The comment that attracted the most attention was his description of Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as an “idiot,” although Trump applied a vulgar modifier to that term. He did not mention that he had hired Milley in the first place, but this was simply an aside. Trump’s sustained subject of complaint was his first, the one offered immediately after he walked through the doors. It’s the one that has been his focus for more than a year.
“Our country is going to hell,” Trump began. “And when you look at Arizona is doing great, and they understand the game, and we’re waiting for the attorney general, hopefully to do what he should do for the country and see whether or not he’s a courageous man.” This is a vague reference to the only thing Trump cares about: proving, by his own imaginary standard, that the election somewhere, somehow was tainted.
“We had an election, which was a disgrace to our country. It was a Third World election,” he said later. “We know what happened, and it continues forward, but we have the best numbers we’ve ever had.”
President Biden “didn’t get elected,” Trump said at another point. “He lost. He got his a-- kicked.” He added that “we’ll find out if they got away with it” — apparently meaning the “stolen” election.
Biden has been president for nearly nine months. He did, in fact, get away with it — “it” being winning a fair election and being inaugurated as president. But here’s Trump, as obsessed with a surreal vision of the past as Norma Desmond, puffing up his chest to peacock around at an event hosted by Turning Point USA. That group is ostensibly focused on young people and college students, but the crowd seemed like it was mostly the usual adult hangers-on who orbit Trump and coalesce at Mar-a-Lago. It’s snow-globe politics, a self-contained world that is easily agitated.
Trump’s assertions about the election are some mix of self-care and delusion. He wants to believe he didn’t lose the election he lost, casting his behavior over the past 12 months with the sort of pathos that was obvious to outside observers in his speech at Mar-a-Lago. But he seems also to have convinced himself that maybe something did go wrong somewhere, which allows him to believe that his reaction isn’t solely about his ego. A former White House staffer told CNN last month that Trump at first knew Biden had won but then readily allowed himself to be convinced otherwise. This is very human and familiar.
But in this case and in that bubble, it is toxic. In a lengthy article for the Atlantic, Barton Gellman outlines how Trump’s delusion has swelled to encompass much of his party. Gellman staked out an important position on Trump’s willingness to subvert the election when he wrote an article for that magazine shortly before the 2020 contest in which he outlined a number of the paths Trump eventually explored for trying to wrench a victory from his loss. Now, he writes that Trump and his allies are both unchastened from the aftermath of the election and preparing to do better next time.
“Trump has reconquered his party by setting its base on fire. Tens of millions of Americans perceive their world through black clouds of his smoke,” Gellman writes. “His deepest source of strength is the bitter grievance of Republican voters that they lost the White House, and are losing their country, to alien forces with no legitimate claim to power. This is not some transient or loosely committed population. Trump has built the first American mass political movement in the past century that is ready to fight by any means necessary, including bloodshed, for its cause.”
This seems hyperbolic, but, then, so might have been the idea that Jan. 6 might not be a pro forma milestone, as Gellman wrote in November 2020. Or that, “if compelled in the end to vacate his office, Trump will insist from exile, as long as he draws breath, that the contest was rigged.” Gellman’s articulation of the problem was often dismissed a year ago. It is now broadly validated.
The new article centers on two threats.
The first is technical, that the Republican Party and Trump allies are working to eliminate the points of human strength — in their view, weakness — that kept counties or states from undermining the results of the 2020 contest. This includes the idea that state legislatures are empowered to throw out election results, a claim that depends on Trumpworld’s insistence that legislatures improperly changed rules last year. This argument is largely an attempt to put a sanitized face on Trump’s nonsensical claims of fraud, but it’s also intended to argue that state legislators can simply unwind votes that they don’t like based on flimsy rationales — something that might prove useful to him in 2024.
The second threat is literal. Gellman points to research from the University of Chicago Project on Security and Threats, which conducted polling aimed at measuring how willing Trump supporters might be to endorse violence.
“In the June results,” Gellman writes of that research, “just over 8 percent agreed that Biden was illegitimate and that violence was justified to restore Trump to the White House. That corresponds to 21 million American adults.”
He notes similar, less-specific polling from Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). Conducted in September, it found that 3 in 10 Republicans agreed with the idea that “true American patriots may have to resort to violence” because things “have gotten so far off track.” Among those who think the 2020 election was stolen, the figure was 4 in 10.
At no point in time has Trump expressed any serious concern about the risk of right-wing political violence centered on the 2020 election. Even on Jan. 6, he patted the rioters on the head as he encouraged them to go home in one of his last social media posts before Twitter and Facebook decided that the risk he might foment more violence outweighed the value of extending him a platform. The riot on Jan. 6 was always inextricably downstream from Trump’s rhetoric and calls to action. Trump roused the rabble and then cheered the result.
The point is not that this all happened. It’s that it is happening. That, 11 months after the riot, Trump is saying the same things to the same people and getting a warm response. That he’s there at Mar-a-Lago making the same increasingly ludicrous claims to the same people in the same bubble even as he mulls a 2024 run and makes moves to continue to reshape the GOP. That’s the point.
“The immediate shock of the event, which briefly led some senior Republicans to break with him, has given way to a near-unanimous embrace,” Gellman writes. “Virtually no one a year ago, certainly not I, predicted that Trump could compel the whole party’s genuflection to the Big Lie and the recasting of insurgents as martyrs. Today the few GOP dissenters are being cast out.” Today, the scene at Mar-a-Lago and on Fox News is unchanged from where it was a year ago.
Trump offered a twisted analogy in his comments to the Turning Point crowd.
“The insurrection took place on Election Day, and the rest was protest,” Trump said. “What they should be investigating was the election, not what took place that day.”
It’s self-serving nonsense, in the way that so much of what Trump says is. But it’s also an encouragement, yet again, to view reality as the crisis and violence as the solution.