Today is not the end.
It’s just the beginning.
—Donald Trump, January 6, 2021
Our political End Times glitter with surreal scenes—the green-tinted shock and awe unleashed over Baghdad, the “Brooks Brothers warriors” rioting at the Miami election bureau, the jetliner piercing the Manhattan skyscraper—and beneath the unearthly beauty of the Capitol dome that frigid January day, I gazed in wonder at the latest of them: the heaving bodies in their winter clothes, the dark-uniformed, club-wielding police falling back before the phalanx of fists and bicycle racks and flagpoles, and, floating over the straining limbs, the swirls and eddies of bear spray and tear gas in nauseous yellow and green. Was it all a grotesque mirage? Is this what revolution really looks like? And yet we know now that from this phantasmagoric tableau a vital piece was missing: he was meant to be there.
Donald J. Trump’s essential advantage is to be always underestimated: treated as a narcissistic fop, a deranged and ignorant bull in the china shop of American governance. True, he knows little and refuses to learn more because he is certain he knows all. True, he flaunts his narcissism and mythomania with petulant and unflagging pride. But for all that, he is a connoisseur of grievance and resentment and outrage, and a master at shaping from these lucrative political emotions a creative and motivating message. Could anyone accuse him of failing to comprehend the politics of spectacle? Could anyone doubt that he would have known how to shape this fantastic scene of “the people” seizing back their government into a full-fledged camera-ready extravaganza?
Scarcely an hour before and a couple miles away—just as I was shuffling off the Ellipse with my half-frozen, flag-wielding fellows to march up Constitution Avenue toward the Capitol, where, the ranting president had vowed to us, “I’ll be there with you!”—Trump was climbing into the Beast, the presidential limousine. When the driver took the wheel to return his precious cargo to the White House, Trump grew instantly irate. “I’m the fucking president!” he screamed to his Secret Service protectors. “Take me up to the Capitol now!”
They had refused, of course, and went on refusing, even after the enraged president seized one of the agents at the throat. Or so White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson recounted to the January 6 committee, unleashing a cascade of furious denials. Did the president really respond to this thwarting of his will with violence? Perhaps the better question to have explored was: What would the president have done had those Secret Service agents obeyed? How would that day have unfolded? For it is clear that he had some plan, clear that what was intended to seem an impromptu visit to the Capitol had been well thought out, at least for Trump. “Cass, are you excited for the sixth?” Rudy Giuliani had asked Hutchinson as they left the White House four days before. “It’s going to be a great day.” Why? she asked. “We’re going to the Capitol. It’s going to be great. The president is going to be there. He’s going to look powerful. He’s going to be with the members. He’s going to be with the senators.”
He’s going to look powerful. In his mind’s eye, did Trump see himself descending from the Beast amid the welter of bodies outside the Capitol, to the wild cheers of the beefy men pummeling the police—and turning from their violent work to howl and slam their gloved hands together or raise their fists—and to the shouts of noncombatants arrayed in their Trumpian finery milling about the Capitol lawn? There in his chic black overcoat he would have waved, smiled, thrust his fist in the air as the tens of thousands of his faithful, far and near, raised their voices in a bloodcurdling roar. And finally, after shaking scores of hands, taking a few selfies, and perhaps offering an inspiring word or two through a megaphone, he would have led the crowd up the steps, as the cheers rose deafeningly and the little screens of the cell phones held aloft conveyed him making his triumphant way up to the domed temple in thousands of miniature images.
For had the president chosen to stride up those steps, who would have dared stop him? His followers would have fallen in behind him and the Capitol police would have fallen away before him and he would have breached the doors himself, his gold-orange hair shining beneath the mythic white dome in the crisp cold sunlight of that historic January day.
Is that how Donald John Trump, forty-fifth president of the United States, had imagined it? And if so, what did he then intend? Would he have led his chanting, flag-waving followers through the ceremonial doors, past the looming statues, down the marble hallways, and into the Senate chamber, there to face squarely his white-haired, stalwart vice-president, poised in frozen shock on the dais? With his Senate supporters gathered around their victorious leader, shaking his hand, pounding him on the back, would President Trump have smiled up at Mike Pence, held out his famously small hand, and demanded the certificates certifying the electoral votes of the “stolen” election? And would Pence, a man who had shown himself until this very day to be one of the most obsequious public officials in American history, have dared refuse? And then perhaps, in a dramatic gesture for his rowdy minions and the senators and the congressmen and the television cameras and the whole world watching, Donald Trump with his own two hands would have torn those tokens of legitimacy asunder.
