“When can we stop thinking about Trump every minute?” the New York Times columnists Gail Collins and Bret Stephens asked yesterday. As usual with such queries, the correct answer is “What do you mean ‘we’?” To a remarkable degree, people have already stopped paying attention to the 45th president.
The past few weeks have offered a preview of what Donald Trump’s post-presidency might look like: The president fulminates at length, playing pundit, but is a practical nonfactor in policy discussions. He can still command the affection of millions—and raise millions of dollars from them—but the balance of the country has already moved on and tuned out. Trump’s ability to command the news cycle has been eclipsed by the virus he couldn’t be bothered to stop and the rival candidate he couldn’t beat.
This is not license for the nation to let down its guard. There is still much damage that the outgoing president can do, and is doing, to democratic institutions, governance, and policy. Yet the odd atmosphere over the past few days, in which Trump ramps up his rhetoric yet seems to have an ever more tenuous hold on the nation’s attention, represents a shift even from the initial days after November 3, when his attempt to steal the election was still headline news.
Since Election Day, Trump has focused on just two things: playing golf, and trying to claim victory in his contest against the Democratic president-elect, Joe Biden. With rare exceptions, such as the annual Thanksgiving turkey pardon, his schedule has been empty nearly every day.
Of the two goals, he has been markedly more successful in the first pursuit. His election-related efforts are sputtering: Trump has watched while state after state certifies election wins for Biden. He has watched as dozens of judges have punted long-shot lawsuits out of court. He watched as dye ran down Rudy Giuliani’s face in a news conference that was somehow both jaw-droppingly insane and jaw-clenchingly dull. Having exhausted nearly every option, the Trump legal effort has now resorted to recycling old, failed gambits. With the Electoral College meeting on December 14, the end is in sight.
The relevant description of Trump’s role is “watching.” The president has long been an obsessive TV viewer, but without a campaign to run and with no events on his schedule, there is less to distract him from the tube—and his gripes about Fox News and praise for the network’s smaller rivals, Newsmax and One America News. (Trump still knows where the audiences are, though, which is why he gave his first postelection interview, on Sunday, to Fox’s Maria Bartiromo; and Fox knows where its interests lie, which is why Bartiromo’s interview was embarrassingly deferential.)
For a time after the election, Trump was unusually quiet on Twitter. He is now back to feeding his followers a steady diet of false and misleading claims about the election results, though it is difficult to tell whether he really believes his claims, is just processing his grief, is simply taking advantage of a lucrative fundraising opportunity, or some combination thereof. Regardless, the president doesn’t appear to be taking any concrete actions to try to stop Biden’s inevitable inauguration beyond sending tweets and campaign emails.
That inaction is in keeping with how Trump has governed throughout his tenure. He never really wanted to do the hard work of the presidency, but was interested in the pomp of the office and the chance to be pundit in chief. As he enters the lame-duck period, only the punditry remains.
“The restaurant business is being absolutely decimated. Congress should step up and help. Time is of the essence!” he tweeted Friday night. Other than perhaps Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Trump has more power to make this happen than anyone else in the country—but rather than actually try to twist arms and force action on Capitol Hill, he’s just firing off scattered thoughts. (Maybe GOP senators will just ignore him. The refusal of many Republicans to publicly acknowledge Biden’s win and tell Trump to knock it off shows that they are still cowed by him, but their decision to mostly ignore his complaints demonstrates his shrinking muscle.)
This punditry will likely be the central element of Trump’s post-presidency. Armed with his Twitter following and perhaps a cable-news show or even channel, Trump will be able to spout off to his heart’s content. His words still carry a great deal of weight with his followers. Roughly three-quarters of Republicans say they doubt the results of the election, even though (or perhaps because) Trump has not laid out a clear explanation for why the results are fishy. He has also raised $170 million, much of which is going toward a de facto Trump-family slush fund. These numbers are nothing to sneeze at (though as Emily Badger wisely notes, the polls are probably at least in part an expression of partisanship rather than sincere belief), but the material results of his fight against election certification speak for themselves.
Just because Trump has not managed to steal the election doesn’t mean his work to undermine the legitimacy of the results and the system isn’t dangerous, as I have written. The things that the president and his lawyers are saying are getting worse and wilder. Nor does the president’s self-pity party preclude him from taking dangerous steps over the next few weeks, from issuing outrageous pardons to sabotaging the federal workforce to starting a war with Iran.
Even so, Trump’s diminishing relevance over the past 10 days is a good preview of what to expect come late January. Trump won’t go away entirely, and he certainly won’t get quiet, but fewer Americans will listen to or care about what he has to say. They’ve voted with their ballots, and now they’ll vote with their attention.