Donald Trump has two basic talents. The first is for self-promotion and the second is a strong, feral survival instinct. Those two things were really all it took for him to rise to become the most famous man in the world with the most important job on the planet. (That should tell you something about American culture but it’s too depressing to contemplate.)
The talent for self-promotion has snowed everyone from sophisticated investment bankers, who kept loaning him money year after year despite repeated business failures, to small-town business owners who thought that he was a great real estate developer and later a great president just because he told them so. They all believed his lies.
The survival instinct is probably the more important characteristic because it spared him repercussions for failure after failure. It didn’t hurt, of course, that for most of his life he had a rich father he could tap whenever things got rough. Nonetheless, for someone who isn’t very smart, charming or interesting, Donald Trump has shown amazing resilience. His survival instinct got him to the White House and it sustained him through four years in a very difficult job for which he was uniquely unfit. Any one of the dozen scandals that have engulfed him since he started running for the presidency in 2015 would have finished off any other politician. But Trump survived all of them, just moving like a shark through the water from one self-induced crisis to another.
I had assumed that his survival instinct would kick in with this electoral defeat and he would see it for the opportunity it was. He could leave office whining that the election was stolen from him but use it as a springboard to make more money by promising a big rematch in 2024. He would leave office gracelessly, of course, because it would make better TV to stand on the White House steps making a Douglas MacArthur style “I shall return!” promise before flying off in Marine One for the last time. Who wouldn’t tune in to that spectacle?
But something went wrong. His instinct failed him and he believed his own hype. Maybe it was the pomp and the power of the office overwhelming him or the addiction to his ecstatic crowds but, for the first time, he couldn’t see how to turn his failure into a win and his personality fractured under the weight of his frustration. I don’t know if he came to believe the absurd conspiracy theories he spun about the election or if they were just a frantic web of lies he wove to keep himself from coming apart. But his only two talents have let him down and it’s led him to a moment of ignominy from which I don’t think he’ll be able to recover.
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Trump’s manic insistence that he could persuade, strongarm and coerce various Republican officials around the country to reverse the election results in his favor seemed to be based upon the idea that if he just wanted it enough it would happen. Perhaps that’s how he’s talked to himself all his life and good timing and fortunate circumstances made it so. But his luck has run out. The people he needed to buy his line of bullshit just didn’t buy it this time.
By the time he was reduced to cajoling and threatening the Georgia secretary of state to “find” the votes he needed to win the state, he was so unglued he didn’t seem to realize that it wouldn’t make a difference even if he managed to persuade the man to do it. This week’s last-ditch fantasy that Vice President Mike Pence and some of his congressional henchmen could magically hand Trump the second term and make everything alright finally took him to the dark place where he incited thousands of his delirious followers to a full-fledged violent insurrection.
To be clear, such events had been in the back of his mind already.
Trump posted that the “protest” scheduled for the day Congress was going to finally certify the election would be “wild.” He expected them to be confrontational and he egged them on at the rally just before the vote was to take place. He’d been reassured that a substantial number of collaborators in Congress, led by his MAGA maniacs in the House and Josh Hawley, R-Mo, and Ted Cruz, R-Tx, in the Senate, might just pull off the miracle and he clearly believed that a big crowd of angry Trump supporters in the Capitol would help the cause.
He sent them there to start a riot during a joint session of Congress presided over by Pence and that is what they did. People everywhere watched in horror as pictures of this violent insurrection were beamed live all over the world.
Congress rightly decided to reconvene that night and finish the Constitutionally mandated job that had been interrupted by Trump’s mob. You might have thought the level of terror they’d experienced, along with the global disapprobation, would have dissuaded the Republicans from following through on their plot to object to the vote based upon lies about voter fraud. But they inexplicably kept to their plan, apparently believing that appeasing Trump and his violent supporters was still their ticket to higher office.
Their survival instincts failed them too. None other than George Will said of Hawley and Cruz, “everything they say or do or advocate should be disregarded as patent attempts to distract attention from the lurid fact of what they have become. Each will wear a scarlet “S” as a seditionist.” By late Thursday even the oleaginous Ted Cruz was backtracking as fast as he could while Hawley whined on Twitter about his book on Big Tech being canceled due to his actions.
The Democrats are demanding that Mike Pence evoke the 25th Amendment or they will make Trump the first president to be impeached twice. Members of Trump’s cabinet and top staff are resigning and even the Wall St. Journal opinion page is demanding that Trump resign or be removed. Prosecutors are suggesting that Trump could be criminally liable for some of the violence that took place and talk of self-pardon and pardons of his family and inner circle are reportedly becoming more serious.
Whether Trump leaves before the inauguration is unknown, but his post-presidency is looking less like a shadow presidency and more like permanent exile. The Republican party is collapsing. The MAGA insurrectionists blame Republicans as much as Democrats for Trump’s loss and the establishment is being forced by these events to repudiate their own base. It is likely that this schism is going to divide the GOP for some time to come.
Until now, Trump was the hands-down front-runner for the nomination if he wanted it in 2024. And even if he decided not to follow through he had years of lucrative grifting on the possibility. But he couldn’t accept that he would have to admit he lost, even if he could say it wasn’t legitimate. His narcissism finally defeated his survival instinct and it has brought him low. It’s brought the country even lower.
The fictional “American Carnage” of Trump’s inaugural address four years ago is now reality with hundreds of thousands of Americans dead, an economic catastrophe for millions more and a violent political faction so addled with lies and conspiracy theories that this week they attacked the US Capitol to intimidate lawmakers into reversing a free and fair election. The knowledge that Donald Trump may have destroyed himself in the process is hardly comforting. He’s left America in shambles.
Donald Trump won’t survive this American carnage of his own making The British Journal Editors and Wire Services/ Salon.