We may well never know, of course, what exactly Trump had planned for his momentous appearance at the Capitol that day. We do know that this dramatic visitation was to be the last in a series of attempts—involving false declarations on election night, forged electoral certificates, insinuating telephone calls with state legislators and secretaries of state, consultations with marginally unbalanced conservative lawyers, and endless, merciless pressure on the hapless vice-president (“You can either go down in history as a patriot or you can go down in history as a pussy”)—to overthrow the results of the election. Eight weeks after election day, after his vice-president’s betrayal, the final betrayal of all the Deep State betrayals of his four years in office (“He’s thrown the president under the bus!” a red, white, and blue–clad woman, eyes glued to her phone as we marched up Constitution Avenue, shouted out to us), Trump found himself with no choice but to seize power personally, at the head of thousands of rabid followers, some of them armed. (“They’re not here to hurt me,” he had shouted before his speech, when he learned that those bearing weapons were being stopped at the gates. “Let my people in!”) It would be beautiful, unforgettable. It would be a true and decisive victory over the Deep State. It would be his March on Rome.
Or perhaps his Beer Hall Putsch. Who can say? Would Pence, however surprisingly firm he had held to the Constitution those last few days, have dared oppose the president and his merry band in the Senate chamber? And if Pence had not managed to perform his “ministerial” role, could the election have been certified for Joseph R. Biden that appointed day of January 6? And if the election couldn’t be certified, would the matter have been thrown into the House of Representatives, where Democrats held a majority of seats but Republicans, crucially, controlled a majority of the state delegations, which the Founders in their wisdom had decided would be the deciding measure? If all the Republican-controlled delegations voted for Trump, the House would have chosen him as the country’s next president. Biden could have appealed to the Supreme Court, but could the Court, with six Republican votes, have been depended upon to render dispassionate justice, any more than it had managed to do twenty years before?
It is shockingly easy to imagine how the events of January 6, with just a tiny detail altered—a Secret Service agent, say, who was not quite so determined in opposing a screaming commander in chief—could have worked out quite differently and produced a reelected President Trump and furious Democrats marching in the streets. Would the triumphant president have called out the military to quell those crowds, as he had tried to do the previous spring during the Black Lives Matter protests? Would the senior officers—as “nonpolitical” as they pride themselves on being—have dared to disobey?
All counterfactuals, of course, are submerged beneath the relentless forward march of what actually happened. Still, however much we want to relegate the events of January 6 to the realm of the near-missed catastrophe, our politics remain imprisoned in a series of events unfolding from that day. The coup did not end on January 6 or even in the early hours of January 7, when Congress finally certified the election of the new president. Today this unfinished chain of cause and effect—call it a slow-motion coup—continues to unfold before the country. The coup drives news coverage. The coup elects candidates. And the coup has already gone far toward leaching from our democracy the one element indispensable for a peaceful politics: the legitimacy of our means of conferring power. By launching and leading his slow-motion coup, Donald Trump has led the country into an unfamiliar and darker world. We don’t know how, or if, we will emerge.
Thanks to Trump, election past is election future. To think about the 2020 election is to think about the 2024 election. To look back at the attempted steal is to ponder the steal to come. To tens of millions of Americans “the Steal” is what the former president tried and failed to achieve. To tens of millions of other Americans “the Steal” is what the current president did achieve. Whatever it is, the Steal is a living myth that actively shapes our world. Across the country more than a hundred Republican candidates are running on it—at least fifty-seven of them were present at the Capitol that day—and some of them will likely win. Conceived in the fertile and aggrieved mind of Donald Trump, the Steal has captured the imagination of tens of millions and threatens to attain a kind of perfect reversed reality the next time we go to the polls to choose a president.
It is in the nature of the Big Man that he imposes his mind upon the people. His obsessions are not private. The former president’s obsession that he won the 2020 election in a landslide and that his victory was stolen from him is now the obsession of millions. That there is little or no evidence for it makes no difference. That he may not believe it himself does not matter. What matters is the Big Man’s performative certainty, which has become his followers’ certainty. Their certainty makes it a political fact.
