Donald Trump is ending his presidency as he started it—wholly and unrepentantly himself. With his rambly, menacing call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, threatening vague criminal consequences if he declines to change vote tallies in Trump’s favor and demanding confidential voting information, Trump exits as he entered, on a wave of almost-certain election criming. Already we are hearing that these last frantic actions are too Trumpy to carry sober legal penalties or consequences; as Michelle Goldberg observes, there is almost no appetite to prosecute Trump for anything in part because it is virtually impossible to prove that he has sufficient understanding of fact or law to establish he was doing something unlawful. (Goldberg calls this “the psychopath’s advantage”; I have come to think of it as a blanket preemptive and collective insanity defense.) More concretely, Democrats in Congress and those in the Biden administration seem to feel impelled to look forward and not back, as Hakeem Jeffries, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, put it on Monday. The growing consensus seems to be that there are too many other life-and-death priorities facing the government, from COVID to the economy, and that the best thing America can do about Trump and Trumpism is to bury it all in a box and forget it once he is gone, which he will be soon, even if he is still sucking up as much oxygen postelection as he did before.
It’s tempting to say that everything we are witnessing in these last weeks is so deeply Trump-specific that it can be ignored as Trump-specific and then, eventually, forgotten. Whether it’s the pardons for those who may have helped him obstruct justice, or the willful and deliberate exacerbation of the COVID crisis, or these repeated sad little attempted shakedowns of state elections officials, the actions all seem so tragically small, so pathetically self-obsessed, and ultimately so artlessly executed that of course we want to just tie all of it to a boulder and yeet it out into the deepest part of the ocean. But as we witness, this week, what will become either the swan song of the sorriest clown show in American history or the actual demise of a functioning representative democracy, it’s useful to realize that throughout the past four years, the smallness, the tawdriness, and the shabbiness of Trump have been the tools he has used to get away with it all.
Donald Trump has managed to evade consequences for virtually everything he’s attempted—from lying about his taxes, to payoffs to mistresses, to lying about the basis for the Muslim ban, to implementing and denying a family separation program, to inflaming white supremacy, to withholding aid money to Ukraine. All of it just bounces off him and ends up pooled at his feet because so many of the efforts were either dumb and small or transparently vile and lawless. Too stupid or too bold to be countenanced as serious. This pattern of the past four years repeated endlessly on a loop: He would mess himself and walk away, because the very silliness, ugliness, and cheapness—even as it was bound up in grandiosity and excess—protected him. And what we keep missing, when we say the Mueller report wasn’t worth it, or that impeachment wasn’t worth it, or that investigating and prosecuting Trump and all of those who enabled his self-absorbed whims and fits for four years won’t be worth it, is that while Trump is (please, Lord, please) going to go away in two weeks, the smallness and the tawdriness and the silliness have spread throughout government.
Recall that a handful of Senate Republicans who voted to acquit Donald Trump after he was impeached in the House still had the vestigial good grace to be embarrassed for him. Lisa Murkowski acknowledged at the time that the president’s conduct was “shameful and wrong,” that he had “degraded the office,” even though she could not ultimately vote to convict him. Susan Collins, like Murkowski, gravely conceded that the president’s conduct with respect to Ukraine had been “improper” and “demonstrated very poor judgment” but was sanguine that he had “learned from this case” and would “be much more cautious in the future.” That was then. Now, 13 (and counting) U.S. senators are trying to collude to set aside the election results. And there are no apologies, no displays of remorse, no hedges or caveats. The smallness of this doomed, performative act is not in doubt. But the rationale is purely Trumpist: The smallness, the shabbiness, and the pointlessness are the very object. You can’t nail them on it, because it doesn’t materially affect the outcome. But it only doesn’t matter until eventually it does matter, at which point it will matter so much that it may end our democracy.
The actions taken in the Senate this week, bolstered by the purely Trumpian logic of “people are saying” and “who could object to gathering more information” is proof positive that America is not poised to snap tidily back to the days of democracy, reasonable governance, and triangulating for the good of the people. The small, forgettable, tawdry cynicism of this particular effort is not even the first indicator that leadership by distortion, untruth, and nihilism will be the new normal for some substantial portion of the GOP; while Trump was in some sense unstoppable because he was incapable of shame or comprehension, Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley—who are at least theoretically capable of both—may become unstoppable because they now know that there are no consequences for distortion, untruth, and nihilism. The slapstick falls away, and only the absence of consequences remains.
The narrative that the election itself banished Trump and we are all free to move on is alluring. Nobody wants to excise the reckless viciousness of the past four years by reliving it in exacting yearslong impeachments, investigations, and prosecutions that will further inflame the country’s most flammable constituencies and may well come to nothing. But Trumpism has leached into the waters we will be drifting in for years to come. It’s already set the playbook for contenders for the 2024 presidential race; it’s tainting lawyers and the practice of law in ways we couldn’t have imagined even a year ago; it’s clawing through a burgeoning conspiracy-minded, fake news–driven media that profits off and further feeds the smallness and the tawdriness it engenders. At first it doesn’t matter because it is small, but eventually it matters because this kind of smallness has infected such a large percentage of the population that the smallness itself is too big to fail.
Listening to the Trump phone call with Brad Raffensperger makes it easy to draw precisely the wrong conclusion about the end of Trumpism. The call—equal parts mob boss, abusive spouse, circus performer, and crazy uncle shakes fist at sky—is no different from the petty, childish Donald Trump who sailed down an escalator and into political history with the claim that Mexicans are rapists. He still is what he always was: tiny, shabby, and wholly self-obsessed. But the lesson of the call is not that Georgia’s secretary of state didn’t give in to the president and therefore everything is OK. The lesson of the call is that the president attempted, on tape, to steal the election, and even though he did not succeed, he will suffer no consequences for it. Nobody will suffer any consequences for anything they do this week. The conduct of Senate Republicans, the conduct of Mitch McConnell, and the conduct of anyone in power who is watching all this without stepping in because it’s only Trump being Trumpy are enabling a project that renders all of us tiny and shabby. There are costs to watching this happen and doing nothing—the past four years have taught us that. While experts race to confirm that this conduct may be illegal, we race to tell ourselves that prosecuting it is likely futile. Building a culture in which everything is probably illegal and every effort to stop it is probably futile is Trump’s legacy to the country.
The consequence of four years without consequences isn’t going to be a reversion to all the norms and values that came before. It will be a spreading of anti-democratic, illiberal, and purposively small, petty, performative shabbiness that will always seem, in the moment, too silly to matter, and that will continue to be, going forward, too important to ignore. Trump was always the symptom, not the disease, and our distaste for curing it will mean that we spend the coming years coughing, choking, and gasping for air, from something at once too trivial to hurt us and too contagious to be stopped.