Donald Trump is a petulant narcissist, so his feuds with Govs. Ron DeSantis and Glenn Youngkin are surely sincere, but they also show that Trump hasn’t lost his feral instinct for media attention. In recent months, the former president has become increasingly boring, and after sabotaging Republican hopes for a red wave, his power is at a low ebb. By stoking a Republican Party civil war and announcing his run for president, he can perhaps rekindle interest in a new season of the Trump show.
Trump has very little else to keep people watching. On Tuesday, he gave an extraordinarily tedious and droning address announcing his new presidential campaign. “This is one of the most low-energy, uninspiring speeches I’ve ever heard from Trump,” tweeted Sarah Matthews, his former deputy White House press secretary. “Even the crowd seems bored.” CNN cut away 20 minutes in. Fox News lasted about 40 minutes, though it returned for the peroration, such as it was.
Still, as I listened to Trump speak about “cesspools of blood” and sadistic knife-wielding gangsters, it was hard not to feel a sickening sense of déjà vu. Somehow, seven long years after he descended his golden escalator, we’re back to a place where most conservative elites are again united against him, waiting for a Florida Republican to take him out, even as his fanatical base remains committed. Once again, we’ve seen Trump bestowing insulting nicknames on his presumptive Republican competitors. He’s clearly lost a step — “Ron DeSanctimonious” is a lot less catchy than “Lyin’ Ted” — but no one should assume he’s finished. “Trump has told others he wants to recreate the underdog vibe of the 2016 campaign,” reported The Washington Post.
It’s now up to the rest of us to decide if we’re going to help him. In 2015 and 2016, much of the media abetted Trump’s rise, amplifying his every provocation because it was fun and profitable to rubberneck as he bulldozed through the Republican Party. All that free media helped catapult Trump to victory. Now he’s forcing us into a do-over.
I understand that we cannot avoid writing or talking about a former president who is now a leading presidential contender — I am, after all, writing a column about him. But we can all avoid letting him set the terms of the debate. The newsworthy thing about his announcement speech was not anything he said. Rather, it’s that, as The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman pointed out he’s running in part to evade potential criminal prosecution, which could arise from either his attempted coup or the classified government documents he appears to have stolen.
It’s also worth noting that, once again, he is in bed with authoritarian foreign powers. Just this week, we learned that Trump signed a deal with a Saudi real estate giant to have the Trump brand be part of a $1.6 billion project in Oman. Information keeps dribbling out about the emoluments he collected as president. The House Oversight Committee recently revealed that officials from six countries, including China and Saudi Arabia, spent more than $750,000 at his Washington hotel during his administration, sometimes renting rooms for more than $10,000 a night.
Many have used the pro-wrestling term “kayfabe,” which refers to the illusion that wrestling’s staged melodramas are real, to explain both Trump’s manipulation of reality and his fans’ willing suspension of disbelief. It’s an apt way of understanding his recent attempts to seize the spotlight. But the key through line of the Trump story is oligarchic corruption enabled by legal impunity, not interpersonal feuds. I certainly understand the let-them-fight giddiness among some Democrats eager for a Trump-DeSantis smack-down — at times I even share it — but Trump has benefited whenever we’ve let him turn politics into pro wrestling.
In the series finale of “The Good Fight,” the only TV show to capture the berserk surrealism of Trump-era politics, a character based on the flamboyant troll Milo Yiannopoulos turns up at the show’s Democratic law firm, peddling a garbage smear against DeSantis. The firm’s lawyers must decide whether they want to be part of a Roger Stone-orchestrated dirty trick to bring down the Florida governor, paving the way for a Trump restoration. They consider it, reasoning that Trump would be easier to beat in a general election, but ultimately decide not to follow through. It’s the right decision in the show’s not-so-fictional world, and it would be in real life. DeSantis, a more effective politician than Trump, might do more damage to liberal priorities than Trump did. But Trump will do more damage to democracy itself. On Tuesday, he uttered one true line. America is “all very fragile to start out with,” Trump said. “It can only take so much.”
Michelle Goldberg is a New York Times columnist
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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