For months, Donald Trump has laid the groundwork for his post-election strategy: refuse to concede, start legal challenges, undermine the legitimacy of the democratic process and of Biden’s victory. And yet, this strategy continues to surprise me. And it should surprise you too, for it makes little sense. How is it possible that at this crucial moment of his presidential tenure, a moment that he had four years to prepare for, that at that moment Trump finally lost his nerve? Why was it just when he had most to lose that he submitted, for the first time (if with the worst possible grace) to the rules and conventions he had always flaunted so openly?
My questions come from the following convictions, which I will suppose to be beyond all doubt:
- Trump only wants to win; he could not care less about democratic legitimacy or the rule of law.
- At every point of his career, but especially during his political career, Trump has actively defined the reality around him, leaving others (the decent, upright, fact-based people; in other words, the suckers and losers) to react to his latest extravagances.
Conviction 1 tells us about Trump’s aims. Conviction 2 tells us about his strategy, his method, his instinct. Always being in charge of the narrative, no matter how outrageous, has been the secret to Trump’s success. When you are explaining why Mexico will never pay for the wall, Trump is winning. When you are pointing out that he never built it, Trump is winning. In the age of stagnation, the bold political vision will always have more appeal than some careful, technocratic analysis of facts and probabilities.
But given 1 and 2, it seems glaringly obvious how Trump would spend the evening of November 3rd: throwing a wild victory party! Getting there on the screen, pointing at some massively red-coloured map of the USA, declaring victory, looking happy and confident, popping the champagne, and, most crucially, getting his supporters to party all across the nation. It might be premature; it might be undemocratic; but who cares? This is how he would have been in control; this is how CNN and NBC and ABC and even Fox would have been left gasping, unsure how to cover these developments, trying to explain with complicated statistical terms that Trump had not yet won, but no doubt unable to fully dispel the alternative reality that Trump would have conjured. This is where Biden would have had to appear on television, too decent and rule-bound to declare victory for himself, urging calm and patience… while his opponent and his allies can’t even hear him over the beat of their festivities. It would have been breathtakingly immoral and insanely irresponsible. But it would have been maximum Trump. And who knows whether the nation could have survived it? Who knows what would have happened? In the greatest chaos, Trump thrives most.
Instead, Trump appeared on television to… declare victory? Well, sort of, but without conviction. He looked gloomy, sullen, resentful. He promised legal action. His words conjured up, not the certainty of victory, but the possibility of defeat. And he submitted, in a weird roundabout way, to the democratic process, the outcomes, the vote counts, the media verdicts, and the institutional ways of resolving conflicts. To take legal action is to submit to the system. “The media don’t decide who won the election, the courts do” is a refrain that Trump allies have been repeating over the past few days. The idea that the president is chosen by the judiciary may be anti-democratic, but it is not anti-institutional. It is in fact based on the premise that institutions have the final say over reality. But that is the anti-thesis of Trumpism.
What happened? Was it a failure of nerve on the part of the president, not daring to throw himself into the chaos of post-democratic anarchy? Or was it a failure of the imagination, the very idea of blowing up the system in such a spectacular fashion never crossing his mind?
Perhaps it is both; perhaps Trump neither wanted to nor could think of himself as divorced from the institutions he has been railing against. It has of course been suggested, and not without reason, that the animating force of Trumpism is resentment. And resentment is reactionary; it is essentially parasitic. The mainstream media; Democrats; the liberal courts; the Deep State — perhaps these enemies were never optional for the Trumpists. What they want is the fantasy of defeating the liberals; what they want is a never-ending theatre of small humiliations, led by a showman who will continually find new ways of getting under the skin of those snowflakes. But what they do not want, what cannot even be thought, is the erasure of the enemy. Alone in the void, it is they who must create; and there is nothing that resentment fears more.
Trump has been called a fascist. I have called him so myself. But if Trumpism is a fascism, it is a curious fascism that does not lust for conquest and cannot even contemplate a final solution. It requires itself to be the perpetual underdog, always on the verge of an unexpected triumph but never quite there. It is perhaps not a fascism at all, but something weaker and more exhausted, if no less malignant.
The present may be a mess. But contemplating what a more vital and intrepid version of Trump could have done, I think we have some reason to be thankful.