Frank Bruni: Who will we be without Trump?

(Ben Wiseman | The New York Times) "And here I am writing about Trump -- again. It's a tic, not one I'm proud of. But I'm surrendering to it now to acknowledge that I can't continue doing so. None of us can," writes New York Times opinion columnist Frank Bruni.

A friend was all worked up about the possibility of Trump 2024.

“I can’t go through this again!” she cried. But what I heard was that she couldn’t stop going through this. Her contempt for Donald Trump is too finely honed at this point, too essential a part of her psyche. Who would she be — conversationally, politically — without it?

Another friend sent me an email in which he’d worked out the economics of a web-only Trump news channel of the kind that Trump may — or may not — start. With minimal investment, Trump could rake in millions and millions!

We were supposed to be breathing a huge sigh of relief about Joe Biden’s victory. But instead he was finding a fresh source of outrage about Trump.

And here I am writing about Trump — again. It’s a tic, not one I’m proud of. But I’m surrendering to it now to acknowledge that I can’t continue doing so. None of us can.

I’m not talking just about journalists. An obsession with Trump as the brute of all evil extends far beyond us. It has been an animating, organizing principle for the Democratic Party, a bond among civic-minded people of otherwise divergent persuasions and a pillar of many Americans’ political identity. It turned his rise and reign into an all-consuming international soap opera with ratings not just through the roof but also through the stratosphere. No public figure in my lifetime has made such a monopolizing claim on our attention, even our souls.

On Jan. 20 — praise be! — his presidency will be over. But his hold on us may not end as quickly and cleanly. And his departure from the White House will be more disorienting than some of us realize, posing its own challenges — for Democrats, for news organizations, for anyone who has grown accustomed over these past four years to an apocalyptic churn of events and emotions.

“Donald Trump is still coursing through your veins, isn’t he?” asked John Harris in a column in Politico published Nov. 17, likening him to an addiction from which there must be a meticulously plotted recovery.

Actually, Democratic lawmakers seem to be moving on from him — and revealing, in the process, what a potent glue he was. He united the party’s left and center by giving them the same top priority: Dump Trump. No sooner was he dumped than the glue dissolved.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York progressive, and Rep. Conor Lamb, a Pennsylvania moderate, began trading recriminations about where Democrats went right, where they went wrong and where they should go from here. So did Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a Virginia moderate, and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan progressive.

In a column published in The New York Times on Nov. 16, my colleague Michelle Goldberg implored Democrats to tone it down and keep it together. In a column published Nov. 18, my colleague Thomas Edsall asked whether they could. This one-two punch wasn’t overkill. It was a 20-20 glimpse of life beyond 2020.

Policy differences between progressives and moderates may be solved by Mitch McConnell. If Republicans win at least one of the two runoffs in Georgia on Jan. 5 and hold on to their Senate majority, McConnell, as the majority leader, will be the grim reaper of any transformative legislation.

But that still leaves room for arguments about the issues that Democrats should emphasize and the tone that they should strike for the 2022 midterms. Especially with Trump out of office, those disputes could be heated.

And there will be plenty of political friction to go around. Up until Nov. 3, Never Trump Republicans were heroes to many Democrats — ultimate proof that the ruler was rotten. But that love affair can’t survive Trump’s defeat, a reality evident in a few progressives’ fierce attacks on the Lincoln Project — an anti-Trump super political action committee founded by Republicans — since Election Day.

And what happens to those Republicans? The more than 73 million ballots cast for Trump in 2020 — giving him about 47% of the popular vote, up from 46% four years ago — prove that the party didn’t come around to them and isn’t about to cue up Peaches and Herb’s “Reunited.” They’re paradigmatic, emblematic. When you’ve shaped yourself almost entirely in opposition to someone who has been vanquished, are you free or formless?

The test for the mainstream media is our ability to turn away from Trump even if he remains a potent audience draw. It’s not certain that he will be; when Trump and Biden appeared at rival town halls on the same night in October, Biden drew more television viewers. And the much-discussed “Trump bump” that cable news channels and newspapers experienced in and right after 2016 faded over time.

But there’s no doubt that chronicling and commenting on how bad Trump is for democracy has been good for business. It also made virtuous sense; his station and power justified coverage of every tweet and bleat. His attempt to steal the election demands exactly the scrutiny it’s getting, as does the assent of his base and most of his fellow Republicans.

The situation, however, will soon grow complicated. Unlike his more dignified predecessors, he won’t maintain a relatively low post-presidency profile; he’ll keep whipping up passions on the right. And there will surely be a laudable journalistic excavation of Trump administration misdeeds that he and his aides successfully buried. Suffice it to say that Trump won’t exit the news.

But he also won’t be nearly as relevant as he is now, and that compels news organizations to ratchet down his presence in a huge way, potentially turning our backs on easy stories that would have been raptly consumed by readers and viewers still consumed by their disgust with him. I worry about our resolve.

“With Biden you’re not going to have these wild rallies,” Jim VandeHei, a co-founder of Axios, told Bloomberg recently. “You’re going to have speeches on budget reconciliation. I don’t think that’s going to light people’s hearts afire.” He added that “there’s no way you’re not going to see lower cable ratings and some reduction in traffic to websites.”

I also worry that in the wake of Trump’s presidency, which both reflected and intensified the furious pitch of U.S. politics, melodrama may be the new normal. I worry that while Americans are exhausted by it, we’re also habituated to it; that we’ll manufacture it where it doesn’t exist; that hearings in a Republican-controlled Senate will turn Hunter Biden into the new Benghazi; and that we’ll hear no less from the likes of Lindsey Graham and Rudy Giuliani next year than we did this one, because no reality show would cast off cast members that juicy.

I worry that my worry is part of the problem — that it’s not so much epiphany as muscle memory. It has gotten a hell of a workout since 2016.

Frank Bruni (CREDIT: Earl Wilson/The New York Times)

Frank Bruni is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.

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