Because of the Big Man’s certainty, states are passing laws restricting who can vote and changing who has the power to judge which votes count. Because of it, millions of those who voted in 2020 will find it harder to vote in 2022. Because of it, candidates who deny the legitimacy of the last election—and, by extension, of the system itself—are winning the nominations of their party for governor and secretary of state and representative and senator, and if they are raised to power they will act accordingly during the election to come. And all these historic changes began not with evidence or with facts but with a living, growing obsession in the Big Man’s mind.
Between the Big Man’s mind and his mind-melded supporters cower the Republican political elite. “What is the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time?” an unnamed “senior Republican official” inquired of Washington Post reporters shortly after the 2020 election. “He went golfing this weekend. It’s not like he’s plotting how to prevent Joe Biden from taking power on Jan. 20.”
Perilous as it is to evoke certain political eras, one must go back to Paul von Hindenburg and other titans of the late Weimar Republic to find an elite that so perfectly embodies fecklessness, cowardice, and folly. In one of the unintentionally funny passages in Landslide: The Final Days of the Trump Presidency, Michael Wolff tells us that Senator Mitch McConnell’s “view of Trump was as virulent as the most virulent liberal’s view”:
Trump was ignorant, corrupt, incompetent, unstable. Worse, he called into question the value and seriousness of every aspect of McConnell’s Machiavellian achievement—what good was power if you had to share it with people who had no respect for it?
Share? McConnell voted to acquit Trump in his second impeachment trial, even as he denounced him from the Senate floor, then weeks later—after the polls were in—slavishly pledged to support “the president” if he ran again in 2024. The majority leader saw his dearest political ambitions founder when the “ignorant, corrupt, incompetent, unstable” president, whom McConnell and his cronies had “humored” for nearly two months, preferred to rave to Georgia voters about his stolen presidency rather than urge them to come out to vote for their Republican Senate candidates, thereby losing the Senate runoffs on January 5 and unceremoniously demoting the crafty Machiavellian to minority leader. Had Trump’s coup the next day seemed to be succeeding, can anyone imagine that McConnell would have stood against him? Who is humoring whom?
McConnell and his fellow Republican officials and donors fear Trump because they fear his voters, particularly the mobilized base that worships him. While many of these elites act out of rank opportunism, the more strategic-minded profess to believe that Trump is essential if the Republicans are to have a chance at regaining power in their present incarnation: a white-nationalist populist party with a suburban business-class appendage, which increasingly finds itself holding its nose at the stench of the white unwashed. The donor class may be embarrassed by the canaille—and by Trump himself—but it knows the party could not win without their voices and their votes. Senator Lindsey Graham, who in slithering his way from savagely denouncing Trump in 2016 to shamelessly currying favor with him since has marked out a path many Republican leaders have followed, is one of the few willing to say this forthrightly:
Can we move forward without President Trump? The answer is no. I’ve always liked Liz Cheney, but she’s made a determination that the Republican Party can’t grow with President Trump. I’ve determined we can’t grow without him.
Though the statement is characteristically misleading—Cheney has made it clear she believes Trump threatens the country and the Constitution—Graham is saying the quiet part out loud: only Trump can guarantee to maintain or hope to increase the party’s appeal to lower-middle-class and working-class whites, and in so doing, Graham went on, “make the Republican Party something that nobody else I know can make it. He can make it bigger. He can make it stronger. He can make it more diverse. And he also could destroy it.”
That last point is crucial. But better to say: He could destroy us. For Graham’s voice here is that of the Republican elite, whom Trump delights in making tremble with his every derisive shout of RINO! (Republican in Name Only). There is personal fear of Trump’s violent supporters but also an acknowledgment of and even attraction to the harsh male dominance he embodies, so critical to the successful autocrat. “You know what I liked about Trump?” Graham asked a crowd of laughing, nodding Republicans. “Everybody was afraid of him, including me…. But here’s one thing I can tell you about him. Don’t cross him. Don’t you miss that?”
By virtue of his iron hold on the base, Trump represents both an unparalleled opportunity and an existential threat to the Republican Party. His power is in part a negative one: he can prevent the party from winning. And if crossed he has made it clear he would have no compunction about doing exactly that. He reminds traditional Republican leaders of that power and his willingness to use it not only by his frank and unapologetic narcissism but by enacting and reenacting rituals of vengeance, most recently upon those Republicans—including Cheney—who dared vote to impeach him. By performing these public blood sacrifices, and by issuing revitalizing endorsements to those who are obsequious enough in seeking them, he reminds the party of his dominance and keeps all but the most heroic and reckless would-be dissenters firmly in line.
