Many liberals are afraid Donald Trump is planning a coup. The reality is much stranger. Trump is daydreaming about a coup. All the bizarre machinations since Election Day, the repeated airing of conspiracy theories about vote rigging, and the spate of poorly supported lawsuits spring not from a mastermind plotting to destroy democracy but rather a delusional and self-obsessed man who cannot come to grips with the reality of rejection. As The New York Times reports, Trump, while conversing with his advisers, has been “floating one improbable scenario after another for staying in office while he contemplates his uncertain post-presidency future.”
The newspaper described one such flight of fancy that occurred on Wednesday as Trump asked advisers “whether Republican legislatures could pick pro-Trump electors in a handful of key states and deliver him the electoral votes he needs to change the math and give him a second term.” The report adds, “It was not a detailed conversation, or really a serious one, the people briefed on it said. Nor was it reflective of any obsessive desire of Mr. Trump’s to remain in the White House.”
It would be terrifying if Trump had the competence, energy, and drive to push for a coup. It’s somewhat less scary but still disturbing that he is half-heartedly wishing for a coup. It suggests that the twilight days of Trump’s presidency will be characterized by a chief executive who is almost entirely disengaged from reality.
Trump’s presidency has always had a performative aspect to it. He’s played being president more than he has been president. Still, before losing the election, he would make an effort to show interest in events, to give speeches, and to occasionally even sign a useful piece of legislation, as he did with the CARES Act, offering more than $2 trillion in stimulus spending in March.
The Trump who is shell-shocked by the election is no longer able to even fake an interest in issues like Covid-19 or the continued need for economic stimulus. As Ronald Brownstein, a senior editor at The Atlantic, notes, “The president is AWOL. He has abandoned his post at a moment when the nation is under fire to nurse grievances & spin fantasies. And no Congressional Republican will call him out for a self-absorbed dereliction of duty that threatens massive death & suffering.”
Trump’s unwillingness to acknowledge defeat and start the process of transition to the next presidency is perhaps the chief proof of this retreat into fantasy. As he disengages from the real world, Trump is leaving a bigger and bigger mess for his successor.
The Washington Post offers a report on Trump’s recent non-responsiveness to events that confirms this indictment of an AWOL president:
On Thursday, six American service members were killed in a helicopter crash during a peacekeeping mission in Egypt. Tropical Storm Eta made landfall in North Florida, contributing to severe flooding. The number of Americans infected with the novel coronavirus continued at a record-setting pace, sending the stock market tumbling.
At the White House, President Trump spent the day as he has most others this week—sequestered from public view, tweeting grievances, falsehoods and misinformation about the election results and about Fox News’s coverage of him.
Neither he nor his aides briefed reporters on the news of the day or reacted to Democratic leaders who accused Republicans of imperiling the pandemic response by “refusing to accept reality” over the election results.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been pushing the White House on the need for another stimulus. But Trump will almost certainly do nothing in the waning days of his presidency.
Trump’s disengagement from reality comes at the very moment when the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic is cresting. According to the Covid Tracking Project, “One in 378 US residents tested positive for COVID-19 this week, and hospitalizations have nearly doubled in the past two weeks. The United States is posting new records for cases and hospitalizations nearly every day, and healthcare systems are reaching capacity in many areas where cases have spiked.” New Covid cases have exceeded 150,000 per day.
Trump is going to be president until January 20, 2021. He’s likely to continue with his current delusional behavior. He won’t be a do-nothing president or a lame-duck president but something worse: a wounded president intent on taking everyone down with him. He’ll continue firing senior appointees and trying to seed the government with ultra-loyalists. He’ll persist in spreading conspiracy theories about the election.
Joe Biden will inherit a mess: a country where Covid-19 is raging out of control and the economy continues to splutter. Even the revival of economic activity that began during the fall might end, and a new and more severe recession could start.
As soon as he takes office, Biden would be well-advised to draw as quick a contrast between himself and Trump as possible. The model to emulate is Franklin Roosevelt, who did everything in his early days as president to distinguish himself from his predecessor. Of course, Biden might not have, as Roosevelt did, control of Congress. If the Democrats don’t win the two outstanding Senate races in Georgia, Biden will have to work with a Republican Senate.
Still, even without a Democratic Senate, there’s much that Biden can do as an activist president. He can lean on the Federal Reserve to continue with an easy-money policy as a response to the recession. He will be able to fill out the civil service ravaged by Trump.
Biden’s Covid-19 task force can push for much more activist policies than Trump was willing to contemplate. Biden will be able to use executive orders on a host of issues. Given the economic conditions, an executive order ending federally held debt by college students could easily be promoted as a stimulus in its own right.
Biden will have to be creative. But if he is energetic, he’ll benefit simply by the stark difference with Trump. After the spectacle of a president who ignored the pandemic as it got worse, a president who throws himself into the thick of a problem will itself come as a great relief.