Like the southerners who never could get over their loss in the American civil war, Trump has nothing left but his own mythology.
Joe Biden’s clear defeat of President Donald Trump, announced on Saturday, November 7th after four days of counting, is—a week later—still not enough for Trump to affirm Biden’s victory. Biden’s win supposedly ended what had been called the most consequential US election of modern times but, for reasons of his own, Trump is still holding out.
Under the guise of insisting that he was the victim of voter fraud—he has been advertising for months that he’d make this argument if he lost—Trump is denying Biden, and the country, the chance to begin an orderly transition of power. That Biden is the most experienced person in modern history to enter the presidency will help, but he faces the toughest situation confronting a new president since Franklin D Roosevelt took office in 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression. Given the raging pandemic and economic collapse, Biden’s challenge may even be more difficult.
Most of Trump’s opponents recognise that the election didn’t fulfil their ardent desire for an overwhelming repudiation of a president they despise. They must also face the fact that Trump retains an exceptionally large following. Almost ten million more people voted for Trump this time around than in 2016. The Democrats fared much worse in the elections for the Senate and the House of Representatives than the polls had predicted (they were wrong again), with the Senate probably remaining in the hands of the Republican master strategist Mitch McConnell—unless the Democrats sweep two run-off elections to be held in Georgia in early January.
The most alarming conclusion about Trump’s presidency is how perilously close the United States came to a breakdown of its constitutional system. If Trump had succeeded in his efforts to reverse the election (clearly futile from the outset), US democracy could have been destroyed. So perhaps the biggest lesson from Trump’s presidency is how fragile the US constitution is, and that timorousness before those who would undermine it enhances the dangers.
It may take a while before Trump’s genuine, if feral, political talent is fully understood. Trump succeeded in politics largely by appealing to Americans’ basest instincts and exploiting the country’s ingrained racism. The first words he uttered as a candidate were a vicious denunciation of Mexican immigrants as rapists. Trump understood, as do his fellow ‘populist’ leaders around the world, that a great many people are drawn to bombast. He also benefited from his PT Barnum-like showman’s instincts: the image of Trump and his wife descending a golden escalator in 2015 is indelible.
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Though he was politically damaged by it, Trump didn’t pay the price he deserved for his disastrous mishandling of the pandemic, because he understood, and played upon, the contempt that many of his supporters have for ‘experts’. He pressed for policies reflecting his understanding that people didn’t want to be secluded in their homes, that parents wanted their kids back in school. that small businesses wanted to reopen and that a lot of people don’t want to be ordered to wear a mask.
Being spectacularly denied another term as president, the greatest reversal of Trump’s life, has landed him in the camp of those he holds in the most contempt: ‘losers’. Although Trump is far from the first presidential candidate to take a loss badly (some never get over it), his reaction has been volcanic (though he has largely been cooped up in his office or playing golf). The sham campaign that Trump is running ostensibly to nullify the vote is clearly intended to avoid that ‘loser’ tag. If, in the process of salving his ego, Trump delegitimises not only the election but the American political system, so be it.
Opportunities for mischief
Trump continues to wield government power until the inauguration on January 20th next year, which gives him many opportunities for mischief. On the Monday after the vote, he began a purge of the Department of Defense, dismissing the secretary of defense, Mark Esper with a tweet and replacing him with a relatively inexperienced loyalist. Other senior Pentagon officials have also been sacked and replaced by people Trump trusts more.
Do the sackings simply reflect Trump’s ample capacity for spite, or is there a darker plan afoot? Esper, for example, had openly opposed Trump’s desire to use federal troops to put down violence in the streets of what he terms ‘Democrat-run’ cities. There is also a brutal internal war within the administration over declassifying intelligence that Trump believes will absolve him of the charge that he received Russian help in 2016.
Because Trump remains the dominant force in their party, Republicans—some with an eye on the 2024 presidential election—are reluctant to object openly to his tearing at the sinews that hold the country together. Trump’s eschewing of the ritual congratulatory telephone call to Biden—thus setting an example for other Republicans—was the least of it.
It’s clear that Trump and his allies are up to something larger. On the eve of Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2009, Republican leaders met in the Capitol and decided on the unprecedented goal of defeating his every initiative as president. Trump is going further, appearing bent on crippling Biden even before he’s sworn in.
The danger that Trump presents to the American republic, if not the world, won’t disappear after January 20th. At that point, there are no inhibitions on him other than those imposed by his ambitions. One worry among current and former intelligence officials is that, though Trump didn’t pay much attention to his intelligence briefings, he possesses information that would be of great interest to America’s adversaries. Might some of them be willing to help bail him out from the deep financial hole he’s in (he must soon begin repaying $400 million in personally guaranteed loans)?
Trump out of power will have other worries, too. Even if he pardons himself before leaving office, that will save him only from federal prosecutions. He would still be vulnerable to prosecutions stemming from investigations underway in various states.
The astonishing outburst of jubilation that broke out across the US—and in countries around the world—following Trump’s defeat was a testament to how frightened people have been by his presidency. The relief may be premature. Axios reported recently that Trump has already discussed with aides the possibility of running for president again in 2024.
This might well be a Trumpian ruse. As of now, Trump seems more focused on creating another ‘lost cause’ myth—like the self-glorifying one concocted by unreconstructed southerners after the US civil war. Such incendiary mythology could prove useful to Trump in countless ways in the years ahead, including keeping him relevant and on TV. It may be a long time before the US and the world have seen the last of Donald Trump.