That the Steal came fully formed from the president’s mind and grew thanks to the fear and negligence of the politicians who thought they could “humor” him, that such a demonstrably false idea is now, as a firmly held belief of half the American electorate, a dominating strain in American history—that these astonishing events could come to disfigure the public life of the United States testifies to the decadence of the country’s traditional hierarchies of power and information. It testifies also to the sheer animal spirits of the media beast Donald Trump, who still effortlessly dominates the news cycle, seizing the spotlight from his successor even as President Biden manages to pass historic legislation. By virtue of Trump’s embodied grievance, his shamelessness, and his daring and skill at shaping a narrative—and then, when it is debunked, shaping another—Trump proves himself victorious, again and again, in attracting and holding eyeballs, which are the golden currency of our age. That American politics was destined to be absorbed by television and the communication and entertainment media it spawned could be foreseen as far back as John F. Kennedy, but the “reality star” Donald Trump is this new world’s first grand apotheosis.
The question, as I write, is whether, having absorbed politics and one of our two parties, the Trump Reality Show can absorb the legal system as well. Eighteen months after launching the only coup d’état in the nation’s quarter-millennium history, Trump remains the odds-on favorite to become the Republican nominee in 2024. Yes, the indictments and court cases are coming. But are they destined to be transformed into new and ever more enthralling episodes? Will they bolster his popularity and the resonance of his anti–Deep State message even as he faces the country from the dock? Will he undermine the rule of law with the same ease as he undermined the legitimacy of the government?
For all its garish effectiveness, much of the show’s script is not new. In The Steal: The Attempt to Overturn the 2020 Election and the People Who Stopped It, Mark Bowden and Matthew Teague quote the candidate at a rally in Colorado in 2016:
They even want to try and rig the election at the polling booths, where so many cities are corrupt. And you see that…. And voter fraud is all too common. And then they criticize us for saying that…. Take a look at Philadelphia…take a look at Chicago, take a look at Saint Louis. Take a look at some of these cities where you see things happening that are horrendous.
The Steal, like so many of Trump’s more resonant master-fables, vibrates with all the most potent elements of his politics of resentment. The system is rigged. Everywhere you look the “others”—blacks, immigrants, city dwellers—pillage and usurp and steal. And no matter how plain and obvious these facts are, “political correctness” means that no one dares say them out loud. Except me, that is.
Small wonder that when defenders of “the system” argue the case with facts—You claim the election was stolen? Show us the evidence!—they get nowhere. Bowden and Teague point to one study of fraud in American voting, by the very conservative Heritage Foundation, that over the last thirty years “listed only widely scattered instances committed by members of both political parties, capable of influencing—and even then only in rare instances—local elections results.” Since November 2020, all the recounts, audits, and court cases—more than sixty of the latter—have found the same: the election was sound. More than sound: given the pandemic, it was a kind of miracle. It doesn’t matter. Even in 2016, write Bowden and Teague, Trump’s charge
resonated with those who feared big government, the growing number and power of minorities, the whole modern drift of American society. Drawing on antiquated stereotypes from the era of Tammany Hall, Trump especially stressed corruption in big cities, where Democrats ruled and the population was heavy with African Americans.
Which is to say that the Steal is a perfect microcosm of Trump’s politics of resentment: The very system is corrupt. With the help of minorities and illegal immigrants, the swamp and the Deep State rule. Beneath the elaborate façade constructed with endless inventive mendacity by the mainstream media lies a tangle of political and sexual conspiracies that account for the mystifying collapse during the last three or four decades of the world of the white working and lower-middle classes: the stagnation of wages, the emptying out of midwestern manufacturing, the outsourcing of jobs to China and elsewhere, the financial and housing collapse of 2008, the opioid crisis, the rise of the tech and Wall Street billionaires.
Add to that any number of deeply fraught “cultural issues,” among them the state recognizing same-sex marriages, schools teaching children frankly about gay and trans people, and colleges opening women’s sports to trans athletes. The Steal of 2020 is only the latest example of the rigged, corrupt, perverse system ruthlessly rising up to defend itself against the attack waged upon it by that fearless and solitary warrior, Donald J. Trump. The Steal, like all his keystone narratives, validates the legitimacy and destiny of Trump himself.
