Trump and the Five Stages of Grief (Redux)

Four years ago today, I wrote a piece called “Trump and the Five Stages of Grief.” Its opening sentence remains among political science’s most poignantly written: “It’s been about 36 hours since our collective gast was flabbered at the realization that Donald F. Trump was President-elect of the United States.”

I went on to outline how many Americans would struggle coming to grips with Trump’s win. In the process, I said, they may go through Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s “five stages of grief“: 1) Denial, 2) Anger, 3) Bargaining, 4) Depression, and finally 5) Acceptance.

Now, four years later, with Scranton Joe having apparently defeated Trump in the 2020 presidential election, I can’t help but quote from Scranton’s second most famous citizen:

“Well, well, well. How the turn tables.”

There’s a decent chance I’m about to make my final post, perhaps forever or at least for some time. You’ll recall I came out of a six-month hibernation just for the closing stretch of the campaign and to reassure anti-Trumpers everywhere that Biden was probably going to win. Four years ago, I also took time off after the election before returning for the main purpose of rebooting and completing my Top 30 list, which I mercifully finished last year. I must admit, I always go into these extended absences thinking, “I’m done.” It’s hard to justify dedicating the time. Then somethings pulls me back in. So we’ll see. Maybe I’ll have an idea for a new gimmick — something might come to me.

Before I step back, it’s time to reflect on the last week and consider what’s to come. I’ll start with the ongoing drama of a President, his most ardent supporters, and their allies in the media who have rented out tracts of real estate in Kübler-Ross’s Stage 1.

Their denials pull from three general, overlapping categories:

  1. The media can’t declare winners. The Electoral College hasn’t met yet, and Congress hasn’t certified Biden as the winner. Advocates of this category think we’re all going to be surprised when the courts adjudicate in Trump’s favor. These people, by the way, also thought Joe Biden wasn’t going to be the nominee or a viable general election candidate due to his age, his cognition, and his having been corrupted by Ukraine then China. These shockers of the world got 2016 right, and making that prediction was like drinking several gallons of forever-confidence that they have yet to sweat out.
  2. Trump had the lead on election night. Then they started ballots that were more Democratic, hence the President’s “STOP THE COUNT” demand.
  3. In places where he’s trailing, of course, he has wanted the count to continue. In those cases, it’s been fraud fraud fraud fraud! If you count the “legal votes” only, Trump won, in his words, “BY A LOT.” (The clearest manifestation of this bipolarity can be seen in one crowd of Trump supporters in Michigan chanting “Stop the count!” and another crowd in Arizona chanting “Count the votes!” They say comedy equals tragedy plus time, so I can only imagine how much funnier this will be to our future selves.)

Let’s take on each of these — a process which I’ve noticed stimulates the second stage of anger.

Everything about Number 1 is true, even if it’s shameless sophistry. The media can’t pick a winner of an election, the Electoral College doesn’t vote until December, and Congress hasn’t yet certified its results. All of this is true.

And it was all true in 2016, and 2012, and 2008, and so on and so on. I’d love it if someone can find me the Trump voter saying on November 9, 2016, “Hang on, the media can’t declare a winner and the Electoral College hasn’t met and Congress hasn’t certified that result!” We all know the media reports on state-by-state results in every presidential election we can remember, and they have for some time. (If you have a half hour, here’s a cool video of NBC declaring each presidential winner from 1948 to 2012.) It always works this way. The media is reporting, not crowning. Lame lame lame argument.

Number 2 stinks about as much as its euphemistic kind of number 2. A month before the election, I wrote of this likely scenario:

“Democrats, who show more caution regarding Covid-19 and more faith in the validity of mail-in ballots, will vote disproportionately by mail. Republicans, who are less fearful of Covid and more likely to be skeptical of mail-in ballots, will vote disproportionately in person. . . . Many states, including most battlegrounds, don’t start counting mail-in ballots until Election Day. In a year where the number of absentee ballots will shatter records, this counting will last days, with close and large states stretching for over a week. . . . Therefore, on election night, when Republican ballots are much more tabulated, the President will appear to lead in most and perhaps all crucial swing states. In fact, I’m considerably more confident in that prediction – that Trump will be leading on election night – than I am in picking a Biden victory. . . . Knowing the President as we do, we can imagine he comes out to give a speech claiming his bigly victory. . . . As mail-in ballots are counted over the subsequent days, Biden’s electoral count pursues and then eclipses Trump’s. But Trump . . . does not concede. . . . Trump, who has spent months laying the groundwork for distrusting states and towns to fairly administer and count mail-in ballots, cries foul. ‘The only way we’re going to lose this election,’ he has told us, ‘is if it’s rigged.'”

(If, after reading that, you determine I’m a witch, I choose to forgo the noose in favor of death by pressing. Like fellow New Englander Giles Corey, you can expect my resolute final words will be, “More weight.”)

We knew why and how the vote-counting would go the way it did, and then it happened exactly that way. Number 2 belongs in the sewer.

