People are understandably tempted to indulge the urge to move on, exhausted by the years of Trumpian norm-breaking and comforted by the prospect that he will soon be gone. Yet attention must be paid, even in what New Yorker writer Susan Glasser describes as the “ ‘yeah, whatever’ phase of Trump’s lame-duck presidency.”
He remains the president, possessed of enormous power until noon on Jan. 20. Afterward, he will command legions of followers who accept as gospel his delusional rendering of reality. Which leads to the paradox inherent in my contention that Trump cannot safely be ignored: Attention is Trump’s oxygen. He will never willingly fade away.
If you missed Trump’s Wednesday speech, that’s no surprise. It was not delivered to a live audience but rather posted on Facebook — accompanied by a warning that Trump’s assertions about voter fraud and the supposed untrustworthiness of mail-in ballots were unsupported. It didn’t make the front pages — an understandable journalistic choice, given the tension between reporting the news and avoiding amplifying misinformation.
The Post’s Philip Rucker did a remarkable job of distilling Trump’s remarks into their repulsive, un-American essence.
“Escalating his attack on democracy from within the White House, President Trump on Wednesday distributed an astonishing 46-minute video rant filled with baseless allegations of voter fraud and outright falsehoods in which he declared the nation’s election system ‘under coordinated assault and siege’ and argued that it was ‘statistically impossible’ for him to have lost to President-elect Joe Biden,” Rucker wrote.
“Standing behind the presidential lectern in the Diplomatic Reception Room and flanked by the flags of his office and of the country whose Constitution he swore an oath to uphold, Trump tried to leverage the power of the presidency to subvert the vote and overturn the election results.”
This on the day after the president’s own attorney general said the Justice Department had found no evidence of voting fraud anywhere near enough to call Biden’s victory into question.
This on a day that the country recorded its worst daily death toll — 2,798 — since the start of the pandemic, and the number of hospitalizations exceeded 100,000 for the first time. The pandemic arose in Trump’s remarks only in the context of Democrats using it as a “pretext” for corruption.
Classically, gallingly, Trump portrayed himself as the patriotic defender of democracy. “This is not just about honoring the votes of 74 million Americans who voted for me, it’s about ensuring that Americans can have faith in this election and in all future elections,” said the man who has done more than anyone to undermine that faith.
To hear this nonsense is inevitably to wonder whether Trump is delusional enough to believe what he is spewing or immoral enough to know it is false and spread it anyway. I suspect the answer is both.
Trump’s ego cannot tolerate the reality that he is, in this instance, a loser; he is compelled to seize on any shred of evidence that can help him concoct an alternate outcome. This is just a more extreme, more consequential version of Trump’s claims of record inaugural crowds, photographic evidence notwithstanding.
Trump’s immorality is so bottomless that he can fully imagine people engaging in the sort of deliberate chicanery of which he accuses his opponents. And his willingness to peddle baseless claims — see: birtherism — knows no bounds. He will say whatever he needs at the time he needs to say it.
Deluded or evil — in the end, it makes little difference. What matters is the impact of Trump’s words. Perhaps we are in the final, most florid throes of Trump and Trumpism. No doubt it will be far harder to play the bully without the bully pulpit. I have always thought of the Republican Party — Republican elected officials, especially — under the thumb of Trump like the flying monkeys under the Wicked Witch of the West. Once Dorothy throws water on the witch and she melts, the monkeys rejoice in her demise — and their liberation.
What’s worrisome is that Trump isn’t melting — not fast enough, anyway. Yes, he will receive less attention out of office. But more than 74 million Americans voted for this man. He has nearly 89 million Twitter followers. The Trump operation has raised more than $200 million since Election Day. As long as he retains a corps of true believers — for a glimpse of their fealty, read the thousands of comments on this Facebook video — he will retain his power to intimidate.
The evidence that elected Republican officials are summoning the courage to stand up to him is, so far, disappointingly scant. For every Gabriel Sterling, the Georgia election official who lectured his fellow Republicans about the danger of Trump’s attack on the integrity of the election (“All of you who have not said a damn word are complicit in this”), there are the resolutely complicit, better known as nearly the entire Senate Republican caucus.
As much as we want to tune Trump out, ignoring him is a luxury we cannot yet afford.