If the reality show candidate and his media magic seem new, the deep grievances and societal dislocations that make his populism so effective most assuredly are not. Four decades of nearly stagnant wages and the wildly disproportionate distribution of the fruits of the country’s growth are plain for all to see. So is the vast and unpunished corruption exposed by the financial collapse of 2008. History has shown how populism feeds on corruption and unaddressed grievance. “A longing for money and power took hold of citizens,” Josiah Osgood remarks in How to Stop a Conspiracy, his new edition of the Roman historian Sallust’s The War Against Catiline (circa 42 BC), “and the moral inversion began.”
Greed taught arrogance and cruelty; ambition made men deceitful…. The powerful “few” felt more than ever that the state was theirs to dominate. In desperation, the ordinary citizens, oppressed with debt, were willing to embrace a dubious champion like Catiline.
Nor is Trump the first American leader who has schemed to manipulate the aggrieved populace to gain permanent power. Osgood quotes Alexander Hamilton’s appraisal of Aaron Burr, the brilliant, unscrupulous rogue and would-be American emperor who came within a whisker of the presidency. Burr’s “private character,” Hamilton wrote,
is not defended by his most partial friends. He is bankrupt beyond redemption except by the plunder of his country. His public principles have no other spring or aim than his own aggrandizement…. If he can he will certainly disturb our institutions to secure himself permanent power and with it wealth. He is truly the Catiline of America.
This American Cataline, of course, went on to murder Hamilton.
The struggle between the force of individual personality, however disreputable, and the limiting power of institutions fascinated Hamilton and his colleagues. Among other things, alas, these last years have taught Americans the shortcomings of the Founders’ attempt to shape institutions impervious to aspiring dictators. Perhaps the effort is destined to fail in any political system designed for fallible human beings. Sallust offers in his Catiline an unforgettable portrait of the deranged and almost irresistible schemer, corrupt, alluring, concupiscent, indefatigable, his complexion pale, his eyes bloodshot. This electric blend of attraction and repulsion rings uncomfortably familiar, as does the tale of the leader’s troubling traits disrupting the institutions of the country he rules. “So strong was the disturbance within him,” Osgood tells us, “that it could not be contained. It spilled out and engulfed the whole Republic.”
It is the conviction of his followers that they know Trump well—that they know him personally. At his raucous rallies it is hard not to feel that he is showing you his true self, for not only his wit and his anecdotes but his aberrant personality—his narcissism, his mendacity, his endless preening—are on full and unbridled display. He flaunts his neuroses. They are what make him entertaining. Because of this, reading the memoirs of those who have worked for him can be an oddly disjointed experience. Each begins by hoping the real Trump will be different. And day by day each gradually and reluctantly comes to know someone we already do. The real Trump is the Trump all can see, and his neuroses are what now drive our history. The most important of these, of course, is the deep and obsessive anxiety about losing. William P. Barr, his last attorney general, tells us in his memoir One Damn Thing After Another that he “doubted the President could ever admit to himself that he lost the election,” because
in his cosmos, a “loser” was the lowest form of life. Shortly after the election he was already persuading himself, and his followers, that the election had been stolen. The Internet was awash with unsupported conspiracy theories and outright falsehoods, which the President was all too ready to repeat. His ever-hovering circle of outside advisers—experts in telling him what he wanted to hear—were feeding him a steady diet of sensational fraud allegations. These were presented to the President, and publicly, in such detail and with such certitude as to sound—at first—very convincing and troubling.
The Steal was born not of evidence but of a neurotic inability to accept defeat. Even the most casual viewer of one of Trump’s rallies can’t fail to notice how central this inability is to how he views the world. Mary L. Trump, a clinical psychologist and niece of the former president, attributes this obsession and much else in his strange personality to the influence of his “high-functioning sociopath” father, Fred Trump, the self-made real estate tycoon from Queens who in effect raised—or, in her view, failed to raise—Donald after his mother fell ill:
Fred’s fundamental beliefs about how the world worked—in life, there can be only one winner and everybody else is a loser (an idea that essentially precluded the ability to share) and kindness is weakness—were clear. Donald knew, because he had seen it with [his older brother] Freddy, that failure to comply with his father’s rules was punished by severe and often public humiliation, so he continued to adhere to them even outside his father’s purview. Not surprisingly, his understanding of “right” and “wrong” would clash with the lessons taught in most elementary schools.