It’s Number 3 that has the most legs. There is quite the clamor from Trump supporters that dead people have voted, that people have voted multiple times, that poll-workers were forced to count illegal votes, that Republican observers weren’t allowed to monitor ballot-counting, that Democratic machinery took control of precincts across myriad states, that the party has executed a multi-state conspiracy against the Republican queen bee and they must swarm to her defense. With so many complaints and accusations, some Trump voters rush to the conclusion that all this smoke must have been caused by a legitimate fire, but the courts have thus far determined that it is Trump’s supporters who lit it.

Though there are always a few minor examples of voting irregularity that a seasoned rhetorician could exaggerate, just about every major accusation toward precinct chicanery has turned out to be misinformation that has used social media to spread and reinforce itself. Unfortunately, to change one’s mind, one must want to find and then believe contravening evidence — skills in which few partisans are practiced. The President hopes to submit all their supposed evidence to either win lower court victories or perhaps ultimately arrive at the Supreme Court, a third of which he appointed and another third of which was appointed by his party, but it’s no guarantee he’ll get there or that they’d rule in his favor.

But here’s the beauty of a conspiracy theory: once you believe in it, all subsequent developments are viewed through the initial lens. Part of the problem is that many of these supporters thought it was impossible that he could lose, partly because that’s what people in bubbles believe (like film-critic Pauline Kael, who knew only one person who for Nixon in what ultimately became his 49-state triumph in 1972), and partly because the President literally told them the only way he could lose was if it were rigged. That being so, any new inputs that suggest Trump was wrong and has lost will be explained away. He lost? The courts will overturn it. The lower courts are already slapping down challenges? Well they were just appointed by Democrats and RINOs, so let’s go to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled against him? They’re just elites in the swampy anti-Trump deep state cabal.

Of course, the fact of the matter is that there is much truth in Number 3 — yes, of course every legal vote should be counted. Like Number 1, though, that’s always been the case, including in 2016, when we didn’t hear anyone talking about only counting “legal votes.” Back then, Democrats unwilling to accept Trump’s victory instead blamed Russian interference, a concern that had already been established by U.S. intelligence agencies and later confirmed by a Republican-led Senate panel. Current objectors are unlikely to find such prominent cosigners.

The framing of only counting “legal votes” and not “illegal votes” presupposes a bunch of illegal votes are being counted, and the degree to which Republican ears have been receptive to these fraudulent accusations shows just how far the parties have drifted apart. Regardless, the President, if any of his accusations end up holding water, deserves his day(s) in court(s), and there’s nothing stopping him from having it but the courts themselves.

President Trump knows the judiciary might not support him here, which can explain why he’s lashing out so badly. One can use the court system without inflaming Americans in the process, but inflammatory comments can be useful if one has ulterior motives.

I wrote last week that Trump the rabble-rouser is trying to rouse his rabbles so that if the courts don’t buy what the Trump Campaign is selling, his last resort could be the pressure Trump voters can place on Republican-controlled state legislatures to seat Republican electors even if the state’s voters, election officials, secretaries of state, state courts, and maybe federal courts all agree Joe Biden won. This drastic measure now echoes in government and media thanks to Trump allies like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and conservative radio host Mark Levin. Again, I don’t expect Trump to take it that far or have enough institutional support to pull it off, but if electoral overrides were his intention, I’m not sure what he should be doing differently right now.

We can hope that we ultimately have a smooth transition of power, as President Obama, who cited President Bush doing the same, provided to President-elect Trump. (Trump’s counterargument here — that Obama spied on his campaign and transition team — is, you won’t believe this, highly misleading.) Unfortunately, little of the above rhetoric, including the President’s depressing and error-riddled post-election press conference, suggests an amiable transition is imminent. As of this writing, Trump’s General Services Administrator, whose duty it is to begin the baton-passing process — a process which has budgetary and national security implications — has not agreed to do so.

We’re not yet at the closing scene of this riveting drama, but I’ll take all the chips I won from my on-fire presidential politics predictions from the last month and put them on Trump is a one-term president. When the Trump Administration finally lubricates the gears of transition, we’ll hopefully see the President’s supporters progress to the third stage of bargaining.

Afterward, that’s when depression might set in. The President will have lost the Electoral College 306 to 232, precisely the total of what he called his “massive landslide” victory over Hillary Clinton, only then the winner lost by three million votes and now the winner will win by five or six. He’s the first defeated incumbent in nearly 30 years and only the second elected incumbent to lose since Herbert Hoover struggled with Depression of his own in 1932.

He’s also not only the third president to be impeached (with Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998), but he’s now also just the third president to twice lose the popular vote (with John Quincy Adams in 1824/8 and Benjamin Harrison in 1888/92). And he’s the only president to be on both lists.

When a supporter of the outgoing President can finally acknowledge those facts without a “but” afterwards, that’s when they’ll have arrived at acceptance.

My next post will be my last for… well… indefinitely. In it, I’ll aim to apply my fledgling wizardry to determine what we can expect in the coming days, weeks, and months. I hope to see you then.


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