This almost happened! (Alex Brandon/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

His long flirtation with a failed campaign for the nation’s highest office just came to its foregone conclusion. At least that is what everyone is calling it now.

Had you been asleep for the past several weeks, this news would not come as a surprise. Donald Trump’s not running for president, the bird’s in the tree, God’s in his heaven — or not, if you’re Stephen Hawking — and all is, generally, right with the world.

Now it’s over. Now we can call this what it always was: a joke candidacy, a publicity stunt.

But I’m a little disappointed.

The problem with joke candidacies and publicity stunts is that they always reveal some truth about the overall race. Jimmy McMillan showed us the Rent Was Too Damn High. Ralph Nader showed — well, something. Trump’s departure has left a definite hollow in the race. “Who will get all that Trump coverage now?” everyone asks. I’ll tell you who: no one. The reason people were covering Trump so much was because he had an It factor (sure, a Stephen King’s It factor, mainly concentrated in his hair, but an It factor nonetheless) that no one else has shown. Yes, others have flashes of it, from time to time. But if people found Huntsman or even Bachmann as uniformly, oddly compelling as Trump, they’d be covering them already.

The Trump flirtation was the national equivalent of that drunken conversation with an alluring stranger in a bar that makes us rethink our marriages. Of course we weren’t actually going to do anything! Look at the guy! His hair looks like an [insert joke about roadkill, mops, ham loafs or Tribbles]. But he showed us what we were missing. “I want someone with an ounce of charisma,” we murmur, driving home. “He only has an ounce, and look what he’s been able to achieve with it!”

Now we’re going home to The GOP 2012 Field As It Actually Is, that well-meaning, bumbling white-collar guy who is waiting for us in the kitchen with some unpalatable-looking budget solutions that he’s been cooking for the past three hours. We take one look at it and decide to order in instead — does Paul Ryan deliver?

Then we sit in front of the TV for a while. “Let’s watch C-SPAN,” he murmurs, stroking our hand in what he clearly assumes is a sensual manner but which only has the effect of reminding us of the reanimated corpse of Warren G. Harding.

“Can we not?” you say. “It’s just, I’ve had a long day, what with the recession and all, and I have a huge headache coming on.”

“How about I discuss social issues?” he suggests. “You love to discuss social issues! That always gets you excited!”

“Usually I’d love to,” you mutter. “But — well, somehow, my heart’s just not in it anymore. The last time we discussed social issues I was secretly fantasizing about Navy SEALs the whole time.”

We did not need Trump to make us realize this, of course. But now that he’s come and gone, his departure leaves a void we are not quite certain how to fill.

Eventually we’ll buckle down. We are committed to making this work, after all, for the children. So we’ll find things to enthuse about. Maybe Michele Bachmann will debate that 10th-grader. Maybe Mitt Romney will show up on Jay Leno again, this time with a live snake! Maybe someone will come out of the woodwork and shake us by the shoulders and make us care.

We know we dodged a bullet. When we wake up the next morning beside our dedicated and loving The GOP 2012 Field As It Actually Is, we remember that ham loaf on the top of the stranger’s head that seemed to be winking at us and we shudder a little. But there’s still an empty feeling at the pit of our stomachs. Where’s the pizzazz?

Maybe this is a sad statement about our culture, and our capacity for distinguishing What Is Important from What Is Impressive. But that doesn’t make it any less true. Trump was the ice cream we didn’t know we were allowed to have for breakfast. Now we’re back to cereal, and it’s worse than before.