Unmanageable in his private school, Trump was eventually sent to the New York Military Academy, where discipline was harsh. He thrived there, for
life at NYMA reinforced one of Fred’s lessons: the person with the power (no matter how arbitrarily that power was conferred or attained) got to decide what was right and wrong. Anything that helped you maintain power was by definition right, even if it wasn’t always fair. [Emphasis added]
In Mary Trump’s analysis, Donald had been intentionally shaped to succeed in this harsh world by Fred, who, having destroyed his firstborn son—Mary’s father, who died of alcoholism at age forty-two—resolved to encourage “the killer” in his second:
[Donald] took what he wanted without asking for permission not because he was brave but because he was afraid not to. Whether Donald understood the underlying message or not, Fred did: in family, as in life, there could be only one winner; everybody else had to lose. Freddy kept trying and failing to do the right thing; Donald began to realize that there was nothing he could do wrong, so he stopped trying to do anything “right.” He became bolder and more aggressive because he was rarely challenged or held to account by the only person in the world who mattered—his father. Fred liked his killer attitude, even if it manifested as bad behavior.
Every one of Donald’s transgressions became an audition for his father’s favor, as if he were saying, “See, Dad, I’m the tough one. I’m the killer.” He kept piling on because there wasn’t any resistance—until there was.
A loser cannot also be a killer. Trump’s conviction on this matter is no secret. That he would refuse to acknowledge his loss and resist leaving office voluntarily was prophesied by Michael Cohen, his ex–fixer and lawyer, among others who know him well. What was less easy to predict were the complex mechanisms of fecklessness and ambition that led most of the leaders and officeholders of one of America’s two major political parties to humor the president in his fantasy about the Steal—and that led tens of millions of voters to believe it in turn, and to elect politicians who profess to believe it as well. It is a tale that would be marvelous, if it didn’t pose so grave a threat to the country and its institutions.
Central to the tale is a peculiar kind of court politics. In every administration the courtiers rise and fall according to the favor of the sovereign. The principles animating this vary from one administration to the next, but Trump’s staffing was unprecedented in its volatility—unheard-of numbers of officials at senior and middle levels were hired and fired—and its personalism. A courtier rose by pleasing Trump and pleased him by giving him what he wanted, which was almost always something that pushed against the government’s customary practices and often against the country’s laws.
Against the tireless will of Trump, the so-called Deep State—the permanent bureaucracy and its allies among political appointees—pushed back. Those officials who helped Trump push back against it in his turn drew his favor and advanced. Those who acted too blatantly to restrain him—like the famous “adults in the room,” two of them prominent generals, who surrounded him at the start of his administration—were one by one defenestrated. Over time, the process gradually exhausted and winnowed out those willing to oppose the president in defense of normal practices, principles, and laws.
Because of its inherent dynamic (Trump—thoroughly uninterested in learning how to be “presidential”—remained Trump), those willing to serve him in high positions had to develop complicated survival strategies, both to avoid giving the president what he wanted in the most egregious cases and to justify their compliance when they felt they had to act in a way they knew they shouldn’t. Much of Barr’s book, like many of the Trump memoirs, offers a kind of extended aria on this theme.
Following the 2020 election, this process accelerated. Only a bedraggled group of compliant survivors remained in the White House, and their numbers diminished by the day. And even they were increasingly ignored by a president who began to take most of his counsel from “outside advisers”—Barr’s despised “clown show” of Giuliani, Sidney Powell, Jenna Ellis, and John Eastman. At the best of times Trump was difficult to “manage.” “It was hard to hold Trump’s attention,” Wolff remarks, “when he wasn’t the one talking.” Barr writes:
It had always been difficult to keep him on track—you had to put up with endless bitching and exercise a superhuman level of patience, but it could be done. After the election, though, he was beyond restraint. He would only listen to a few sycophants who told him what he wanted to hear. Reasoning with him was hopeless.
By this relentless process of elimination, Trump gradually constructed around himself a circle of “advisers” who increasingly reflected back to him his own views, however outlandish. To “agree” with him in the cause of preventing some larger harm to come was perilous. Those who believed there was “no harm” in “humoring” Trump were treading a well-worn track traversed by hundreds throughout his life. Wolff, who has spent a career reporting on dominating personalities and their handlers in the worlds of money and the media, is deft in describing these moments, with a satirical touch that nearly makes one forget the gravity of it all:
But the president suddenly went from sourness to delight. And inspiration!… They could just use Covid as a reason to delay the election. “People can’t get to the polls. It’s a national emergency. Right?” He looked around to everybody for their assent—and for congratulations on his great idea.
