At the end of nearly every movie with a villain, the villain goes down to defeat. That, of course, is what villains deserve. Yet as an audience, what we want — what we crave — is more than simple defeat, or even destruction. We want to see the villain get his just deserts, a taste of his own medicine, a comeuppance. That means seeing him confront the consequences of the damage he’s caused and why that damage, in a karma-is-a-bitch way, is now coming back to haunt him.
Donald Trump is a man who, in 40 years of public life, has never had a comeuppance. As he himself would say, he’s just gotten bigger and bigger. Sure, he suffered some serious setbacks, like the bankruptcies (which he later denied) that at certain points left him begging for foreign capital when no American bank would touch him. But he has always found a way to bounce back, by ricocheting off the rubber wall of his own celebrity. Even when his empire wasn’t worth that much, he was money — that’s the hall-of-mirrors premise on which his brand is based. (He got famous for being rich, and is rich because he’s famous, in a perpetual cycle of celebrity-lifestyle-whore glory.) When he entered politics, Trump suffered one seeming setback after the next — but each one, like the “Access Hollywood” tape, had the uncanny effect of setting him forward. Each time he was supposed to receive his comeuppance, he failed upward again. Some of us feared he was going to fail his way into becoming president for life.
But on Saturday morning, when Joe Biden crossed the 270 Electoral College threshold (on top of 75 million votes), Trump finally got handed the defeat he deserved. In real-world political terms, a man who looked like a truly dangerous and unhinged autocrat lost his bid for re-election to the presidency, and many of us will sleep a lot easier knowing that.
Yet to put it another way: In the showbiz mirage of contemporary image politics (hey, it’s America in 2020! If we can’t speak about this in terms of entertainment, what good are we?), the villain of an extraordinary drama has, at long last, gotten his comeuppance. For the first time ever, Donald Trump has no choice: He’s got to get up in the morning, look in the mirror, and say to himself, “I’m a loser.” That’s the statement the whole world is now forcing him to say (well, okay, not Lindsey Graham or that talking-dead TV quibbler Rick Santorum). And, of course, it’s the one statement he can’t allow himself to say, or even think, because it would make his shaggy orange head explode.
I don’t mean to make light of Trump’s scary mockery of the election process. Right now, he’s doing what he always threatened to do: not accept the results of the election. And to the extent that as president for the next 72 days he still has the power to cause chaos, we should take that threat seriously. Yet Trump’s disturbing speech from the White House briefing room late Tuesday night, in which he declared the results of the election a fraud, and his continued statements on Twitter in that vein (Who needs evidence? If I say so it must be true!), increasingly have the effect of seeming like a third-act bully meltdown.
Sure, the Trump supporters who believe in QAnon, or believe that Hunter Biden’s laptop is the heart of darkness, may buy into the notion that states from Pennsylvania to Arizona were “stolen” from Trump. But in the mainstream American political establishment, and in the arena that has always mattered most, at least to Donald Trump (namely, television), the powers that be are having none of it. The TV news media, notably the stalwart voices of CNN, used the four-day countdown to Joe Biden’s victory to accomplish something major. In focusing on the meticulous, at times tedious drumbeat roll call of incremental vote totals, and what those numbers all mean, they normalized reality again.
Trump may still try to stage some sort of legal-electoral “coup,” but to anyone tethered to the real world, his protests will increasingly sound like the face-saving whine of someone who can’t admit, or even compute, the prospect of his own defeat. On the deepest level, “The mail-in votes in Pennsylvania don’t count!” is a fascist version of “The dog ate my homework!” It’s Trump clinging to the presidency, and trashing the rule of law, but mostly it’s Trump doing all he can to refuse his comeuppance, to deny that he’s now the loser he has spent his whole life running from being.
“Citizen Kane,” a movie so timeless it has now acquired Trumpian overtones, features an egomaniacal media tycoon who runs for office and gets rejected by the voters. When that happens, it triggers him in a primal way, because he thinks it means that they don’t love him, and he needed the people’s love so that it could replace the love he never got as a boy (“Rosebud”). In terms that Charles Foster Kane would appreciate, the 2020 presidential election is Trump having to confront that his daddy didn’t love him.
If the movies teach us anything, though, it’s that villains, in the end, don’t have the option to refuse their comeuppance. They have to face their fate and eat crow. That’s what happens in “Back to the Future,” when the glowering bully Biff Tannen gets a taste of the pain he caused. That’s what happens in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” when Nurse Ratched’s sadistic piety comes back to haunt her. And it’s what happens, most spectacularly, in “The Wizard of Oz,” when the Wicked Witch of the West is destroyed before our eyes in a catharsis of long-finger-nailed rage. “Look what you’ve done!” she screams. “I’m melting, melting!” And then, with a touch of despair that can almost be called tragic, she says, “Oh, what a world, what a world”! She’s talking about a world that has taken away her power. She then crumples like a melted crayon, a humiliated mass of thwarted ambition.
That’s what just happened to Donald Trump. He wasn’t simply defeated, given the boot by the American people. He got melted down. And that’s why he’ll never admit it. He’s holding the entire American democratic process hostage to prop up what’s left of his broken ego. There’s a lot of talk about how even though Trump lost, “Trumpism” is here to say. It will be standing on the sidelines, waiting in the wings, warming up for a comeback. But what does Donald Trump stand for, as a political figure, once you take away his power? He’ll be just another fulminating talk-radio host. And, of course, the cornerstone of his brand will now become the very notion that the presidency was stolen from him. He’ll make that the centerpiece of every rally, every Fox News appearance, every talk-radio hour he presides over. But it will all be Trump spinning his brokenness, licking his wounds. The Trump faithful, the true believers — the cult — will tune in. But I suspect that for most of America, Trump will simply sound like the sore loser he is. So let him spin away. It’s time to say goodnight to the bad guy.
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