Nearly five years ago, my editors at The Nation put me on the Trump beat. My first assignment was to analyze the real estate mogul cum reality-TV star cum politician’s language—his use of tweets to score political points, his coarse threats and insults, his unparalleled narcissism, and his MAGA racism.
There was something horribly fascinating about watching a skilled demagogue pick up steam. Trump test-drove any and every bigotry to see what would most move, and expand, his base. He dreamed up a Muslim travel ban, talked about Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals, fetishized the practice of torture, mocked women for their appearance, ridiculed a disabled journalist, trash-talked Gold Star parents, boasted about sexually assaulting women, bragged about his ability to evade paying taxes. He didn’t just talk out of both sides of his mouth; he also ranted from pretty much every other orifice as well.
The result was a peculiarly potent stew of gibberish laden with sadism. He was like the character Lonesome Rhodes, at the height of his power, played brilliantly by Andy Griffith in Elia Kazan’s 1957 film masterpiece A Face in the Crowd: a charismatic demagogue capable of using mass media to almost hypnotize a crowd into doing his bidding. Donald J. Trump knew how to manipulate language—even punctuation and font size—to get everyone to talk about Donald J. Trump pretty much all the goddamn time.
I kept waiting, back in 2016, for the other shoe to fall, for people to see through his shtick, to realize the hollowness of his promises, to acknowledge the fundamental contempt he had for those gullible enough to buy the Brooklyn Bridges he was selling them. I kept waiting for that moment, so wonderfully portrayed by Kazan, when the demagogue finally self-destructs.
But that moment never came. Trump grew stronger and stronger throughout that year. His Election Day victory horrified me like nothing else in my life—not personal losses, not even 9/11—had done. I felt like a mirror had been placed up to America, and instead of an optimistic, hopeful, smiling face, there was a wizened, cankered monstrosity. I felt like a knife had sliced and diced the core of my being—but Trump’s victory also didn’t entirely surprise me. The reporting I had done over the previous couple decades had made me all too aware of how America’s social and economic fractures left it horrifically vulnerable to the wiles of a demagogue, of a man promising gold but delivering only base metal. Trump struck me from the get-go as exactly that demagogue, a once-in-a-century incarnation of malevolence. The way Trump had torn through his primary season opponents, spewing so many rapid-fire lies and distortions that they had no time to regroup and rethink their approach to him; the way he had used Hitlerian Big Lie propaganda to delegitimize and discredit Hillary Clinton during the general election campaign; and, above all, the way he had pandered to the worst fears of his audiences during his Nuremberg-style political rallies—all made me realize he had found a way to exploit America’s divides in his successful run for the White House. He was, in the worst way imaginable, the last Great White Hope in a country on the cusp of becoming majority-minority, and he knew how to harness—and inflate—every fear and stereotype about nonwhite people that percolated through conservative white America; every fear of the loss of cultural, political, economic, and racial power. He appealed brilliantly to the reptilian parts of the human brain, the most primitive fight-or-flight responses that have been hard-wired into the animal kingdom for hundreds of millions of years.
When not just one or two but many Trump-supporting caucus-goers in Sparks, Nev., told me in February 2016 that they were in favor of deporting, or even executing, Muslim Americans, it hit home just how debased and violent the country could become should a demagogue of Trump’s ilk somehow gain supreme power. When a New Republic journalist wrote of attending a Trump rally and hearing a man tell his wife, “Honey, immigrants aren’t people,” it hit home again: all the damage that could be inflicted, all the lives that could be ruined, should a white nationalist reshape the laws and regulations of American governance and immigration policy. When Trump’s frenzied crowds booed and threatened journalists, cheering Trump’s denunciations of these “enemies of the people,” it became all too obvious what a reality-show, talk-radio presidency would look and sound like.
With his chin defiantly thrust out like a cartoon Mussolini, Trump fashioned himself in power as a strongman. He strutted and preened like Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator, tweeting out increasingly megalomaniacal fantasies. He decreed rather than governed, proclaimed rather than suggested. That he didn’t end up using the royal “we” was less a sign of humbleness than of his egotistical refusal to share the stage with anyone else—even a royal plural version of himself. The oxygen that sustained him was the adoration of his crowds, and the thing that seemed to get him off most was the power he exerted—through these crowds, through his tweets, and eventually through his use of the levers of government—to inflict suffering and humiliation on others. He’s like the sadistic prison officer who orders inmates to run the gantlet and suffer savage beatings, in Dostoyevsky’s Notes from a Dead House: “There are people, like tigers, who have a thirst for licking blood,” Dostoyevsky wrote. “A man who has once experienced this power, this unlimited lordship over the body, blood, and spirit of a man just like himself…a man who has experienced the power and the full possibility of inflicting the ultimate humiliation upon another being bearing the image of God, somehow involuntarily loses control of his sensations. Tyranny is a habit; it is endowed with development, and develops finally into an illness.” America’s 45th president is a one-person wrecking ball aimed at the institutions and norms underpinning the American Republic and its democratic political culture.
None of Donald Trump’s time spent in office was about cultivating good governance. Quite the reverse: He staffed the EPA, the Labor Department, OSHA, Housing and Urban Development, the Education Department, and other agencies with men and women who didn’t believe in core parts of their raison d’être. As had other Republican presidents in recent decades, he put foxes into the henhouse, and political commissars in oversight roles at supposedly nonpolitical scientific agencies. But in Trump’s case it seemed particularly gratuitous: There was no coherent ideological vision, apart from a vaguely conceived “nationalism,” a knee-jerk hatred of racial justice and environmental protections, and a grim conviction that virtually all non-security-related functions of government ought to be stamped out. There was certainly no programmatic effort to pass durable legislation. He gave traditional conservatives what they demanded—massive tax cuts for the wealthiest, judicial nominees who fit their ideological mold on issues ranging from abortion to voting rights, and rampant deregulation of the environment and workplace. But he did so less out of conviction (who really believes Trump gives two hoots about the ethical issues surrounding, say, abortion?) than expediency. When it came to his campaign promises, such as major infrastructure investment, he had neither the stamina nor the skill to craft congressional coalitions capable of delivering. And, from his point of view, why should he?
Trump never has cared for anything or anyone beyond himself and—perhaps—his family. His presidency has been no different. It was, from the get-go, a giant racket, a swizz, a con, a cheat, a grift. It was, from day one, a continuous game of Three-Card Monte. He posited himself as a tribune of the people while raking in millions by sending government business to his hotels, golf courses, and other real estate ventures. He went out of his way to hurt immigrant families and demonize those without papers, while hiring undocumented workers in his own businesses. He talked tough on China while seeking financial opportunities there. He denounced Muslim immigrants and refugees while cozying up to the brutal Saudi dictatorship. He flirted with neo-fascists, domestic and foreign, white nationalist street-fighters, and a who’s who of conspiracists and crooks. He talked about his fealty to “law and order” while one adviser after the next pleaded guilty to, or was charged with, an array of federal and state crimes. He was impeached for his own strong-arming of an overseas government to secure dirt on his domestic political opponent, Joe Biden, and then responded to public outrage by getting his attorneys to build a legal theory that, as president, he was beyond the rule of law.
For the past five years, virtually every working hour of my journalistic life has been consumed with chronicling the cruelties and irrationalities of Trump—and, just as much, the cruelties and irrationalities of Trumpism, of ideologues such as Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon, of the contemptible opportunists who joined his administration to take advantage of the gravy train, of his mobbish rallies and the gun-toting extremists who felt validated by his presence in the White House.
Writing about political figures whose views I personally disagree with was hardly new for me; I have written about politics for more than a quarter-century, and I have gotten used to covering both politicians and policies that strike me as deeply distasteful. But I found it impossible to get used to Trumpland. The stirring of chaos was too intense, and his impulsive, irrational, deliberately cruel approach to politics was too shocking.
I’d sleep for a few hours and wake up the next morning only to discover yet another insane tweet he’d posted on, say, playing nuclear chicken with North Korea, or mocking the democratically elected leaders of countries like Canada, France, the UK, or Germany. I’d go for a coffee and return to my computer to find that a senior cabinet member had been fired via Twitter after months of enduring escalating rituals of humiliation from The Boss. I’d go for a drive and come home to find that the United States had withdrawn from yet another international treaty or organization painstakingly put together over years of careful diplomacy.
Living through these 48 months has been a constant stress-test. Trump’s presidency was intended to make people of good conscience feel permanently ill, forever on edge. To write about this, to bear witness, has involved a certain corrosion of one’s soul. For Trumpism is a malignancy designed to break the spirit of American liberalism, to stick it to the “libtards,” to mortify the “snowflakes.” It was, from the start, a cultist, hero-worshiping shitshow that degraded institutions and soiled the entire GOP hierarchy. There was, as I wrote in a column for The Sacramento Bee, something punklike about Trump’s antics, a safety-pin-through-the-nose, vomit-on-the-stage contempt for decency; a belief that equated kindness to weakness, and humility to national decay.
What does one do when one lives in a country whose president asks his homeland security team why agents can’t simply shoot undocumented immigrants in the legs if they try to cross the southern border, and asks his engineers to come up with plans to build an alligator-filled moat along that same border; who refers to poor nonwhite countries as “shitholes”; who insists that tiki-torch carrying neo-Nazis chanting “Jews will not replace us” are “very fine people”; who suggests one can tackle a once-in-a-century pandemic by having people inject disinfectant or direct ultraviolet light into their bodies?
