This was an administration whose “Downfall” bunker memes wrote themselves, marking a political period many observers saw as the inevitable result of Americans’ infatuation with the amoral swagger and sharkskin impunity of classic gangster movies.
But as Robert De Niro, a frequent star of those movies, recently noted: The mobsters he played had a fundamental, if perverse, sense of character. “I’d like to think in all of those parts, there’s a certain dignity somewhere buried in there, that I don’t think a person like Trump — I know he doesn’t have,” he told MSNBC’s Ari Melber earlier this week. “There’s no center.”
Trump’s refusal on Friday to concede — or even acknowledge that Arizona and Georgia had been called for President-elect Joe Biden hours earlier — has made it dismally clear that his administration was its own movie all along, with its own central protagonist, allies-turned-nemeses and controlling mythology, not to mention an ardent audience that followed each machination with breathless anticipation.
In other words: As petulant, authoritarian and dishonest as they are, Trump’s efforts to sabotage Biden’s transition are most usefully understood not as petty monkey-wrenching, or even as a coup, but as brand extension.
Beginning with Kellyanne Conway’s invocation of “alternative facts” to describe White House lies about the size of his inauguration audience, all the way through the most vile QAnon conspiracy theories, Trump and his co-stars haven’t engaged in governing as much as world-building, as they constructed a self-contained imaginative universe first defined on Fox News and Facebook, and now extended by the even more obsessively canonically correct Parler, One America News and Newsmax.
Leveraging the enmeshment of entertainment, news and commentary perfected by Fox News chief Roger Ailes, Trump has similarly infused civic life with the cynical imperatives of the reality TV world from whence he came. Meaning that burnishing — and monetizing — his own persona was always the point.
He grasped a truth about the American populace that we understand dimly, if at all: that, addicted to conflict and the distraction of hyped-up melodrama, we could always be counted on to watch — not for policy pronouncements or statesmanlike comportment, but simply to see what his character would do next. The horror of witnessing institutions being destroyed in real time was akin to the dark frisson of seeing Washington being blown to bits in “Mars Attacks!” and “White House Down” — without the comfort of believing it can’t happen here.
Now, with the first installment in its final reel, those who watched in despair instead of delight are turning away with relief. But Trump has no intention of abandoning the franchise. What better way to set up the next chapter than with a manufactured cliffhanger, confected not from narrative logic or credible realism, but a cockamamie plot twist?
Trump’s latest gambit — fundraising to support dubious recount efforts and bogus lawsuits and voter fraud investigations — is of a piece with his tweetstorms, MAGA hats and rallies. Whether he’s fulminating about Arizona Sharpies or “rigged” voting machines, it’s all fan service, dedicated to keeping his millions of followers engaged, enraged, titillated and flattered. And constantly jonesing for more.
Like all fan service, Trump’s version is less about providing genuine value than a brazen cash grab, designed to generate income through a steady stream of spinoffs, Easter eggs and callbacks — at least until the next protagonist pops up in a new origin story (Don Jr.? Ivanka? Or, God help us, Jared?).
Too many people, including but not limited to the Trumps themselves, are reaping too much money to walk away now. As my colleague Dana Milbank noted this week, 60 percent of the donations Trump receives will go to his newly formed PAC; 40 percent will go to the Republican National Committee’s political fund, not its legal fund. Which is why we’ve seen so many GOP enablers indulging in delusional post-election fanfic: their embrace of baseless conspiracy theories and talk of “a smooth transition to a second Trump administration” are just as bemusingly creepy as a Comic-Con cosplayer insisting that you address him in Klingon.
Of course, Democrats have used close elections to fundraise, just never with this degree of denialism, disinformation and contempt for the civic process. Whether the endgame is the Georgia Senate runoff in January, a multimillion-dollar book deal or a 2024 run, along the way, Trump will have aggravated tribal hatreds, shredded democratic norms, made us less secure and poisoned our faith in government. But none of that matters as long as he and his co-producers get one more bite of the apple — and peel a few more dollars from their core audience.
Trump will eventually be forced to relinquish the presidency. But if the previews are any indication, relinquishing the spotlight is another matter. Until Jan. 20, it’s his movie and we’re living in it. But that doesn’t mean we have to greenlight a sequel.