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The Littlest Prince

Donald Trump will leave the White House in a blaze of truthless tweets and hapless coup attempts. Did we really expect anything else?

Donald Trump’s presidency could only ever have ended one way, but there was still a certain flubby majesty to how it happened. As the outcome of the election became clearer and more irrefutable—as the votes were counted in the maddening, analog, rather inspiringly effective way that votes are counted, and as cities and towns across the country erupted into giddy street celebrations after the election was called decisively for Biden—Trump and his campaign began a wild-eyed public speedrun through the stages of grief. The end of election week unfolded like the booming grand finale of a fireworks program, albeit with every explosion replaced with skeins of bizarrely punctuated and wholly untrue social media posts, rafts of clammy lawsuits, and stilted press conferences in which Trump’s inner circle blinked rapidly and spoke in vague and heated terms about all the many serious things they’d soon be looking into very strongly.

The general tenor and shape of all that was predictable enough. Trump is not someone who ever does or says less, and as such, there was never a chance that he would respond to an electoral defeat in anything but the most egregiously undignified way. Trump, after all, had refused to accept the full legitimacy of his own win over Hillary Clinton in 2016, conjuring up millions of illegally cast votes and fleets of buses disgorging thousands of Professional Democrats who voted straight tickets, or something, or whatever. This year, the last few weeks before Election Day were full of a tension that ran, unspoken, under the polls and the disgraceful debates and the usual savvy weaponized dullardry of campaign season—it was the question of whether Trump, at this moment of national atrophy, would or could ever be held to account for his actions. How Trump might respond if he lost was, by contrast, never really in doubt. He would handle it poorly, and lazily.

He would make idle threats and lash out where and whenever it seemed safe; he would yell at his television when it defied him and, when every other option was gone, do as much damage as he could, wherever he could, out of spite and out of habit. Long before the pandemic reshaped the election, Trump made it clear that any electoral outcome not in his favor would by its nature be illegitimate, and therefore subject to Very Powerful Executive Reversal. As with everything Trump, who has so often been ridiculous and childish and wrong and so seldom been held accountable, his reaction to the results was much easier to laugh at in the abstract.

If Trump seemed confused about where to go with this tantrum, it was likely because his television had not yet told him. Trump uses Fox News like a Human Centipede to generate the furious confusion that powers his politics; his anxieties and curdled impulses simultaneously fuel, and are fueled by, the programming he so hungrily devours. The singular imperative of cable news is less to inform viewers than to keep them twitchy enough to sit through all those commercials for catheters and reverse mortgages for the next hit of outrage. After sufficient immersion in this media dynamic, viewers do not reason through the information they receive so much as respond to changes in tone—to the sour sound of Laura Ingraham’s sneer, say, or the whistling teapot of Tucker Carlson’s stagy perplexity. Trump, like many of his fellow cable news casualties, watches television in the same blank and fulsome way that dogs might be said to listen to music.

So of course none of Trump’s attempts to will himself to victory in an election he lost really made much sense, separately or together. A week into the campaign to undermine the election results, the administration was still getting bounced out of state courts and pranked on its own election fraud hotlines; Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin was reduced to fishing for malfeasance-related tips on Twitter. The administration seemed to have no plan whatsoever—just aspersions and deflections and open-ended questions thrown into the breach against the superior firepower of grim electoral reality. These efforts were not so much a failure as a familiar Trumpian plan executed with diminishing returns. Or, maybe, just to different ends: Trump’s campaign has raised money relentlessly off the hazy and fervid hysteria it created. Those funds have mostly been redirected to the Republican National Committee and a mysterious PAC set up two days after the election was called for Biden.

On its own degraded terms, then, the scheme worked. Trump, like other prisoners of conservative media, has duly stayed Extremely Upset About What They Are Doing precisely because he has never really figured out just what he was supposed to be upset about, beyond some perpetually indistinct conspiracy against him; the president himself knew as much as any other TV-addled shut-in and no more. As Trump and his remaining team—his dull and preening family, superannuated legacy goblins like Rudy Giuliani, the thirstiest and least principled members of D.C.’s native GOP lickspittle community, whatever waiver-wire flotsam was available in terms of local legal talent—began to make their case in court, it swiftly became clear that even they did not really know what that case was, or could be.

But they understood that airtime is precious, and so they filled it. There were illegalities and suspicious activities, they said, very grave crimes against Mr. Trump perpetrated by the familiar supervillains of the Fox News Cinematic Universe. What was actually being alleged changed from one moment to the next without ever snapping into focus; if they had done any planning for this wildly predictable outcome, it was hard to tell. Trump’s side had somehow come up with nothing more than a haphazard combination of strongly worded executive nuh-uh’s, ad hoc lawfare, and improvisatory sloganeering. “BAD THINGS HAPPENED WHICH OUR OBSERVERS WERE NOT ALLOWED TO SEE,” Trump tweeted. “They, and many others, got caught. DO SOMETHING!!!,” he wrote a few days later. The president of the United States was already—was always, really—responding to the end of his tenure as if it were just another outrage on his TV.

