coffin before the next election even comes around. (Hey, we can but hope. I would be very glad to spit on his political grave. That would be a fine day.) One possibility is that the long arm of the law could finally catch up with him. Either for his shady business dealings/tax evasions or perhaps — though this is massively less likely given the crazy level of special protection presidents enjoy — for his scofflaw behaviour whilst in office. I don’t even think he would need to be convicted of whatever he was charged with. Assuming the relevant people have the balls to deny him the escape-hatch of a settlement or some other pre-trial plea deal, just the visual of Donald Trump standing in the dock like a common criminal could well be enough to doom him politically. However, sadly this hypothesizing might all be moot. Prosecuting Trump for anything would presumably require Biden letting his Justice Department off the leash to pursue it. And, well…. I must admit, I don’t really see that happening. I imagine he realizes that the optics of a president seeming to inflict a quagmire of legal troubles upon his hated predecessor aren’t exactly very good. And, to be fair, I suppose you can’t pretend there isn’t something to that. That teeth-grinding we all did when Trump promised to “lock up Hillary” upon being sworn in was a sound instinct, and one in the same ballpark as this. (What a bummer though. It’s bad enough that presidents are so well shielded from legal ramifications for their official actions, but this extra consideration of ‘even if they deserve to be indicted, it sets a dangerous precedent’ means that ex-presidents basically have like some weird form of diplomatic immunity for the rest of their lives too.) I also read Biden to be the type of guy who would see it as far better to just help the country move on by leaving Trump in the rear-view mirror in every way. Now, whether or not this forbearance from on high precludes Trump being charged down at the state level by some plucky maverick prosecutors who don’t give a fuck, I just don’t know enough to say. I regret to inform you that I possess very limited understanding about the arcanities of jurisdiction and the supremacy clause and so on. I don’t know if the Justice Department saying something is a no-go means that puts the kibosh on it altogether — either because they actually have that prerogative legally or just because it’s some unwritten rule of deference type of thing — or if that simply means it can’t be pursued federally. There will surely be takers if that state level opportunity is indeed there though, that I can tell you. If memory serves, the Attorney General’s office in New York has long seemed like it’s champing at the bit to go after Trump hard.
Another possibility is that new scandals about Trump’s presidency are just going to continue to emerge, even several years post-facto. There will be a good number of tell-all books from people who worked in his administration which come out between now and 2024. (That is, on top of all the ones which are already occupying bookstore shelves. I’m confident that by the time we’re done, nearly every single person connected to the Trump White House in any way is going to have cashed in their complimentary book-deal token. Even the janitors and chefs and mailroom workers are going to end up penning solemn, self-serious memoirs with titles like ‘The White House that Wasn’t’ and ‘Duty, Service, and Navigating the Storm’.) I’m sure there’s going to be plenty of juicy disclosures in these. Especially because Trump spitefully burned bridges with a bunch of his high-level staff as his term was coming to a close and, one assumes, they’ll subsequently feel no obligation to cover his ass anymore. And although, yes, true enough, we all know that Trump has proven maddeningly bulletproof against scandal-damage during his presidency, there’s an argument to be made that this might not be the case going forward. Putting aside the shrinking battalion of unwavering MAGA ultras, I have a hunch that most Americans finally have something in common now: they feel, at the very least, a deep weariness about Trump. All that extreme emotional trauma that Trump gratuitously put the country through at the end, during his temper tantrum death-throes, was the
straw anvil that broke the camel’s back at long last. There are even plenty of conservatives whose lasting memory of Trump is the disgust they silently felt at watching him try to tear the republic apart because he couldn’t handle losing. This means that he has a different status now. A few ballistic plates have been removed from that stellar body-armour he’s long flaunted. If there were to be a sufficient deluge of newly-revealed scandals, now that Trump is more vulnerable in terms of public opinion, it may be enough to push him over the edge into seeming utterly radioactive and unthinkable as a future candidate. I’m just saying, it’s conceivable. I think I can claim for myself that I am not, by nature, a starry-eyed optimist. And that holds doubly true when it comes to any proposition concerning Trump receiving his incredibly belated comeuppance. It just seems like if ever there was an opportune moment for Trump’s coup de grâce to happen, it would be when so much of the country is sick of this guy and — either fervently/consciously or reluctantly/subconsciously, depending on their political leaning — hopes he’ll be consigned to the dustbin of history.