There was often a small moment of silence and a collective intake of breath whenever Trump, with alarming frequency, went where no one wanted to go or would have dreamed of going. The reaction now was somewhere between gauging Trump’s being Trump, with everybody understanding that nine-tenths of what came out of his mouth was blah-blah and recognizing that here might be a hinge moment in history and that he really might be thinking he could delay the election. If the latter, then there was the urgent question of who needed now, right now, to go into the breach?
A reluctant [Chief of Staff Mark] Meadows did: “Mr. President, there isn’t any procedure for that. There would be no constitutional precedent or mechanism. The date is fixed. The first Tuesday…” Meadows’s sugary North Carolinian voice was tinged with panic.
“Uh-uh. But what about—?”
“I’m afraid—no, you can’t. We can’t.”
“I’m sure there might be a way, but…well…”
Trump, as so often, did not give up on the idea. He simply looked for more agreeable interlocutors—Chris Christie, for example, the former governor of New Jersey, whom he saw at a debate prep session the next week:
“I’m thinking about calling it off,” said Trump, as though without much thought.
“The prep?” said Christie.
“No, the election—too much virus.”
“Well, you can’t do that, man,” said Christie, a former US attorney, half chuckling. “You do know you can’t declare martial law.” Christie followed up: “You do know that, right?”
It was both alarming and awkward that he might not.
On the afternoon of January 6, Chief of Staff Mark Meadows sat outside the White House dining room, scrolling desultorily through the texts on his phone, while Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel, desperately pushed him to get up and confront Trump. The president of the United States had returned from his speech at the Ellipse and, having failed in his attempt to get to the Capitol—for quite a while he refused to take off his overcoat, convinced he would still persuade his Secret Service detail to take him on his triumphant mission—now sat glued to the television, watching as thousands of his followers sacked the seat of Congress. Transfixed by the scenes of carnage, the commander in chief refused to pick up the phone.
“We need to go down and see the president now,” shouted Cipollone, according to Cassidy Hutchinson.
“He doesn’t want to do anything, Pat,” a beaten-down Meadows replied.
“Something needs to be done,” Cipollone shouted, “or people are going to die and the blood is going to be on your fucking hands…. They’re literally calling for the vice-president to be fucking hung.”
“You heard him, Pat,” Meadows said. “He thinks Mike deserves it.”
What could be the harm in humoring Donald Trump?
In our nation’s 246-year history, there has never been an individual who is a greater threat to our republic than Donald Trump.
—Dick Cheney, August 4, 2022
The former vice-president’s blunt assessment comes as a shock, and yet it needs only a minute or two of pondering to realize that Dick Cheney, a man who, whatever you think of him, knows as much about power and its exercise as any contemporary American, speaks a stark truth. By engineering a half-dozen or so plots and conspiracies between the election and Biden’s inauguration, Trump committed a grave crime against the state. He plotted to overthrow the government, and he very nearly succeeded. And after committing this crime in full view of the country—the crime for which Cicero and his fellow Roman senators executed Catiline—Trump not only walks free but remains the undisputed leader of the Republican Party with a chance, whether he is under indictment or not, to retake the presidency.
Is that likely to happen? No. But it is possible it will happen. And that it remains a possibility is deeply disquieting. Trump has done his fellow Americans the service of showing them how vulnerable their vaunted system of government really is. For all their concern about tyranny, the Founders put in place a mechanism to remove a criminal president that has proved, in the face of strong party loyalties, to be laughably impotent. And in a country supposedly of laws, not of men, the laws’ workings have shown themselves to be, in the face of a genuine emergency, ponderously slow, allowing a leader who tried illicitly to seize power to prepare quite openly to take power again. History offers notable examples of dictators who have come to power through elections, but it is hard to think of one who attempted to cling to power through a coup and failed—and to whom the polity, in its blithe unconcern, offered the chance to try again.
—This is the first of several articles on the Slow-Motion Coup.
Originally appearing in The New York Review of Books, 9/14/22
Other pieces by Mark Danner on Donald Trump in The New York Review of Books: