During these last few weeks since the election, watching the further decline of President Donald Trump as he descends even more into madness, denial, destructiveness and self-proclaimed victimhood, two magical movie moments keep popping into my head.
The first, as tens of millions of Trump followers continue believing every lie that he and his GOP lackeys spout, is from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. A woman has been accused of witchcraft; a crazed mob has dressed her in a witch’s hat with a carrot for her nose. How does the crowd know she’s a witch? One man shouts, “She turned me into a newt.” The rest turn to look—it’s an obvious lie, even to them. He tries to explain, “I got better.”
Yes, I know, perhaps a more Trumpian moment would be King Arthur’s fight with the Black Knight, in which the knight loses every limb, all the time claiming victory and insisting he is unharmed (“’Tis but a flesh wound.”). But I am constantly reminded of that man-who-turned-into-a-newt moment because the crowd that’s so eager to burn a witch parallels the twisted mood of so much of this crazy nation.
Faced with what should be one obvious falsehood after another, rattled off like machine gun fire, Trump’s followers embrace each as truth—egged on by the man himself, GOP leadership that refuses to publicly declare Joe Biden the winner and right-wing media that in the name of ratings is unafraid to back any old wild conspiracy theory imaginable. That includes Roger Stone’s claim on Alex Jones last week that he possessed “absolute incontrovertible evidence of North Korean boats delivering ballots through a harbor in Maine, the state of Maine. If this checks out, if law enforcement looked into that and it turned out to be true, it would be proof of foreign involvement in the election.” Why, of course, because after all, as Colin Jost joked on SNL’s “Weekend Update,” “It’s easier for North Koreans to get to the East Coast.”
This is insanity, encouraged because… well, Trump. In an excellent piece of reporting Peter Baker of The New York Times writes, “His rage and detached-from-reality refusal to concede defeat evoke images of a besieged overlord in some distant land defiantly clinging to power rather than going into exile or an erratic English monarch imposing his version of reality on his cowed court…
“Although many Republicans would like to move on, he appears intent on forcing them to remain in thrall to his need for vindication and vilification even after his term expires.”
Trump, according to Baker, “barely shows up to work, ignoring the health and economic crises afflicting the nation and largely clearing his public schedule of meetings unrelated to his desperate bid to rewrite the election results. He has fixated on rewarding friends, purging the disloyal and punishing a growing list of perceived enemies that now includes Republican governors, his own attorney general and even Fox News.”
Meanwhile, thousands of Americans continue to die from COVID—the equivalent of 9/11 or Pearl Harbor, every single day. And Trump does nothing, only mentioning the pandemic when he thinks he can use it for self-aggrandizement, bragging that no vaccine would exist without him and ignoring the deadly statistics. Until Joe Biden takes office next month, there seems to be no real plan.
There is not an ounce of joy in this man Trump, or guilt. A friend of mine’s late husband was fond of saying, “You’re only young once, but you can be childish all your life.” Exhibit A: Donald Trump, who in his whining insistence on a fictitious alternative reality has pulled every rotten kid stunt except threatening to hold his breath until he turns blue. If only.
An anonymous senior administration official told The Washington Post, in words similar to those of a daycare supervisor: “The large majority of his time has been unstructured, in the Oval [Office], just going nuts about voter fraud. I don’t know how else to put it. That occupies seemingly every waking moment of his day.”
Not only is the grifter-in-chief unconvinced of his loss, he also grasps at various and sundry straws that he hopes will overturn the results, tee up another run in 2024, keep his base in an uproar of anti-Joe Biden sentiment for the next four years, and make money—lots of it. A reminder that so far, more than $200 million have been bilked from donors to his specious defense fund—you know, the one led without success in lawsuit after lawsuit (1-43) by COVID patient Rudy Giuliani, Jenna Ellis and others—the Dewey, Cheatem and Howe of the 21st century. Very little of this money has gone for actual legal fees. These clowns posing as lawyers make Jeanette Pirro look like Judge Learned Hand.
