Trump was being impeached for having repeatedly lied to the public about the results of the 2020 presidential election and, on the morning of Jan. 6, having repeated those lies at a large rally as he challenged his supporters to march on the Capitol. Thousands did — then breaking into the building and prompting the evacuation of legislators present to count the electoral votes that tallied Trump’s loss. Five people died, including a Capitol Police officer assaulted by the mob.
All of this is so close to the moment that it seems like current events, not history. But it’s history of the darkest sort: A president who refuses to accept the results of a free election and tries to hold power by encouraging a flailing and poorly considered insurrection. That has been the theme since Election Day — that maybe, somehow, Trump could wring another four years out of things if he simply got enough state officials or regular Americans to invest heavily enough in setting democracy to the side. After decades of using every available strategy to close a sale in real estate, Trump took on the toughest pitch of his career.
He failed. So, at noon on Wednesday, President-elect Joe Biden will become president, just as the majority of American voters who cast ballots last year had hoped.
With his tenure in the White House ending, Trump eschewed a news conference in favor of an extended video in which he could boast about his administration without being challenged. He walked through a list of achievements familiar to anyone who’d listened to his campaign speeches last year, complete with the exaggerations and omissions that he’d include when trying to win votes.
But then, near the end, he said something truly egregious, given the moment.
“We have reasserted,” Trump said of his administration, “the sacred idea that in America the government answers to the people.”
The line was meant to bolster his claims about how he was a president for regular, working-class Americans. His “constant concern,” he insisted, had always been “the best interests of American workers and American families” — by which he has always obviously meant White Republicans who cheer on his incessant fights over political culture and whatever is in heavy rotation on Fox News. It’s a conflation that has defined his presidency, blending hard-working Americans with his base inextricably. As has so often been the case, Trump doesn’t mean that the government should listen to the people. He means that the government should listen to his people, a group defined as “people who agree with everything Trump does.”
To present this focus on his base as demonstrative of the government answering to the people is, by itself, dubious. To frame that goal as a “sacred idea” can be left to essays in sophomore poli-sci classes. But for Trump, in this moment, to boast that he is reasserting the idea that the government answers to the people just days after he actively encouraged the fury of a mob to overthrow an election is sheer gall.
Government answers to the people primarily through the people choosing who serves in government. That is the “sacred idea” most central to the American experiment, and it is the one that Trump has most fervently attacked since November. He has tried to fight his election loss harder over the past two months than he has done anything else. More than 167,000 people have died of the coronavirus since Election Day, 2 out of every 5 deaths since the pandemic began, and Trump has spent the time since then not combating the virus, but trying to infect the country with autocracy.
It’s just so dishonest, which, of course, we should by now expect. As when Trump objected to his ouster from social media networks by framing the move in sweeping terms.
“In America, we don’t insist on absolute conformity or enforce rigid orthodoxies and punitive speech codes,” he said. “We just don’t do that. America is not a timid nation of tame souls who need to be sheltered and protected from those with whom we disagree. That’s not who we are. It will never be who we are.”
This is the guy whose administration released a document on Monday delineating the proper way in which American history should be considered. Trump always insists on conformity with his worldview and approaches dissent punitively. Over the past four years, he has repeatedly fired people who disagree with him and, by now, exists mostly in a bubble of agreement from his staff to his media consumption. But claiming the dramatic mandate of free speech is useful in getting back at mean ol’ Twitter for shutting down his account, so he wraps the principles of free speech around himself like an invisibility cloak that he hopes will prevent us from seeing who he is.
It’s of a piece with the rest of his speech, of course, a presentation of who Trump is that is at obvious odds with who he actually is.
The line about government answering to the people was the most dangerous in its cynicism. But it was matched for egregiousness when Trump demanded that America now set aside partisanship.
“Now, more than ever, we must unify around our shared values,” he said, “and rise above the partisan rancor and forge our common destiny.”
Sure, now we must do that. The president whose approach to politics has been predicated on amplifying that rancor to the extent that he encouraged a mob to interfere with the transfer of power has checked his watch and seen that it is unity o’clock.
Trump’s calls for unity have never been about anything more than fealty. This one is as hollow as his assertion that he tamed the great beast of American governance so that it would listen to the average American.