What in the world does Donald Trump think he’s doing?
I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time over the past few weeks pondering that question. What do I mean? The deranged 46-minute Facebook video in which the recently defeated president of the United States rants and raves like Alex Jones, spinning vast conspiracies about how the election was stolen from him and his supporters, is a good example. But there are many others, from Trump himself as well as those contributing to his hapless coup attempt.
It’s important to recognize that none of this is politics, at least not as one normally defines it.
Politics is the presidential transition going on all over Washington this past week. It’s President-elect Joe Biden picking people to staff his administration, office holders of both parties discussing prospects for confirming specific nominees, and Biden’s team talking about priorities for the opening days and weeks of his presidency. In American politics as normally conceived and practiced, we’re mostly back to business as usual after close to a month of weirdness during which it was impossible to say whether Trump would cooperate with the transition at all. And yet, despite the return to relative normalcy around next month’s handover of power, the lame-duck president and key members of his party have checked out entirely from normal politics, plunging themselves into … the something else we see unfolding before us now.
But what is this something else?
Some say it’s just the latest grift — Trump priming the pump for a post-presidency media venture of some sort: “Trump TV,” the 45th president’s own personal InfoWars where he can charge subscription rates for 24/7 anger, grievance, and a technicolor swirl of conspiratorial B.S. That’s probably a big part of it.
Trump’s desire to prepare the way for a possible announcement of a revenge campaign to reclaim the presidency in 2024, perhaps timed as counterprogramming to Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20, is in there, too. Maybe this should be considered politics of a sort. As one hard-nosed political commentator pointed out on Twitter a few days ago, such a move would be close to unprecedented in American history, instantly transforming Trump into his party’s presumptive nominee four years from now and ensuring that he remains the man in the GOP whose opinion counts more than anyone else’s.
It would also guarantee that journalists remain obsessively focused on Trump’s statements, rallies, and tweets, soothing his bottomless craving for constant attention, easing media fears of a post-Trump ratings slump, and saddling the Biden administration with an incessant, deafening, ill-informed, and unmodulated critic. (Biden’s signature line from the first debate this fall — “Will you shut up, man” — could easily turn out to be the defining theme of his presidency.) And of course, this path would also enable Trump to continue full-force political fundraising without end.
That sounds like politics of a kind — and the fact that in many ways it’s indistinguishable from a con job or a case study in racketeering is actually a perfect distillation of what Trumpian politics has been all along. It’s always been at once an alternative to politics as usual and an intensification of what politics as usual has been drifting toward for a long time now: a gaudy spectacle that’s equal parts entertainment, fantasy, fraud, and three-ring circus performed before mutually exclusive cheering mobs.
Yet that still doesn’t quite capture what we’re seeing from Trump in the post-election period. And it’s in trying to do an even better job of describing it that my thoughts turn darker still.
Whenever I hear Trump’s deranged and delusional ranting, my mind turns to his audience. Why do they find it appealing? Why do they trust him when he lies so flagrantly and flamboyantly? What is he really selling? And what do they think they’re buying? The answer is that Trump is offering them a story of injustice and promised retribution. He’s done that from the beginning, affixing blame to a series of powerful people and institutions that have supposedly ruined the lives of ordinary Americans: the Republican establishment, Democrats, the media, rapacious companies that have outsourced manufacturing jobs, China, Iran, and specific, corrupt evildoers like Crooked Hillary and Sleepy Joe. They are the perps. The cheering throngs at the Trump rally are the victims. And Trump is the champion and defender of the latter — the man who, with his words of anger and grievance, permits them the possibility of vicarious vengeance.
But now, in the story he’s spinning every day, Trump is a victim, too. The man who put aside his comfortable life of wealth and private enterprise to become a tribune to the common man has been terribly wronged himself. His enemies deployed all their powers against him and the result was a stolen presidency — stolen from him as well as the tens of millions who voted for him.
In some ways, that could make the post-election Trump more powerful as a demagogue than he’s ever been. Think of him as a community organizer looking to mobilize half the country, and who can point to his own suffering and victimhood in order to strengthen already powerful bonds of solidarity and identification. “You have been terribly wronged, and so have I. Vindicate me, and you will have vindicated yourselves.”
It’s fine, and probably sensible, for Democrats to stick with normal politics, go about the business of preparing to govern, and ignore the deranged words and behavior of Trump and his political minions. But the reality is this: The just-defeated president is actively working to convince a sizable segment of Americans that the electoral system, the media, the “deep state,” and all the institutions of government, including elected and appointed Republicans at all levels, from secretaries of state to federal appellate judges appointed by Trump himself, cannot be trusted to run a free and fair election that identifies the rightful winner and rewards him (and his supporters) with political power.
That is incredibly dangerous. Many political traditions, but the American tradition more than most, maintain that a fundamentally illegitimate government can be justly opposed with violence. Already some on the rightward fringes of our politics have sought to take matters into their own hands. Others are just a step or two behind them, sending death threats to officials overseeing vote certifications in a half-dozen states. If Trump keeps it up day-in and day-out, if he comes to see the cultivating of revolutionary sentiments throughout the electorate as his meal ticket, what do we think is likely to happen? What will be the character of what we charmingly call “the Republican base” after weeks and months and years of such incitement?
The question answers itself — as does the question with which I started.
Whatever Donald Trump might think he’s doing, his words and actions are sparks sprayed out across a gasoline-soaked garage. It’s only a matter of time before a fire ignites that could consume us all.
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