The vanishing of Donald Trump

Armin Rosen
Armin Rosen
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Legend has it that Donald Trump is running for president again in 2024. If so, I certainly haven’t heard much about it—a gap in basic topical knowledge that would have been unthinkable even a few months ago. For anyone who wants to understand where America is at these days, Trump’s sudden and unmistakable absence looms large.

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Some terrifying proportion of Trump’s unscripted utterances between the summer of 2015 and the winter of 2022 were important or memorable, as if he were narrating a nationwide inner monologue more or less off the top of his head—even and especially for the tens of millions of people who hated him. The former president might in fact be orating to rapt audiences from a hangar at a regional airport or the parking lot of a minor league baseball stadium right this second, fantasizing about Joe Biden’s coming prison sentence or reminding his followers of how unfair everyone’s been to him. I don’t know what Trump's doing, because there is no Donald Trump anymore.

How did the most obsessed-over American of my lifetime vanish so quickly? The simple explanation is that he now has a miasma of loser-dom about him, which is very unfortunate for a man whose ethos is entirely winning-based. Trump channeled the American obsession with winning with appealing crudeness during his only successful White House run. During the Republican Party’s disappointing 2022 midterm campaign, however, Trump-backed candidates fumbled a host of winnable races, costing the opposition party control of the Senate. The best-known of the Trump-endorsed failures, the TV doctor Mehmet Oz, lost in Pennsylvania to a cosplaying trust-fund yokel who failed to conceal a serious brain injury from the voting public.

Yet the mere fact of losing doesn't explain how Trump became a loser in the first place, or why he hasn’t been able to reverse the impression that his magic is gone. Conventional wisdom blames a number of obvious or straightforward factors for the Trump swoon: Trump botched the coronavirus response, flogged a stupid and nasty conspiracy theory to excuse his 2020 election loss, cheered on the broadly unpopular and nationally embarrassing events of January 6th, 2021, dined with antisemites, and picked a feud with likely Republican presidential primary opponent and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis that has made the ex-president look desperate and weak. Moreover, Trump is a 78-year-old blowhard with a Kanye West-like record of backstabbing, alienating, or flummoxing everyone around him. The mythical Trump base endures, in some size or form, but he has few public apologists left who aren’t grifters or cranks.

These explanations don’t quite cover it, though. Trump has faded for an entirely different reason. He’s faded because America turned out to be perfectly insane without him, thank you, wiping away his former uniqueness and diminishing much of his original value proposition.

Is the Biden presidency any less crazy than Trump’s? Yes, but not especially. Biden is a condescending elderly white man in thrall to an opaque network of interests who makes bizarre statements every few days and has a range of circumstantial business ties to morally dubious family members. Just on the basis of their shared surrealism—never mind their looseness with the truth, or their instrumental treatment of higher principles on their path to ultimate power—Trump and Biden are more alike than fans or opponents of either man would ever admit.

The paradox of the present moment is that Trump is receding from view precisely because American reality has grown so Trumpy. Trump ceases to be interesting or even all that notable in a country this unbalanced. American politics still revolves around noxious ceremonies of political celebrity—cinematic blow-ups like the successful effort to kick Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar off the House Foreign Affairs Committee happen every few weeks now—and our public life is just as bogged down in energy-wasting, socially corrosive claims of racism and fascism and disloyalty as it was when Trump was in charge. Nor does the feeling of constant psychic bombardment within an exhausted and failing society that made the Trump years so unendurable for the country’s liberals seem to have lifted, based on a quick scan of the New York Times op-ed page or a tacit glance at CNN.

As for the country’s conservatives, they’ve never been more convinced that the other side is coming for their values, their identity, their physical safety, their money, their jobs, and possibly their children’s genitalia as they are under Joe Biden. Trump’s exit calmed some people, but it didn’t produce enough calm in enough other people for the basic day-to-day experience of being an American to become any less anxious.

A sludge of cheapness, dishonesty, fatalism, and division soaks nearly everything in America now, even with Trump mostly gone. Every day brings news from a society lurching in dark and mysterious directions. One day a new Artificial Intelligence chatbot came along and made vast categories of work obsolete—no big deal. The heroin epidemic is so unstoppable that one broadly accepted answer is to encourage people to inject their drugs in public, under medical supervision. The railway station across the street from the Capitol building in Washington is now so depressing and lawless that Starbucks closed its location there.

We don’t need Trump’s actual presence to remind us that a return to pre-Trumpian normality is a delusion. He’s made himself obsolete. To Trump’s misfortune and to ours, American reality has surpassed him.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.

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