The bet Donald Trump made at the beginning of his unlikely and astonishing political career is the same bet he is making as he exits the presidency, willingly or not—that many millions of Americans no longer believe in much of anything and are therefore peculiarly susceptible to the temptations of idol worship. This is the special seduction of the celebrity culture, and he has made extraordinary use of its power.
Trump wants his fans and followers to accept the contention that the presidency has been stolen from him. In so doing, he is directing them to ignore common sense, the evidence of their own eyes, and their own prior notions of how the world works. But this is not all on him. It’s equally important to understand that his camp followers actually want this demand made of them, and that he wants to give them what they want.
Many of the people whose fealty Trump seeks scoffed openly when the Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams declared the 2018 election in that state had been stolen from her through voter suppression. Now Trump is arguing that pre-election polls served to suppress his vote illegally—and the Abrams scoffers appear credulous. They laughed in 2004 when conspiracists said right-wing forces had tampered with Diebold voting machines to secure George W. Bush’s reelection victory. Now Trump is claiming that voting machines owned by a company called Dominion have been tampered with in the same way—and all of a sudden, the laughers find merit in the accusation.
Tea Party conservatives walked around in 2009 and 2010 with pocket-sized copies of the Constitution to make the point that Barack Obama’s policy goals violated the intentions of the Founders and the spirit of the Bill of Rights. Now some of them do not blink, and they even hit retweet when Trump writes something like this: “700,000 ballots were not allowed to be viewed in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh which means, based on our great Constitution, we win the State of Pennsylvania.”
The more preposterous the claim, the deeper the elemental bond between Trump and his worshippers. He’s not just making demands of them; by doing so, he is doing their bidding too, fulfilling their expectations of him. He’s doing what they love most—fighting, slashing, burning, using whatever rhetorical weapon is at hand. It doesn’t matter what argument he makes; it’s the arguing itself that matters.
He is being replaced in the White House by a politician who has no such bond with anyone.
This will be interesting, because Trump himself succeeded a man about whom one of America’s foremost journalists, Evan Thomas, once said: “In a way Obama’s standing above the country, above the world, he’s sort of God.”
By contrast, Joe Biden comes to the presidency as little more than a tired old man—albeit one whose campaign played a spectacularly consistent long game in which he promised almost nothing other than that he wouldn’t be a crazy leftist or a crazy Tweeter. Now he is following into office a Man-God and a person who literally described himself on Twitter as “the Golden Goose.”
I don’t know if the half of the country that worshipped the new deity or the other half of the country that worshipped the Golden Goose is going to know what on earth to do now. They will likely go into a kind of mourning at the loss of the vibrancy and color and melodrama, no matter how bad it was for them and the country. Like W.B. Yeats’s John Kinsella, they will lament: “What shall I do for pretty girls / Now my old bawd is dead?”
And then, when the mourning is over, they will be upon him.
We want to hear your thoughts about this article. Click here to send a letter to the editor.