Donald Trump’s rambling appearance at the White House on Thursday night was rife with lies, paranoia, conspiracy theories, self-pity and attacks on our democracy — none of which was what made it a strikingly deranged and menacing performance. After all, those have been hallmarks of his five-year political career. Instead what distinguished his first appearance since the wee hours of election night was the sense that the man who will occupy the highest office in the land for nearly 11 more weeks is unhinged, untethered, uninhibited and desperate in completely new ways.
Apparently reading prepared remarks, Trump started by congratulating himself and his party for unparalleled victories he hadn’t achieved, before falsely accusing Democrats of rigging the election in a cabal that doesn’t exist with the media, pollsters and “big tech” — never mind that this scheme apparently left them with a smaller House majority and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. He once again assailed voting-by-mail, of which he has availed himself, decried imaginary corruption and fabricated instances of fraud.
“I’ve read or watched all of Trump's speeches since 2016,” Daniel Dale, CNN’s ace Trump fact-checker, tweeted afterward. “This is the most dishonest speech he has ever given.” It may also be the most dangerous.
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There was a whiff of Richard Nixon about the thing — not the maudlin rambling of Tricky Dick’s farewell speech to the White House staff, but the liberated pugilism of his famous “last press conference,” where he warned the media that “you won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.” Except Trump took the opposite tack: Instead of stalking into shadows, he swore to stand his ground — and burn it behind him.
It was, perhaps, the first flares of his last campaign in his great war on Washington — one of scorched earth and settled scores. He laid down markers and once again demanded that the rest of the GOP and its allies fall in line. As the supposed alpha male of U.S. politics, Trump could once use the fear of his wrath, his Twitter account and his base to command Republicans’ loyalty, but he is now a loser with an end-date. Lines are being drawn even within the party.
Trump’s adult sons have positioned themselves as Daddy’s chief loyalty officers, calling out Republicans both in general and by name for not manning the ramparts. A handful have spoken up for calm, patience and democracy — but most are laying low, trying to skate by the latest Trump outrage as they largely have for four years. Others are seemingly prepared abet Trump’s political pyromania: California’s Kevin McCarthy, the vapid House Republican leader, declared on Fox News that Trump had won the election and exhorted viewers to “not be silent about this.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., assumed a familiar posture of supplication too: Asked by Fox’s Sean Hannity whether GOP-controlled legislatures in states that Biden seemingly won should award the state’s electors to Trump instead, he responded that “everything should be on the table.”
That would be a historic and frontal assault on the foundational concept that ours is a government of the people, for the people and by the people. The fact that it’s already moved from the far fringes onto Fox News — the mainstream media of the right — is horrifying.
But even short of such a direct threat to our system, Trump’s ravings are now actively harming our republic. Nearly 70 million Americans cast ballots for this narcissistic nihilist and, in the absence of his success, a nontrivial number will grimly choose their Dear Leader over their own lying eyes. You can see it in the protests at vote-counting sites in Michigan and Arizona, the legions desperate and angry enough to absorb whatever bile Trump feeds them. You can see it in reports of Philadelphia police Thursday night foiling an attack on vote-counters there.
“There is one essential institution in this country, one rampart that separates order from chaos, and it's the ballot box,” Politico’s Tim Alberta tweeted Thursday, adding the warning: “We cannot begin to fathom how much damage that speech will do to the long-term health and stability of our country.”
But we could have known it would come to this.
Trump has never changed — not since Tuesday and not since he assumed the presidency. He is still the same blustering, bullying carnival-barker who is indifferent to facts and truth; he still thinks that anything less than fawning adulation is a slight that must be met with a counter-punch. He’s still the ultimate Norman Vincent Peale, power-of-positive-thinking huckster whose sales-pitch is his own unstoppable success.
What has changed is the context: Trump is about to be a fully acknowledged historical loser on a national scale. “You know, winning is easy,” Trump said on Election Day afternoon. “Losing is never easy. Not for me it’s not.”
And he is going to make damned sure it’s not easy for any of the rest of us.
After four years of never growing into the role of president, he’s now begun diminishing into the role of ex-president. He is already rage-tweeting and threatening to sue, but he can stamp his feet and hold his breath until he’s blue in his orange-tinged face: The numbers are implacably moving against him. Even as Trump spoke Thursday, his once-formidable leads in Georgia and Pennsylvania kept shrinking; by Friday, both had disappeared entirely. Most of the networks cut away from his ramblings Thursday and noted that he was full of something other than the truth. “Are you being a sore loser?” a reporter yelled after Trump as he retreated from the briefing room.
He’s about to be a lame duck with a flamethrower, and we ought to be concerned whether he believes that he has to burn the place down on his way out as a final, perverse show of strength.
The crucible of loss has distilled him down to his destructive, vindictive core. And now we have to both endure that toxic nub of a leader and his political death throes while making sure that he doesn’t burn the country and our democracy down on his way out.