“He hasn’t gone, has he?” asks Harry Potter, about He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.
“Call him Voldemort, Harry,” responds Dumbledore the magician. “Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”
The US has had no problem naming Donald Trump for decades, conjuring the agent of its own degradation. But since Joe Biden’s inauguration on 20 January this year (or even 8 January, when Twitter suspended its most notorious user), liberals have been in Harry Potter’s situation: knowing Trump can come back, and fearful of what will happen if he does.
Michael Wolff has been the Trump-obsessive’s chronicler since Fire and Fury became the bestselling record of a presidency in 2018. Unlike less flamboyant journalists of yesteryear, Wolff’s hectic style is a match for Trump’s carnivalesque mode of statesmanship. A joker with instincts for melodrama and the purplest of prose, Wolff has good sources inside government and stories you could not make up. Landslide, the follow-up to Fire and Fury, is an absorbing account of the “final days” of Trump’s presidency – at least those of his first term – and exposes the risk that American liberals could get so lost in the subplot of Trump’s election high jinks that they do not prepare for what is coming.
Amazingly, Trump continued talking to Wolff even after the journalist could no longer pretend to be the kind of courtier the president demanded his circle to be. Wolff confirms beyond doubt that Trump attempted what Latin Americans call a “self-coup” – a seemingly legal, indefinite extension of power by a sitting executive before their term is up – starting even before the November 2020 election. Trump cast about in the hope someone would save him from his looming defeat. The failure of the self-coup, which was intended to take place through processes such as calling the legitimacy of the election into doubt and having friendly judges and lawmakers overturn the results, left nothing but the possibility of a real coup to save Trump.
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Wolff adds that Trump’s further descent into his characteristic foibles set up the denouement. In this critical period, as the election neared and then the aftermath played out, it was, he writes, a “White House of one”. Having banished any individual willing to interrupt his fantasies, with underlings scurrying around like George III’s servants indulging his manias, the weakling president became even less powerful than he had been all along. All Trump had was his obscure connection to the core of followers he had accumulated through his anti-elitism, misogyny and racism. Alongside the performative antics, this allowed him to convert US politics more fully into entertainment.
The self-coup that Trump desperately wanted never congealed, according to Wolff’s narrative, into a definite plan. Instead, there was an anarchy of “freelancers” undertaking crackpot schemes that regularly fizzled out. Part of the irritation (or pleasure) of Landslide is the parade of non-entities Wolff conducts through his narrative, a story of a jumbo planet and near-infinite minor satellites whizzing in its orbit.
Wolff observes that the “stop the steal” rhetoric – decrying the illegitimacy of the vote – itself emerged from a decision not to contest the election on policy grounds. Trump, says Wolff, hoped that the election was “not necessarily a win or lose proposition” but “a roadblock or technicality to get around”. The US is fortunate Trump lost the election because he didn’t really try to win it. Fanatically devoted for months to the mystical notion that showing up in person at the polls is the only legitimate manner of voting, Trump probably struck the biggest blow against his campaign.
After narrating the agonies endured by Trump’s staffers on election night, 3 November 2020, Wolff reveals the plan to snatch victory at the last was as much chosen as suffered. From the start, Trump had opposed mail-in voting, though these votes might have helped him win the election. After he lost, Trump nonetheless tried to cast aspersions on the practice, hoping that it might stir up enough scepticism about the result that the self-coup could work.
Three days after the election, both Trump’s campaign director and his own son-in-law, Jared Kushner, told him there weren’t going to be enough votes to “find” to change the results in states that mattered. Trump refused to concede. But the major national news networks, having been browbeaten into waiting to announce the result, finally called the election the next day. The loss was now irretrievable.
Rudy Giuliani, the grizzled former mayor of New York City – once popular for his charisma in the days after 9/11 (and known for his overzealous policing of African Americans) – took the lead as the public face of Trump’s zany “plot”. “Rudy is Rudy, and Donald is Donald,” commented Roger Ailes, no less, the sulphurous founder of Fox News, in 2016. “Together that’s an equation which adds up to a loss of contact with most other rational people, if not reality itself.”
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The rest of “Trumpworld” hated Giuliani and struggled unsuccessfully to keep the two men from spinning the fantasy of a folie à deux. The participation of liberals and the media in the alternative reality the two built over the next month was necessary and understandable, since ultimate power was at stake. But it also gave their tomfoolery more credibility. Even so, Trump’s attorney general William Barr, who’d tolerated the president’s idiosyncrasies in his quest to protect the executive power of the leader’s office, “formally checked out of the Trump circle”, Wolff writes, announcing on 1 December that there was no electoral fraud.
There may never have been a genuine chance of Trump’s addled dreams of a self-coup coming true. A dispassionate look at the evidence shows Trump didn’t even come close –blocked principally by his own factotums and Republican Party officials across the land, including the right-leaning judges he appointed.
Nor was the storming of the Capitol on 6 January symbolic of a kind of victory for Trump. The mob that entered the Capitol building consisted of the “radically faithful”, a ragtag band made up of the laughable and the scary alike. Unlike the tens of thousands involved in the most famous communist and fascist coups of the past – the October Revolution of 1917 or the March on Rome five years later – Trump’s endgame was marred by military opposition to his plans, which were foiled by his powerful partisan allies in the executive and the legislature; not just Barr, but also the then vice-president Mike Pence and the Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell.
McConnell had coyly waited to interfere with Trump’s reveries, which led to disaster planning for a scenario in which Congress – with no evidence whatsoever – might act to invalidate the election when it met on 6 January to certify the Electoral College results. This was not because he liked Trump. Wolff writes that “it was impossible to overstate the hatred” McConnell had for him – this tension being “a central, if unseen drama of the Trump years”. On 15 December McConnell congratulated Biden as the next president. The following month, both he and Pence refused Trump’s blandishments and ultimately certified Biden’s victory. McConnell emerges as the institutional victor of the presidency, fighting Trump’s attempt to alter America’s military posture by withdrawing troops while achieving both the tax cuts and reactionary judiciary that mattered most to the senator, before helping deliver the coup de grâce to the self-coup. We now know that a conservative operative devised a plan for Pence, in his role as president of the Senate, to prevent the election certification from occurring. Pence chose not to do so, though the price was the end of his political career.
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“Politics could not be pure caprice or farce, could it?” Wolff wonders in an earnest moment, as if his own style of journalism had not done a great deal to focus attention on precisely those dimensions of Trump’s reign. Even so, Wolff is right that Trump is not gone. He will run for president again, the myth of the “steal” having survived its easy shattering the first time around.
Yet, in the time since Biden took office, Democrats have mainly transcended any obsessive fascination with the scene Wolff summons. In a divided country, Trump could come close enough in 2024 to the presidency – or win it. If so, the key is to take the sources of his appeal seriously. The question is whether Democrats will go far enough, as their own coalition fails to take radical action to rethink the social contract. De-platforming Trump helped the Democrats, but not so much that it has given them an unassailable electoral majority.
Generations of misbegotten policies stoking civic division, leading to endless war and inequality, are the Horcruxes – the magical objects – that power and protect Trump. The imperative is to destroy them before it is too late, and before Trump’s return concludes very differently than Harry’s vanquishing of Voldemort did.
Landslide: The Final Days of the Trump Presidency
Little, Brown, 336pp, £20
This article appears in the 29 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spirit of the Age