I hate the amount of attention Trump continues to get. However, he is a study in human depravity and a weathervane for American politics. Below, I consider Ashley Feinberg's report of Mar-a-Lago, where it almost feels like Trump will remain a giant joke for the rest of his days.
If you feel the need for more content about Trump, David Roth's "After the Sacred Landslide" explores the imagination of Americans in a different way than I do. Ta-Nehisi Coates' "The First White President" is as thorough an exploration of the appeal of shamelessness as one can get.
In February, I tried to sort out my thoughts about the power of the former President. From “How much power does Trump have?”:
Trump himself partially understands his power. He sees it in terms of “kayfabe,” the rules of professional wrestling. There’s a drama, and some of the characters are “faces,” babyfaces who can do no wrong, and others are “heels.” The faces and heels fight, they switch places, the audience loves the show itself and cheers everyone involved. Trump’s Twitter (RIP) could be viewed as a wrestling promo—the taunts one wrestler shouts at another to hype a match.
But Trump doesn’t really understand what he commands. I don’t think anyone in America does, either. This country nearly died on January 6th, after all, and we only understand that in a limited way. We’re still charging people who might have killed Congress with misdemeanors instead of taking militant white nationalism and its various organs seriously.
Trump understands and misunderstands what he has because he views it through the lens of professional wrestling. Bad guys cheat good guys to win. This creates immediate emotional resonance, but it doesn’t stop there. The bad guys do develop a following, as they’re usually seen as more comic than brutal. Before, I said everyone “loves the show itself,” as if that was a final statement on the matter.
Now, I think this. I’m watching a “heel”—Trump himself—be looked at as an underdog. A fighter who is down but not out. And I know this: a lot of people look at life as a matter of winning and losing. Life, on this account, is like a game. They’ll think they’re good at a game if they can cheat it. That others who cheat are just doing what they must and deserve sympathy, if not adulation or reverence.
If someone in whom they’re invested can’t cheat, they feel shut out too.
We live in the shadow of January 6th. Almost nothing has been learned. White supremacy still threatens to destroy the whole country because it will never admit defeat. It’s a form of cheating, a way of always declaring a win.
The current President and much of his party want to believe that if they focus on popular things, white supremacy will go away. So the former President, who tried to overthrow the government, not only isn’t charged with anything but won't be charged with anything. Those who enabled him are landing plush jobs and commanding influence. His more radical followers may not dictate the agenda, but they place strict limits on how much progress is possible.
While, of course, this country still deports people en masse, prosecutes a losing war in Afghanistan, shoots people over air fresheners, beats and maims Asians, builds more cages, expands the carceral state.
Which brings us to Trump at Mar-a-Lago. Ashley Feinberg’s reporting of what he does all day almost makes him seem harmless. Like he’s constructed an afterlife, created heaven on earth for himself:
So how is the most attention-hungry of former presidents actually filling his time? Because Trump is now effectively living at a private club perpetually littered with wealthy supporters desperate to show off their close, personal friendships with the former president, we can actually construct a pretty decent picture of his daily routine. It’s a life full of powerful visitors, grim sycophants, and ecstatic worshippers at every turn. In short, it’s Donald Trump’s wildest dreams come true.
You can look through the photos and videos. People are shouting “I love you” at him; couples and celebrities want to be near him. I can’t shake the feeling that this is a folk vision of heaven, where we float on clouds and get to meet who we want.
But there’s something else going on. As Feinberg reports, he’s got plenty of campaign cash on hand. People visit him because his endorsement will make or break them in GOP primaries.
In other words, he’s a kingmaker—a tyrant over his own realm—holding court in exile. His reach may be limited, but his power looks like it is consolidating. Absent any serious legal challenges to those who aided and enabled him, not to mention the man himself, he’s acting like the head of his party and far more.
In “How much power does Trump have?”, I reflected that Trump’s power is closely tied to how we believe in this country. The right to deny reality is part of what makes some religions so powerful and extreme here. Trump is that denial incarnate. He can never lose, despite the fact he lost. He can never fail to know, despite his incredible ignorance. He can never be unpatriotic, despite his selling the country to any and all bidders. This is white supremacy, whiteness as religion. He’s the greatest President, the one who nearly destroyed the country’s most cherished institutions.
I don’t think there’s a chance Trump ever faces prosecution or consequences for his behavior. But as I see it, if we’re to avoid calamity, he does have to face the law. This isn’t a fantasy he’s living out at Mar-a-Lago that hurts no one. People died on January 6th, to say the least. To not even mention the bloodlust, greed, ignorance, neglect, and body count of the four years of his rule.
You can’t allow Donald Trump to live out his fantasies and be an image of the sacred to idiots. He doesn’t just disappear or go away; he shows the tyrannical life is possible and desirable. That there are no consequences other than a few panicky people laughing at you while you’re out of power. Why are they panicky? They’re not sure they may ever win another election.