I interviewed a man in Brooklyn who was separated from his wife and US-citizen baby son in Yemen because, after they had finally managed to secure the visa for his wife to join him—which would have also meant she could bring their breast-feeding baby with her—Trump suddenly decided that no Yemenis would be admitted to America. I interviewed a young Somali man who had waited years to bring his mother to this country, had finally secured a visa for her, but was then told that the president had decreed that all migrants from Somalia would be barred entry.
I interviewed destitute Haitian women in San Diego who had trekked north on foot all the way from Brazil—where they and their husbands had been working as casual laborers before being expelled in 2016—hoping to get what was known as “conditional parole” entry into the United States. But they arrived at the border, just after Trump’s inauguration, to find a new policy in place mandating that the men be immediately imprisoned. The women, many of them illiterate, and their young children were left to fend for themselves as best they could.
I interviewed asylum seekers from Honduras and Guatemala who had presented themselves for asylum at the border—as they are legally entitled to do—only to be arrested and cast into frigid concrete holding cells, or made to sleep in the open air on the grounds of detention camps, with their babies, during a high-desert winter. Many of them were seriously ill by the time they were finally released into the hands of humanitarian agencies in Tucson. A doctor I met there, who had worked in war zones around the world, said what she was seeing vis-à-vis these asylum seekers reminded her of some of the worst civil war conditions and refugee camps she had encountered in her decades-long career.
I interviewed dozens of men and women with Temporary Protected Status—people from Central America, Sudan, and elsewhere—who had lived and worked in the United States for decades with government-issued work papers and residency permits, and who had started businesses and families in the United States, but were now suddenly told the government would deport them. There were nearly half a million people with such status when Trump came into office, with roughly a quarter-million US-citizen children. Trump’s policy was—like his vile child separation policy on the border—designed to rip families apart.
I had DACA students in the classes I teach who now lived in terror that they would lose their status, or that their parents or older siblings would be arrested by ICE agents and deported.
I talked with International Rescue Committee staff who could no longer resettle refugees, because instead of the roughly 100,000 being admitted yearly at the end of the Obama presidency, under Trump that number shrank each year, until now it is capped at 15,000. And I watched in horror as Trump visited refugee-friendly cities such as Minneapolis to mock those fleeing war and famine and the predations of drug cartels, and to gin up racial and religious animosities against them.
I spoke to desperate, hungry people around the country who faced loss of access to food stamps because of Trump’s determination to cut SNAP benefits. I talked to people who had finally, after decades without health insurance, received it under the Affordable Care Act, and now watched in fear as Trump threw his administration into a campaign to kill it.
Every day Trump broke norms, be it through rewriting more than half a century of immigration policy via regulatory changes or politicizing the Justice Department by urging—and in many instances getting—the pardon of his political and personal cronies and the investigation of his enemies. He demanded loyalty to him, not the Constitution, from appointees; made them sign nondisclosure agreements so they couldn’t talk about his shady activities; and branded as treasonous those civil servants, military figures, and diplomats who did testify about his actions before Congress. He deployed heavily armed federal security forces against racial justice protesters and wanted to unleash the full might of the US military against them, boasting that he would “dominate” the streets. He labeled some of America’s greatest cities “anarchist jurisdictions” and then withheld federal funds from them. He got into pissing matches with California over environmental policy and wanted to retaliate by not releasing FEMA disaster-relief dollars after wildfires killed dozens of people and destroyed thousands of properties. He ridiculed the people of Puerto Rico in the wake of one of the most devastating hurricanes in recorded history. He sided with armed militia members who were threatening Democratic governors because of Covid-19 strictures. He urged his supporters to “vote twice” in the presidential election, and then, when he lost, he railed against alleged fraud by his opponents.
At every step of the way since Trump’s foul “American carnage” inauguration speech in January 2017, this president and his presidency have been a cancer on the American body politic. By this year, with the epidemic raging out of control and with Trump’s actions becoming both crueler and more clearly dictatorial by the day, it wasn’t a stretch to conclude that this malignant gargoyle was well on the way to shattering the American experiment, that he was pushing, perhaps beyond the breaking point, the elasticity of the country’s democratic safeguards.
Which brings us to the election this past week. As I write this, one week on from the election, Joe Biden has crossed the 270-vote threshold needed to secure a majority in the Electoral College—he crossed it days ago—and is likely on his way to a total of more than 300 electoral votes. At least as significant, he has won the popular vote by more than 5 million, and, once all of California’s votes have been counted in the coming days, could easily win by 6 or even 7 million. By any measure, Biden won the election fair and square, and thus is the incoming president. He has been declared the victor by every major media organization. He has been congratulated by world leaders. He has given a victory speech, along with Vice President–elect Kamala Harris, in Delaware and has begun assembling teams of experts to tackle the coronavirus crisis that the Trump administration has failed so dismally to contain.
Through it all, Trump has refused to acknowledge his loss. He spent the days after the election ranting about its being stolen from him, has tweeted out one insulting, bilious lie after another, and has refused to reach out to the Biden team or to explain to his own supporters that part of democracy is that if you’re a politician, you’re going to win some and you’re going to lose some at the hands of a free electorate. Constitutionally incapable of ever conceding gracefully to an opponent, Trump is instead turning to one of his old tactics: threatening to sue left, right, and center, and hoping that he can wear out his opponents, as well as state electoral officials, and somehow get Biden’s winning vote margins—which run from more than 14,000 in Georgia to tens of thousands in Pennsylvania—overturned. He is, in doing this, quite clearly poisoning the well of American democracy and sowing the seeds for years of political acrimony.
Is any of this for a grand political vision? Of course not. I doubt a single one of his advisers or cabinet members could honestly tell you what Trump envisions a second presidential term would look like in terms of policy. His current flailing is all about stroking his bloated ego, a masturbatory exercise played out pornographically for the whole world to see. It is an attempt to pervert the votes cast by close to 150 million Americans and turn them into the building blocks for an epic vanity production.
Trump will not concede defeat, because he is pathologically afraid of being a “loser.” He will not facilitate a smooth transfer of power, because he has already determined that he deserves perpetual loyalty and control. In Trump’s understanding of the world, in 2016 he somehow managed to acquire America, in the same way that this coarse and bauble-obsessed billionaire acquires gold toilets or new casinos—just as he sought to buy Greenland, and presumably its inhabitants, from Denmark. In his mind, Trump had in November 2016 sealed the deal with the American electorate and bought the rights to pillage and plunder this fair land in perpetuity. The idea that the American public might turn against him four years later and turf him out of office was and will always be unfathomable to him. For Trump has come to believe in Louis XIV’s adage, l’État, c’est moi. If he is the state, and he adores himself, then surely it must follow that the people adore him too.
And so, now we shall bear witness to the most inelegant last hurrah and final curtain in American political history. It is already a mixture of tragic and farcical, dangerous and acutely embarrassing. There is no dignity involved in Trump’s mewling self-pity. He sits in his office, brooding over imaginary plots to bring him down, desperately seeking ways to remain in the spotlight for just a little bit longer. He tweets out lies, but Twitter has finally begun blocking his falsehoods and slowing down retweets of his posts. He calls the press in to rant and rave about grand conspiracies, but the networks have had enough and are taking him off the air. He pretends that he is still a king-like figure, but outside his window thousands are gathered to tell him, in no uncertain terms, that he has been fired. He has surrounded the White House with high fences, so fearful is he, apparently, that he will meet a tyrant’s end. But those fences have now become a visual truth commission, decorated with images of the atrocities of Trump’s era and with messages about the people and groups and environments that he has damaged during his tenure in high office.
If, God forbid, Trump continues to refuse to concede and somehow manages to maintain his hold on power past January 20, it will not be as president but as America’s first dictator, kept aloft by a ruthless Republican Senate and by civilian officials in the Pentagon, who in the past few days have been brought in to serve as Trump loyalists, and possibly to serve as crucial lieutenants in an upcoming power struggle.
More likely, though, is that President Trump has finally suffered the fate of Lonesome Rhodes from A Face in the Crowd. Nearly five years ago, I wrote in The Nation:
Lonesome Rhodes discovers that cult followings built around a voice on the radio and a face on the TV can disintegrate as quickly as they develop. He is abandoned, shunned, left absolutely alone. In the final scene, one of the most psychologically brutal in all of cinema, he stands, solitary, in his gaudy penthouse, US flags standing cocked—at an angle clearly intended to conjure up images of Nuremberg rallies—along his cavernous living room, screaming into the night. “Who else can rally the people like Lonesome Rhodes? The people listen to Lonesome Rhodes because the people love Lonesome Rhodes! Lonesome Rhodes is the people! The people is Lonesome Rhodes!” As he bellows, a machine he has invented, which plays back the sound of a crowd applauding wildly, accompanies him. The canned cheers and the demagogue’s rants ricochet off of the walls. But outside, no one is listening anymore.
That encroaching madness, that echoing sound of his own voice, seems to be Trump’s fate too. There is something almost Shakespearean about it all, except there is nothing even remotely poetic or introspective about Trump’s mien. In the end, Donald J. Trump has become his own worst nightmare: a loser and a failure. His brain is addled. Only his maliciousness and his dictatorial instincts are left intact.