Good piece in the London Review of Books (I have a gift subscription from an English friend) this week on Michael Wolff’s latest tome on the Trump phenomenon. It’s written by David Runciman, author of How Democracy Ends.
The book is full of granular detail from the last hours of the Trump presidency dressed with considerable foreboding about the effect he continues to exert on the US Republican Party to get beyond what it hoped would be an aberration.
Trump’s view of the election result remained frozen in time. He believed the votes counted after 10.30 p.m. on 3 November could only be part of a plot to undo what had already been done. This conviction derived in part from his long-standing, strategic paranoia.
His entire life had been built around the principle that the best way to claim what was rightfully yours was to insist that others had stolen it from you. But it also stemmed from his notoriously loose relationship with numbers. He didn’t make the numbers up. But he took the numbers he found most convenient and made them the only ones that counted.
‘In the Trump political world, like the Trump business world,’ Wolff says, ‘you focused on the bragging rights of gross rather than the harsher reality of net.’ The question was never what you could do with what you were left with, it was always what you could insist you were owed in the first place. [Emphasis added]
The indelable mark of populists everywhere. So too the idea that his capacity to generate huge, and highly visible public support in large public rallies and that this had to be weighed as equal to the verdict of the ballot box:
For a while on election night, Trump was ahead in some of the key states he would go on to lose. Those early numbers became the true numbers – the gross reality. Later numbers had to be wrong.
In the call Trump made on 2 January to Brad Raffensperger, secretary of state for Georgia, in which he asked him to find an extra 11,780 votes to overturn his margin of defeat in the state (‘You don’t need much of a number because the number in theory I lost by, the margin would be 11,779’), he pointed out that the ballot box was not the only measure of who won an election.
‘I think it’s pretty clear we won,’ he said. ‘We won very substantially in Georgia. You even see it by rally size, frankly. We’d be getting 25-30,000 people a rally and the competition would get less than a hundred people. And it never made sense.’
Runciman goes on to note:
The result was that any official who didn’t accept this version of events could no longer work with the president. Trump’s last two months in office saw an extraordinary exodus of people who had been loyalists but were unable to stomach what was now required. They were replaced by anyone who was prepared to tell the president what he needed to hear.
In an audio book on Giuliani Wolff deconstructs the disintegrating life of the former Mayor of New York and how Trump is forced by the desertion of once loyal staffers to turn to the once moderate GOP veteran desperate for limelight.
But below Giuliani even the loosest of the populists left behind did not relish the effect of getting behind the then President’s last days in the bunker on their own future careers:
When Trump appointed Dave Bossie – ‘right-wing gadfly, organiser and attack man, a Yosemite Sam figure ever blasting at liberal rabbits’ – to oversee Giuliani’s legal challenge to the election results, his lack of any legal qualifications didn’t bother his boss, though they bothered the man himself. ‘I don’t know if congratulations or condolences are in order,’ one campaign aide wrote to him. ‘I want to fucking kill myself,’ Bossie replied.
No one who had anything substantial to lose would take Trump’s side. That meant the only people he had left were already losers. It was a lost cause from the beginning.
In fact, he says…
Neither Trump nor the people around him were part of a sinister plot to subvert and ultimately take over the democratic institutions of the United States. They didn’t possess even the minimum competence for that. Trump’s presidency was a kind of vacuum of seriousness: the relationship between means and ends was practically non-existent. [Emphasis added]
Or as Wolff put it in the book itself:
…what if, stripping all protection and artifice away, he were revealed to be incapable of separating the fantasy of what he thought possible from the practicalities of accomplishing it?
So why did so many GOP insiders join the administration.? Wolff: ‘So much of Trump politics was a public bow and a private guffaw [and] so much in Trumpworld never actually happened [such that] you would never be held to account’.
But so far as the senior leaders in the GOP, who tolerated Trump simply because it bought them a crucial victory after Obama’s two term presidency, such a strategy did not work out quite as they hoped:
With January 6th assault on the Capitol, Runciman notes…
Trump now presides at Mar-a-Lago and Republican candidates are forced to come to him to seek his blessing. The price of entry is a willingness to sign up to his version of what happened on election night, when the vote-counting continued long after he had already won.
Perhaps Republican politicians think that since the election is done, and can’t be reversed, they can indulge him again with relative impunity. The alternative is to risk the wrath of his supporters, who retain the power to turf out of office anyone who stands up to his limitless sense of grievance.
Finally means and ends had come together in a way that no one could ignore: this time the name-calling had led to sticks and stones and broken bones and worse. McConnell let it be known that if Trump were impeached he was ready to see him convicted.
But then the results of a poll came in asking Republican voters around the country if they felt the same. They did not. The party establishment was stymied.
It turned out that words did indeed have consequences: not Trump’s but those of the party high-ups who had indulged him and those who supported him. Now they were stuck with what they had allowed.
This was mirrored for me in the way the US press left only until the last moment to disown the President (NBC’s last minute refusal to cover the President’s latest ranting untruths, approximately four years too late). Ditto Twitter.
This insight applies to our own punditry when wrangling with homebred populism. Politicians should be competing to get their voices into the mainstream precisely because they know cannot get away with BS-ing the audience.
In his short pamphlet On Tyranny, Tim Snyder writes:
To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticise power, because there is no basis on which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.
In his conclusion, Runciman strikes a chilling note…
That Trump continues to prosper politically, notwithstanding the chaos and degradation of his final months in office, leaves Wolff awestruck, in spite of himself.
‘The fact that he survived, without real support, without real assistance, without expertise, without backup, without anybody minding the store, and without truly knowing his ass from a hole in the ground, was extraordinary. Magical.’
But this is not magic, and Trump has no mystical powers. It’s just democracy, coming apart at the seams.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty