“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
That’s the last line of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Life is always about the past. And this tale is very American. It’s all about a noble but flawed fellow who wants to recapture the past, in the person of his one true love from long ago, the beautiful but shallow and rather dimwitted Daisy, which he thinks he can do if he gets rich enough, because of the exclusive pretty things that come with vast wealth, the only things that had ever moved Daisy, even slightly, out of the vague torpor that is all her life had ever been.
Why do this? Gatsby’s quest is hopeless and heroic, and it’s also quite stupid – and he fails – which is deeply tragic, unless this is a farce. Gatsby is a fool – a fool for love, common enough and often considered admirable – but also a fool for an idealized past that he completely misunderstood in the first place. Daisy had always been a useless twit, and she always would be. She was decorative, at best. Even if he won Daisy back from her brute of a husband, by the sheer massiveness of his vast fortune, he would have lost. Gatsby got everything all wrong.
That’s what makes this the great American novel. It gets to the core of our longing for a past that was never all that good in the first place. Maybe money will get it back, or patriotism, or old-time religion or something. Or maybe Donald Trump will get it back. He’s rich.
But there’s no going back. He gets no second term. He lost the election. It will not be 1953 again with Ozzie and Harriet and poodle skirts, and wholesome movies and blacks knowing their place, and gay folks hidden away, and the only Hispanics and Asians the harmless and amusing Ricky Ricardo and Charlie Chan, a world of back-alley coat-hanger abortions only, with Jesus everywhere. Maybe Daisy Buchanan is back there too, but only old resentful white folks want to go back. It wasn’t that nice in the first place. All the civil rights stuff from the 1954 Brown decision desegregating schools to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, and all the turmoil of the sixties followed by the women’s rights movement in the seventies, happened for a reason. That past had been a cruel and stupid place for far too many people. It was America’s Daisy Buchanan – somewhat beautiful in its way, but shallow and rather dimwitted – and Trump is Gatsby. He cannot let go.
That’s the situation at the moment, four weeks after all observers of the election agreed that he had clearly lost the election. The Washington Post does the reporting. This was over:
The recount of presidential ballots in Wisconsin’s two largest counties reconfirmed Sunday that President-elect Joe Biden beat President Trump in the key swing state by more than 20,000 votes, the latest example of the president’s flailing efforts to undo the election results.
The completion of the recount – which the Trump campaign had requested – added to a pileup of defeats for the president as he continues to attack Biden’s national victory, claiming without evidence that widespread fraud tainted the results. His campaign has vowed to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, though it has yet to do so, while suffering losses nearly every day in state and federal courts.
After the completion of the recount in Wisconsin’s Milwaukee County on Friday and Dane County on Sunday, there was little change in the final breakdown of the more than 800,000 ballots that had been cast in the two jurisdictions. In the end, Biden’s lead over Trump in the state grew by 87 votes.
This unusual further recount cost the Trump campaign three million dollars, to prove he won. But the Biden campaign didn’t rub it in. They didn’t publicly thank the Trump folks for the extra votes. Everyone could see what was happening:
Four of the six states where Trump has questioned the results have already certified their vote tallies. His efforts to stop Michigan officials from finalizing the vote there earlier this month ran aground. A hand recount of ballots in Georgia confirmed Biden’s win in that state. A second recount there will conclude Wednesday, but Georgia election officials do not expect it to significantly change Biden’s approximately 12,000-vote margin.
Meanwhile, two new court decisions in Pennsylvania late last week rejected the Trump campaign’s attempts to halt the vote count in that state, the latest in a series of forceful judicial opinions that have tossed out claims by the president and his allies around the country.
But there’s always hope:
The last key vote certifications could come Monday, when Arizona is set to finalize its results, along with Wisconsin, which announced Sunday it would complete its state canvass then.
Republicans, including the three who sit on Wisconsin’s six-member election commission, may attempt to delay certification. However, under state law, the chair of the commission – currently a Democrat – has the authority to finalize the results.
The president and his legal advisers have said they still plan to fight in court in an attempt to prevent Wisconsin from moving forward.
“The Wisconsin recount is not about finding mistakes in the count, it is about finding people who have voted illegally, and that case will be brought after the recount is over, on Monday or Tuesday,” Trump tweeted Saturday. “We have found many illegal votes. Stay tuned!”
No one was staying tuned, because this didn’t matter:
Even if the Trump campaign were to pull out a surprise courtroom win – which legal experts said is unlikely – it would do little to change the outcome of the White House race, which Biden won with 306 electoral votes. The electoral college will meet on Dec. 14 to formalize his victory.
But that doesn’t seem to bother Trump:
Trump escalated his false claims about the election during a telephone interview with Fox News on Sunday, alleging that Democrats had orchestrated a “big, massive dump” of hundreds of thousands of illegal votes in the election.
The president made it clear that he would never accept his loss and is even contemplating the appointment of a special counsel to investigate the election, though that decision would fall to Attorney General William P. Barr.
“My mind will not change in six months,” Trump told host Maria Bartiromo on Fox News’s Sunday Morning Futures. “There was tremendous cheating here.”
He offers no proof of that. That’s the main job for his legal team, and his legal team, such as it is, cannot provide the slightest proof of that. They tell this court and that they will provide proof of fraud and cheating and all the rest – soon. Just wait. Be patient.
The courts have not been patient and that means none of this will bubble up to the Supreme Court, which only angers Trump more:
On Sunday, Trump acknowledged that he may not succeed in getting the country’s high court to weigh in.
“The problem is, it’s hard to get into the Supreme Court,” he said on Fox News. “I have got the best Supreme Court advocates, lawyers, that want to argue the case, if it gets there. But they said it’s very hard to get a case up there. Can you imagine? Donald Trump, president of the United States, files a case, and I probably can’t get a case, even with – and we have tremendous proof.”
In fact, the Trump’s campaign’s path to the nation’s highest court has been made more difficult by just how little evidence it has offered to lower-level courts of voting irregularities, drawing repeated rebukes from judges.
The rest of this item documents that in detail – not that it matters. Gatsby will not win Daisy’s tiny shriveled heart. Trump will not win reelection and finally make it 1953 in America again. But there was more:
President Donald Trump on Sunday claimed in an interview on Fox News that the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Justice may be involved in a conspiracy to steal the election from him…
“This is total fraud, and how the FBI and Department of Justice – I don’t know maybe they’re involved. But how people are allowed to get away with this stuff is unbelievable,” the president told Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo.
“This election was rigged. This election was a total fraud and it continues to be as they hide,” Trump said. “And the problem we have, we go to judges and people don’t want to get involved.”
He was angry. The FBI and the Department of Justice are in on this! They’re out to get him too! They’re keeping out of this? Why the hell aren’t they helping him? But he’ll fix that:
Trump also told Bartiromo that he believed the FBI and DOJ were “missing in action” when asked whether they were investigating his claims of fraud in the election, and said he wished he wouldn’t have pledged to “stay out” of their work.
“There’s no reason really why I have to,” he said.
Will he order the Department of Justice to immediately arrest Joe Biden for treason and lock him up until he confesses? He could do that, you know. That’s kind of a Putin thing, to throw your political opponents in prison and throw away the key, but he could do that.
Would he do that? Would the Department of Justice follow his order? Okay, Attorney General Barr would follow this order, with pleasure. No one doubts that. But would anyone in Barr’s Department of Justice follow Barr’s order to do that? That’s the question now. What if the president has gone mad?
Philip Rucker, with Ashley Parker and Josh Dawsey and Amy Gardner, explores that in their new deeply-sourced backgrounder in the Washington Post:
The facts were indisputable: President Trump had lost.
But Trump refused to see it that way. Sequestered in the White House and brooding out of public view after his election defeat, rageful and at times delirious in a torrent of private conversations, Trump was, in the telling of one close adviser, like “Mad King George, muttering, ‘I won. I won. I won.’”
However-cleareyed Trump’s aides may have been about his loss to President-elect Joe Biden, many of them nonetheless indulged their boss and encouraged him to keep fighting with legal appeals. They were “happy to scratch his itch,” this adviser said. “If he thinks he won, it’s like, ‘Shh… we won’t tell him.’”
Trump campaign pollster John cLaughlin, for instance, discussed with Trump a poll he had conducted after the election that showed Trump with a positive approval rating, a plurality of the country who thought the media had been “unfair and biased against him” and a majority of voters who believed their lives were better than four years earlier, according to two people familiar with the conversation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations. As expected, Trump lapped it up.
Okay, indulge the delusional man in his pain, humor him – no harm done – but not in this case. State the obvious, when the man stops doing any part of his job and just mutters to himself:
With his denial of the outcome, despite a string of courtroom defeats, Trump endangered America’s democracy, threatened to undermine national security and public health, and duped millions of his supporters into believing, perhaps permanently, that Biden was elected illegitimately.
Trump’s allegations and the hostility of his rhetoric – and his singular power to persuade and galvanize his followers – generated extraordinary pressure on state and local election officials to embrace his fraud allegations and take steps to block certification of the results. When some of them refused, they accepted security details for protection from the threats they were receiving.
That’s what happens when there’s a vacuum at the top, or at least vacuity at the top:
Trump largely abdicated the responsibilities of the job he was fighting so hard to keep, chief among them managing the coronavirus pandemic as the numbers of infections and deaths soared across the country…
Only on Nov. 23 did Trump reluctantly agree to initiate a peaceful transfer of power by permitting the federal government to officially begin Biden’s transition – yet still he protested that he was the true victor.
But this wasn’t easy. A few excerpts from this item show that:
In the days after the election, as Trump scrambled for an escape hatch from reality, the president largely ignored his campaign staff and the professional lawyers who had guided him through the Russia investigation and the impeachment trial, as well as the army of attorneys who stood ready to file legitimate court challenges.
Instead, Trump empowered loyalists who were willing to tell him what he wanted to hear – that he would have won in a landslide had the election not been rigged and stolen – and then to sacrifice their reputations by waging a campaign in courtrooms and in the media to convince the public of that delusion.
The effort culminated Nov. 19, when lawyers Rudolph W. Giuliani, Jenna Ellis and Sidney Powell spoke on the president’s behalf at the headquarters of the Republican National Committee to allege a far-reaching and coordinated plot to steal the election for Biden. They argued that Democratic leaders rigged the vote in a number of majority-Black cities, and that voting machines were tampered with by communist forces in Venezuela at the direction of Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan leader who died seven years ago.
There was no evidence to support any of these claims.
And then something snapped:
The Venezuelan tale was too fantastical even for Trump, a man predisposed to conspiracy theories who for years has feverishly spread fiction. Advisers described the president as unsure about the latest gambit – made worse by the fact that what looked like black hair dye mixed with sweat had formed a trail dripping down both sides of Giuliani’s face during the news conference. Trump thought the presentation made him “look like a joke,” according to one campaign official who discussed it with him.
“I, like everyone else, have yet to see any evidence of it, but it’s a thriller – you’ve got Chávez, seven years after his death, orchestrating this international conspiracy that politicians in both parties are funding,” a Republican official said facetiously. “It’s an insane story.”
Aides said the president was especially disappointed in Powell when Tucker Carlson, host of Fox News’s most-watched program, assailed her credibility on the air after she declined to provide any evidence to support her fraud claims.
Trump pushed Powell out. And, after days of prodding by advisers, he agreed to permit the General Services Administration to formally initiate the Biden transition – a procedural step that amounted to a surrender. Aides said this was the closest Trump would probably come to conceding the election.
But reality wouldn’t win the day. Trump snapped back in place within an hour:
Trump went on to falsely claim that he “won,” that the election was “a total scam” and that his legal challenges would continue “full speed ahead.” He spent part of Thanksgiving calling advisers to ask if they believed he really had lost the election, according to a person familiar with the calls. “Do you think it was stolen?” the person said Trump asked on the holiday.
But, his advisers acknowledged, that was largely noise from a president still coming to terms with losing.
That may be overly generous:
Trump’s devolution into disbelief of the results began on election night in the White House, where he joined campaign manager Bill Stepien, senior advisers Jared Kushner and Jason Miller, and other top aides in a makeshift war room to monitor returns.
In the run-up to the election, Trump was aware of the fact – or likelihood, according to polls – that he could lose. He commented a number of times to aides, “Oh, wouldn’t it be embarrassing to lose to this guy?”
But in the final stretch of the campaign, nearly everyone – including the president – believed he was going to win. And early on election night, Trump and his team thought they were witnessing a repeat of 2016, when he defied polls and expectations to build an insurmountable lead in the electoral college.
Nope, reality intervened and Fox News called Arizona for Biden:
“He was yelling at everyone,” a senior administration official recalled of Trump’s reaction. “He was like, ‘What the hell? We were supposed to be winning Arizona. What’s going on?’ He told Jared to call [News Corp. Executive Chairman Rupert] Murdoch.”
Efforts by Kushner and others on the Trump team to persuade Fox to take back its Arizona call failed.
Okay, fine, dust off Plan B:
With Biden now just one state away from clinching a majority 270 votes in the electoral college and the media narrative turned sharply against him, Trump decided to claim fraud. And his team set out to try to prove it.
Throughout the summer and fall, Trump had laid the groundwork for claiming a “rigged” election, as he often termed it, warning of widespread fraud. Former chief of staff John F. Kelly told others that Trump was “getting his excuse ready for when he loses the election,” according to a person who heard his comments.
In June, during an Oval Office meeting with political advisers and outside consultants, Trump raised the prospect of suing state governments for how they administer elections and said he could not believe they were allowed to change the rules. All the states, he said, should follow the same rules. Advisers told him that he did not want the federal government in charge of elections.
He agreed. Then he lost. Then he disagreed. Everyone really was out to get him:
As Trump watched his margins shrink and then reverse, he became enraged, and he saw a conspiracy at play.
“You really have to understand Trump’s psychology,” said Anthony Scaramucci, a longtime Trump associate and former White House communications director who is now estranged from the president. “The classic symptom of an outsider is, there has to be a conspiracy. It’s not my shortcomings, but there’s a cabal against me. That’s why he’s prone to these conspiracy theories.”
And so he was prone to those:
Trump fixated on a false conspiracy theory that the machines manufactured by Dominion Voting Systems and used in Georgia and other states had been programmed to count Trump votes as Biden votes. In myriad private conversations, the president would find a way to come back to Dominion. He was obsessed.
“Do you think there’s really something here? I’m hearing…” Trump would say, according to one senior official who discussed it with him.
No one else was hearing a thing but that no longer mattered:
On Nov. 7, four days after the election, every major news organization projected that Biden would win the presidency. At the same time, Giuliani stood before news cameras in the parking lot of Four Seasons Total Landscaping in Philadelphia, near an adult-video shop and a crematorium, to detail alleged examples of voter fraud.
The contrast that day between Giuliani’s humble, eccentric surroundings and Biden’s and Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris’s victory speeches on a grand, blue-lit stage in Wilmington, Del., underscored the virtual impossibility of Trump’s quest to overturn the results.
His original legal team decided it was time to level with Trump:
Stepien, Clark, Miller and Bossie briefed Trump on a potential legal strategy for the president’s approval. They explained that prevailing would be difficult and involve complicated plays in every state that could stretch into December. They estimated a “5 to 10 percent chance of winning,” one person involved in the meeting said.
Trump signaled that he understood and agreed to the strategy.
But few believed him:
Around this time, some lawyers around Trump began to suddenly disappear from the effort in what some aides characterized as an attempt to protect their reputations. Former Florida attorney general Pam Bondi, who had appeared at a news conference with Giuliani right after the election, ceased her involvement after the first week.
“Literally only the fringy of the fringe are willing to do pressers, and that’s when it became clear there was no ‘there’ there,” a senior administration official said.
But only the fringy of the fringe survive:
A turning point for the Trump campaign’s legal efforts came on Nov. 13, when its core team of professional lawyers saw the writing on the wall. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit in Philadelphia delivered a stinging defeat to Trump allies in a lawsuit trying to invalidate all Pennsylvania ballots received after Election Day.
The decision didn’t just reject the claim; it denied the plaintiffs standing in any federal challenge under the Constitution’s electors’ clause – an outcome that Trump’s legal team recognized as a potentially fatal blow to many of the campaign’s challenges in the state.
That is when a gulf emerged between the outlooks of most lawyers on the team and of Giuliani, who many of the other lawyers thought seemed “deranged” and ill-prepared to litigate, according to a person familiar with the campaign’s legal team. Some of the Trump campaign and Republican Party lawyers sought to even avoid meetings with Giuliani and his team. When asked for evidence internally for their most explosive claims, Giuliani and Powell could not provide it, the other advisers said.
Giuliani and his protegee, Ellis, both striving to please the president, insisted Trump’s fight was not over. Someone familiar with their strategy said they were “performing for an audience of one,” and that Trump held Giuliani in high regard as “a fighter” and as “his peer.”
And that’s when Rudy took over:
Tensions within Trump’s team came to a head that weekend, when Giuliani and Ellis staged what the senior administration official called “a hostile takeover” of what remained of the Trump campaign.
On the afternoon of Nov. 13, a Friday, Trump called Giuliani from the Oval Office while other advisers were present, including Vice President Pence; White House counsel Pat Cipollone; Johnny McEntee, the director of presidential personnel.
Giuliani, who was on speakerphone, told the president that he could win and that his other advisers were lying to him about his chances…
The next day, a Saturday, Trump tweeted out that Giuliani, Ellis, Powell and others were now in charge of his legal strategy. Ellis startled aides by entering the campaign’s Arlington headquarters and instructing staffers that they must now listen to her and Giuliani.
“They came in one day and were like, ‘We have the president’s direct order. Don’t take an order if it doesn’t come from us,’” a senior administration official recalled.
And that was that. The mad king had his mad team. Everyone else had to sit down and shut up, or leave. The past was available. It would be another four years for Trump, and they’d eventually bring back 1953 in America too.
Trump had gone mad, but the New York Times’ Charles Blow argues that Trump has always been detached from reality:
If you are having a hard time fathoming how Donald Trump could deny reality, attempt to force-feed America his fictions, fight truth with conspiracy and concoction, and try to spin a loss into a victory, you shouldn’t. You need only be open to a fair analysis of Trump’s life. There is nothing new about this man’s behavior. This is what he has always been: a liar, a con man and a grifter.
For instance, consider a period in his life 30 years ago, in 1990, and you will see that everything he is doing now he did then. His brazen play at fact-alteration isn’t innovation but regurgitation.
New York City was just coming off the racially divisive Central Park Five case in which five young Black and brown teenagers were wrongly convicted of attacking a white female jogger in Central Park. After the attack, Trump took out a full-page newspaper ad calling for New York State to adopt the death penalty and said of the teens in a CNN interview:
“Of course, I hate these people. And, let’s all hate these people because maybe hate is what we need if we’re going to get something done.”
Nothing has changed since. The Central Park Five had been innocent all along. They were exonerated. They were released. Trump, to this day, wants them executed. He’s rich. He’s president. Why can’t he have that? Why can’t he have all of the wonderful past?
Yes, we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. But that’s no place to be. Gatsby was a fool, a fine fool, but a fool nonetheless.