There was one thing that even Donald Trump’s harshest critics were never able to accuse him of: invisibility.
The outgoing US president held endless campaign rallies, verbally sparred with reporters on the way to his helicopter and spent so long on the phone to Fox News shows that even pliable hosts had to gently but firmly hang up. He was the master of saturating every news cycle with his voice and image.
Yet two weeks after his defeat by Joe Biden in the election, Trump has effectively gone missing in action. Day after day passes without a public sighting. He does not hold press conferences any more. He has even stopped calling into conservative media.
For critics, it is evidence of a monumental sulk as Trump contemplates his imminent loss of power and exit from the White House. In their view, it is also a staggering abrogation of responsibility as the coronavirus pandemic surges to new highs, infecting more than 158,000 Americans – and killing in excess of 1,100 – every day.
Amid the deafening silence, Trump’s only “proof of life” since Biden’s victory has been a handful of public events at the White House and a military cemetery, weekend outings to his golf course in Virginia and a barrage of tweets airing grievances and pushing baseless conspiracy theories that the election was stolen from him.
“I don’t think we’ve had a president since Richard Nixon who is as far in the bunker and detached from the country as Donald Trump is right now,” said Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota.
“Donald Trump has not only suffered a catastrophic political defeat, he’s clearly also suffering from a deep emotional break. This behavior is even more erratic than usual and he has retreated. He has put himself in a form of psychological isolation. His emotional state is clearly abysmal. In the popular lexicon, he’s lost it.”
Trump’s hermit-like status has proved irresistible to comedians, historians and overseas commentators. He has been compared to a tyrant in a fragile democracy holed up in a presidential palace and plotting either an internal coup or a sudden escape across the border. Late-night TV host Stephen Colbert observed: “Well, history famously holds happy endings for autocrats who lose and then retreat to their bunker.”
Michael Beschloss, a presidential historian, has used Twitter to post images of Howard Hughes, a billionaire who spent his last years sequestered in darkened hotel rooms, and Norma Desmond, an aging Hollywood star in the film Sunset Boulevard, noting that she “spent hour after hour in the dark, watching movies of herself in the glory days, before her decline and fall”.
Beschloss also put out an entire series of tweets citing Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’s classic movie about a media tycoon whose political ambitions collapse in scandal. In one picture, Kane’s newspaper carries the front page headline: “Fraud At Polls!” In another, Kane is trashing a room at Xanadu, his luxury estate in south Florida. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate also happens to be in south Florida.
But on a more serious note Beschloss, author of books such as Presidents of War and Presidential Courage, this week posed a question: “When before in history have we seen a president of the United States disappear from public view like this?”
Trump reportedly spends mornings in the White House residence bingeing on television. Then he goes down to the Oval Office in the afternoon, moving between it and an adjoining dining room which has a big TV. He broods there until night, conferring with lawyers in increasingly desperate efforts to overturn the election even as Biden nears a record 80m votes.
Yet the reclusive president has not been entirely idle. He fired his defense secretary and top election cybersecurity official, announced a drawdown of troops in Afghanistan and Iraq and even reportedly discussed a potential military strike against Iran.
Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, told Fox News without apparent irony: “The president’s hard at work – he’s hard at work on Covid, among other issues, drawing down our number of troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, bringing our men and women home.”
The coronavirus has scythed through the country in recent weeks with rising case numbers and hospitalizations and a world record death toll of a quarter of a million. Trump, however, went on holding election campaign rallies, derided infectious diseases expert Anthony Fauci and empowered adviser Scott Atlas, an outspoken critic of science-based public health measures.
Jacobs commented: “Here’s the captain of the ship who’s missing, and the ship is really listing badly to the side, taking on water as more and more people are getting ill and dying. The president is not only missing from his post, but he’s encouraging a mutiny. There’s no precedent in American history for this kind of deranged behaviour.”
Ronald Brownstein, a senior political analyst for CNN, tweeted on Thursday: “1,869 deaths in a day, heading into Thanksgiving. And the president, without a peep of complaint from his party, has gone AWOL, abandoning his responsibility to protect the country & leaving those in his charge to fend for themselves. What would happen to any military commander?”
For many observers, Trump’s retreat is the primal instinct of a sore loser. Biographers have told how he was raised by his father to be a “killer” and regard losing as a sign of unforgivable weakness. The family attended a church whose pastor, Norman Vincent Peale, wrote the bestseller The Power of Positive Thinking with advice to “stamp indelibly on your mind a mental picture of yourself as succeeding”.
Trump cannot bear going out in defeat so is “24/7 focussed” on reframing himself as a victim before a potential comeback in 2024, suggested Gwenda Blair, author of The Trumps. “It’s that sort of amped up Norman Vincent Peale power of positive thinking: hold on to an image of yourself as successful, never let it go. He’s not only done that but absolutely weaponized it his whole life. In his mind, he’s never failed at anything and why should he start now?”
“He always had dad to bail him out before and his ability to bend reality has been validated for him over and over and over. He survived six corporate bankruptcies, two divorces, and each time he bent reality so that he could make a claim that a lot of people accepted that he was a success. The most successful unsuccessful guy ever.”
This time the result for America is a sense of whiplash: from all Trump all the time to a president conspicuous by his absence, denying reality even as a stand is erected in front of the White House for spectators to view Biden’s inaugural parade. His obstruction of an orderly transition could hamper the pandemic response, jeopardize national security and cause lasting damage to democracy.
Michael Steele, a senior adviser to the anti-Trump group the Lincoln Project and former chairman of the Republican National Committee, said: “It’s Trump being a little petulant boy who didn’t get his way and is not getting his way, so he doesn’t want to be out in public and he doesn’t want to play any more. He wants to take his toys and go hide somewhere or create mischief some other way.”
Trump’s recent military shake up was an attempt to distract attention from the cold truth of his defeat, Steele added. “He doesn’t want to be reminded of that. He’ll want to act and sound as if he’s in charge. Well, he isn’t. He’s the lamest of lame ducks and at this point as a country we just need to get a grip and recognize that, as other organs inside our government are trying to do, and move on.”
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