Nothing stuck, both because none of the charges the Trump family and its team of lawyers advanced ever quite made sense, and because the election itself, despite Trump’s vigorous but vague attempts to cast doubt on the process, was handled very well. On November 12, while the administration was still grasping at ways to overturn or at least discredit the result, the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency announced that the election “was the most secure in American history,” and that “there is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.” (“Actually this is true,” Trump tweeted the next day, before catching himself and launching himself back into Fox-outrage mode: “except for what the Democrats did. Rigged Election!”)

This is Trump going out exactly as he governed—by telling someone whose name he’d soon forget to fix a problem he didn’t care enough about to understand, and then watching television to see how well he was doing. It’s axiomatic that the man doesn’t really understand what he’s mad about; Trump never really knows anything about anything. As wildly irresponsible as his behavior has been since the election, and as queasy as it is to watch him flail and fume and feint his way through what is either an exceptionally oafish attempted coup or the single most tasteless fundraising gambit in the history of American politics, the spectacle has mostly just been confounding. All these endlessly bruited breakthroughs-to-come and all that clock-killing bluster collapses at some point into a defiant and incoherent sheet of noise. Nothing about Trump ever improves or even changes; the end was always going to be a parodic reprise of the beginning.

 Donald Trump’s life, in and out of politics, has unfolded as a series of endless dreary compromises forced upon other people. This has mostly worked out for him, at least insofar as he has been permitted to indulge in whatever stupid, grasping, childish cruelty he desires because it would have been much more annoying and difficult to forbid it. There is not, and has never been, anything in the man that suggested he was qualified for any position of responsibility, but neither he nor anyone else has ever let that prevent him from rising to the most powerful office on Earth, where he sits every day scowling into his television. It is hard to imagine any president whose life has changed less for having assumed the responsibilities of the office. The rest of us cannot say the same. The whole country is trapped in Trump’s gilded and claustrophobic life; the days repeat themselves, failures arriving first as tragedy, then as farce, and finally as some tonally confounding simultaneous expression of both.

Trump is who and how he is both because of his financial privilege and because of American culture’s reflexive deference toward men born into it. This consideration for wealth has not just coddled but cultivated his every poisonous whim. In that sense, his ham-handed flirtations with authoritarianism—the attempt to delegitimize the very idea of elections before and after the fact, the strange and worrying postelection installation of loyalists atop the Department of Defense, the refusal to go along with or even acknowledge the presidential transition process—are simply the result of him being afforded one more scoop of ice cream just before bedtime. “What is the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time? No one seriously thinks the results will change,” a “senior Republican official” told The Washington Post in the days after Trump refused to concede the election. “It’s not like he’s plotting how to prevent Joe Biden from taking power on Jan. 20. He’s tweeting about filing some lawsuits, those lawsuits will fail, then he’ll tweet some more about how the election was stolen, and then he’ll leave.”

The tension between Trump’s grandiose threats and signature soggy inertia has made for some uneasy days, and is in its way a fitting end to his presidency. The relationship between Trump and the outrage industry that sustains him has finally and devastatingly slipped out of sync, and as a result the man has found himself too upset and too adrift to ascertain what he was even upset about in the first place. Trump has surely done his part to hurry along the ongoing degeneration of American politics, but that process didn’t begin with him so much as it more fully and floridly realized itself through the example he set. In a nation that was already forgetting how to read, Trump oversaw a wild and willful regression in which the sorts of skills that toddlers develop have been unlearned in real time, in public, on a massive scale. These have inarguably and disastrously been terrible years for the national conceptions of object permanence and basic causality. After Trump’s bleary and futile last thrash, we can now add self-soothing—a young child’s capacity to calm down on its own after awakening in the night from unpleasant dreams—to that list.

But while Trump is symptomatic of some other, bigger issues, his towering personal smallness is a problem, too. Even before Trump’s unconscionable and incompetent response to the pandemic stymied so much of public life, American politics had begun not just to reflect Trump’s own personal obsessions and shortcomings but to actively resemble them. That ambient mirroring is familiar—think of the fatuous boomer triumphalism of the Clinton years, or George W. Bush’s blithe swaggering sadism, or Obama’s coolly virtuosic nihilism. Trump’s overwhelming coarseness and avarice are shot through American politics, which now plays out as a series of taunts and muggings. That’s his legacy, but it’s not what he wants. The unreasoning battle that Trump is fighting, down to the last moment, is the one he has been fighting all his life—not to lead or rule but to displace whatever is not him with his own sour self. He wants everything, always, if only to keep it from anyone else. At the end, as at the beginning, it is either him or us.