In an excellent portrait of Donald Trump's post-presidential days by the journalist Joshua Green, Trump loyalists vouch for what a fantabulous exile he's having. There are anecdotes of Trump being not only "bathed in adulation", to quote Green, but also perfumed with it. One voter's despot is another voter's dreamboat. Trump still makes many Americans' hearts go pitter-patter.
But that wasn't my main impression or the moral I took away from the story, which was published in Bloomberg. I stopped at, and dwelled on, this passage: "He'll show up to anything. In recent weeks, Trump has popped into engagement parties and memorial services. A Mar-a-Lago member who recently attended a club gathering for a deceased friend was surprised when Trump sauntered in to deliver remarks and then hung around."
Sounds to me like a man with an underfed appetite for attention. Sounds like a glutton yanked away from the buffet.
American presidents are all parables; they either come that way, which explains our fascination with them, or we turn them into archetypes, avatars and allegories. We need that from our highest-ranking political figures. We don't have a royal family.
And Trump's is a tale of how much a man will do to be noticed, how much he can do with that notice and — the current chapter — what happens when that notice ebbs. Yes, he personifies the American obsessions with wealth and with power. But more than that, he personifies the American obsession with fame.
It's an obsession now starved. Facebook revoked Trump's access. Twitter, too. He no longer leads the news every hour on CNN and MSNBC, and there are now newspaper front pages aplenty without his name in any headline.
So he sates himself with funerals. And he fumes.
Much of the coverage of Trump lately casts him as the protagonist in a political melodrama — or, rather, horror story. It asks if his control over the Republican Party will endure into the next presidential contest, whether he himself will run in 2024, and what in Beelzebub's name that would look like.
But there's a personal psychodrama going on as well. It will determine the answers to those questions, and it's a spectacle all its own. Just as Trump's presidency was like none before it, his ex-presidency is a singular production.
Other presidents left the White House and, for a short or long while, savoured the disappearance of the press corps and the dimming of the spotlight. Maybe right away, maybe later, they burnished their legacies with philanthropic deeds. Meanwhile, they issued pro forma statements of support for their successors or, in accordance with long-standing etiquette, zipped their lips. They behaved.
Trump hasn't. And — let's be honest — he won't. His response to his altered reality is to insist even more than before on an alternative reality, one in which he'll be reinstated as president, and his sycophants are willing to support his delusions of omnipotence by establishing a zone of affirmation around him.
From Green's article:
"When Trump ventured south, a stream of family members (literal and figurative) followed. Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner bought a $55 million (US$32m) waterfront lot in Miami from the Latin crooner Julio Iglesias and enrolled their kids at a nearby Jewish day school. Donald Trump Jr and his girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle, bought a $13.6m (US$9.7m) mansion in Jupiter, Florida. In December, Sean Hannity sold his penthouse not far from former House speaker — and Trump critic — John Boehner's place along the Gulf of Mexico and bought a $7.4m (US$5.3m) seaside home two miles from Mar-a-Lago, symbolically swapping the Boehner Coast for the Trump Coast. Hannity's Fox News colleague Neil Cavuto joined him, buying a $10.5m (US$7.5m) place nearby. 'Think about how utterly bizarre that is,' says Eddie Vale, a Democratic strategist. 'It's like if Rachel Maddow and the 'Pod Save America' guys all bought condos in Chicago because they wanted to be close to Barack Obama.'"
The only one missing is MyPillow's Mike Lindell, the bedding magnate turned Trump comforter.
And Trump is not comforted enough.
That was obvious in both his commencement of a blog ("From the Desk of Donald J Trump") in May and his termination of it less than a month later after it failed to attract any readership remotely commensurate with the audience for his past tweets. Trump, onetime monarch of social media, had to grovel for clicks. What an astonishing reversal of fortune. But it's consistent with other glimmers of desperation.
According to an article in The New York Times by Annie Karni and Maggie Haberman, he has taken to announcing states that he plans to visit for events at which he'll appear before the actual venues and dates have been arranged. In his head he can probably already hear that magic MAGA applause. It's stuck there like the chorus of a Top 40 song, but he wants it performed live, in an arena as mammoth as his neediness.
The substitute for that applause? Deference. He demands it every bit as much as he ever did and arguably grows more furious than before when he's denied it. That's where the personal and political narratives intersect. His demonisation of Liz Cheney for crossing him, his denunciation of Paul Ryan for dissing him and his savaging of any Republican who challenges the Big Lie reflect a ruinous petulance that is bound to wax, not wane, as his exile grinds on. As Jennifer Senior wrote in a column in the Times in January about repudiated narcissists, they "lurch between the role of victim and tormentor", "howl on and on about betrayal" and "lash out with a mighty vindictiveness".
Trump is lurching and howling and lashing, to a point where Jeb Bush's son George P Bush has been terrified into abject genuflection. The props for George P Bush's campaign for Texas attorney general include beer koozies with an image of him and Trump shaking hands and a quote from Trump saying that George P Bush "is the only Bush that likes me! This is the Bush that got it right. I like him." I'm sure "low-energy" Jeb, as Trump mockingly dismissed him, is suffused with paternal pride.
Green's portrait of Trump on the far side of the White House mentions that he's "taken to wearing the same outfit for days on end". It's red (a MAGA hat), white (a golf shirt) and blue (slacks), and its redundancy is open to interpretation. Has he settled comfortably into a routine? Or has he sunk uncomfortably into a rut?
I lean toward the latter, which is as dangerous for us as it is for him. No good comes of an ego as ravenous as his. He will make a meal of the Republican Party — and of American democracy itself — if he can.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Written by: Frank Bruni
Photograph by: Ben Wiseman
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