Reading the fine print of Trump’s fundraising emails, John Cassidy at The New Yorker reports, “What it seems to say is that, for any donation of up to five thousand dollars, not a cent goes directly to the campaign account that is helping pay for Trump’s legal battle—the Donald J. Trump for President Recount Account. Instead, a quarter of the donation goes to the R.N.C., and the other three quarters goes into a new Trump fund-raising vehicle called Save America.”
Save America, Cassidy explains, “is a so-called leadership PAC,” the rules for which are “scandalously lax.” It’s a slush fund—Trump can take money from it for himself or any of his kids. But Robert Weissman, president of the watchdog group Public Citizen, adds, “The special problem this time is, in conning his supporters, he’s also sowing deep distrust of the most basic institutions of our democracy.”
The distrust is nourished by the illogical and irrational attacks from Trump and others on the various states’ voting procedures, and personal verbal and social media attacks on officials—some of them Republicans—that have led to death threats. Attempts to convince state legislators in Georgia, Michigan and Pennsylvania to overturn the election results also have failed, although some have agreed to protest against the official tally. Their obeisance is frightening.
But this isn’t just about frivolous legal actions, ignoring the rule of law, or bending it to whatever suits your personal gain, it’s the long con—continuing to bamboozle the low-information throngs who see him as the man through whom they can channel their racist rage and disappointment with their own lives. It exists only to keep in the limelight a dictator, a glaringly obvious and egregious human being.
So far, President-Elect Biden has played a lot of this at a pitch pretty close to perfect, rising above the grotesqueries of the other side, acting presidential, holding meetings, naming cabinet members and agency heads, calmly making statements on the pandemic and the economy, ready to hit the ground running despite minimal cooperation from the outgoing Trump staff. Whether Biden will be able to fulfill the diversity requirements desired by so many for his administration is a work in progress. Watch this space.
The “split screen of contrasting presidential trajectories is growing ever more vivid,” Matt Viser and Ashley Parker write at The Washington Post. “One leader is steadily gathering power, building an administration and making policy proclamations; the other is seeing his power ebb even as he angrily insists he won an election that, a growing number of allies admit, he clearly lost… Biden’s strategy is to project calm in a way that forecasts competence.”
All well and good but even more crucial to the resuscitation of American democracy, it’s vital that Biden come out swinging on January 20, the instant he finishes the oath of office and takes his hand from the Bible. His inaugural address should not only be about healing the nation but offer a bold plan of change and rehabilitation of our institutions and of ourselves as citizens, unlike anything since FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society. If the GOP holds the Senate after the January 5 special elections in Georgia, it’s going to be a much more difficult task; if Dems win those two seats, the possibilities blossom.
But there is much that can be done without formal congressional legislation and Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and the women and men with whom they surround themselves must conjure every ounce of imagination to keep us from plunging back into the abyss of authoritarianism and injustice. It can’t just be a return to normalcy—that didn’t work for Warren G. Harding a century ago and it won’t work now. There’s too much at stake. Pray that they’re up to it.
Which reminds me—I almost forgot to tell you my second magical movie moment. It’s at the end of Dr. Strangelove, when bomber pilot “King” Kong, played by Chill Wills, dislodges from his plane a stuck hydrogen bomb and rides it all the way down to its Russian target, whooping and hollering like a rodeo cowboy. So ends the world in nuclear holocaust.
By his words and deeds, in these last days of his reign, our whooping and hollering President Biff seems to want to burn the world down and take all of us with him. The difference is, I think we can recover from this. But Trump and his acolytes must never be allowed to take us through this hell again.
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Michael Winship is the Schumann Senior Writing Fellow for Common Dreams. Previously, he was the Emmy Award-winning senior writer for Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, a past senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos, and former president of the Writers Guild of America East. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship.