Washington • Many see a wannabe despot barricaded in the bunker, stubby fingers clinging to the levers of power as words that mean nothing to him — democracy, electoral integrity, peaceful transition, constitutionality — swirl above.
One presidential historian sees something different in Donald Trump’s swan song. Michael Beschloss has been tweeting pictures of Hollywood’s most famous divas, shut-ins and head cases.
Norma Desmond watching movies of herself, hour after hour, shrouded in her mansion on Sunset Boulevard as “the dream she had clung to so desperately enfolded her.” Howard Hughes, descending into germaphobia, madness and seclusion. Greta Garbo, sequestered behind her hat and sunglasses. Charles Foster Kane, missing the roar of the crowd as he spirals at Xanadu, his dilapidated pleasure palace.
The president and his cronies are likely to do real damage and major grifting in the next two months. But in other ways, the picture of the president as a pathetic, unraveling diva is apt.
Trump has said in interviews and at rallies that two of his favorite movies are the black-and-white classics about stars collapsing in on themselves, “Citizen Kane” and “Sunset Boulevard.”
In “Sunset Boulevard,” Max the butler and a camera crew conspire to make the demented silent film star believe she’s getting her close-up when she’s actually just being lured down the staircase to answer for her sins.
The Republicans enabling Trump’s delusion are like the camera crew, filming a scene with the disintegrating diva that is never going to be seen.
“What is the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time?” a senior Republican official told The Washington Post. “No one seriously thinks the results will change.”
Trump, who once wanted to be a Hollywood producer and considered attending USC film school, never made the pivot to being a politician. He got elected because he played a competent boss and wily megabillionaire on a reality TV show — pretty good acting now that we know he is neither — and he has stayed a performance artist and a ratings-obsessed showman.
Even after Georgia and Arizona were called and Joe Biden clinched 306 electoral votes — the same number that Trump declared “a massive landslide victory” when he reached it in 2016 — the president is putting on a play within the play, one in which he’s still the star.
Trump Boswell Maggie Haberman reported that there is no grand strategy and the president “is simply trying to survive from one news cycle to the next,” playing his familiar game of creating a controversy and watching it play out.
As a growing number of Trump advisers and Republican Party leaders privately admitted the end was nigh — and as the Secret Service was rocked by coronavirus infections and quarantine orders from the president’s mask-defying, superspreader campaign travel — White House officials propped up Donald’s grand illusions. This, even as his lawyers deserted him and judges ruled against him.
“We are moving forward here at the White House under the assumption there will be a second Trump term,” Peter Navarro, the White House trade adviser, said on Fox Business on Friday.
Kayleigh McEnany chimed in that the president would “attend his own inauguration.”
In his remarks about Operation Warp Speed on Friday afternoon in the Rose Garden, Trump showed how tortoise-slow he has been about accepting that he’s out.
“I will not go; this administration will not be going to a lockdown,” he said. “Hopefully, the — the, uh, whatever happens in the future, who knows which administration it will be — I guess time will tell.”
Time has told. Do we detect a sliver of reality creeping in?
The president, who has never shown much interest in governing, has finally dropped all pretense to focus on the core tenets of the Trump Doctrine: himself, cable news, Twitter, self-pity, and caterwauling about perceived slights.
“.@FoxNews daytime ratings have completely collapsed,” he tweeted. “Weekend daytime even WORSE. Very sad to watch this happen, but they forgot what made them successful, what got them there. They forgot the Golden Goose. The biggest difference between the 2016 Election, and 2020, was @FoxNews!”
The goose was at Fox’s neck. What an unnatural and delicious sight.
The network helped Trump become president and allowed him to maintain his viselike grip on his base. Fox was the oxygen inside his alternate-reality bubble.
But because Trump is 100% transactional, he couldn’t accept pure math, training his laser beam on Fox when it dared to veer ever so slightly from total fealty by correctly calling the race early in Arizona.
Trump is right about this one thing: He has been a Golden Goose for the news business. Every time he opens his mouth, 50 headlines jump out.
But the Golden Goose is also a Silly Goose. He should just recognize that Biden winning is actually the best outcome for him. He doesn’t have to do the job anymore and can simply get on with the branding and the whining and the pot-stirring — the parts that interest him.
He certainly branded the Democrats very effectively with socialism, defunding the police, shutting down the country and ending fracking. Biden escaped, but a lot of down-ballot Democrats didn’t.
Now Trump should move on and stick to what he knows best: promoting himself. Like Norma Desmond, he should give in to the fantasy of his life that he is so devoted to and leave the rest of us to live in the cold, cruel, unforgiving, inconvenient reality.
Mr. DeMille just called, Mr. President. He says he’s ready for your close-up. Keep your pancake makeup on and step on out of the house now. The cameras will be waiting.
Maureen Dowd is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The New York Times.