Trump is a like a sentient AI robot who must connect himself to his power source for at least four hours each day in order to function during the other twenty. That regenerative machine, of course, is the television, infusing him with lifeblood every moment he sees and hears himself on it. He established this addiction during his campaign for President, made even more intense by the euphoria he mainlined at his rallies, which he could relive over and over again on the DVR. If his favorite coverage was on Fox, he no doubt got even more of a rush seeing the “fake news” media cover him. They may have been attacking him editorially, but he was manipulating their greed for ratings into an estimated $2 billion in unearned coverage. No greater pleasure for a con man than pulling off a con.
His ascension to the Presidency locked in this juggernaut of constant coverage. Even his most rambling, incoherent or nonsensical rants from such a perch were, by definition, news. When Covid hit and he couldn’t do any more rallies, he took over the microphone at Covid news conferences, to disastrous, bleached, consequences. Abandoning that, he barreled back to center stage by staging super-spreader campaign rallies. Even contracting Covid himself changed nothing, culminating in the horribly memorable drive around Walter Reed, all because he could not live through even one day without seeing himself on TV.
Trump’s narcissistic compulsion to be on camera is well-known but worth revisiting because it begs the question: How will he function when he can no longer command a fraction of the attention to which he is accustomed?
He will undoubtedly try to maintain this coverage via a subscriber-based news channel. I doubt, however, that as many of his voters as he thinks will be willing to part with $7 a month to see programming that reports so heavily on Trump that it will be about as exciting to watch as North Korean State TV. (They got all that entertainment for free, don’t forget. With much higher stakes to keep it interesting.) His renewal rates will likely be dismal. Still, it will make for a decent income stream — that is for someone not facing $500 million in debt coming due, plus millions in legal fees to defend against the legal onslaught of multiple suits about to be unleashed. And it’s hard to imagine any attempt to recommit the massive tax fraud that worked so well in the past, not when he’s trying to avoid going to prison for tax evasion.
He will call news conferences, and only his network will show up. That will prove wholly unsatisfying for a man who woke up every morning certain that somehow this would be the day that ABC or MSNBC or CNN would see the light, that they would recognize him as the stable genius he always told them he was. Now even that delusional hope will be gone. The executives at the “Fake News” media outlets won’t even be aware of his latest blather. And when his retweets plunge as his followers grow bored, he will feel like he’s swirling into a gilded toilet.
Whether many of his acolytes will flock to the rallies he inevitably mounts is debatable, as hospitals will remain close to a breaking point even in the red states for many months, and governors will be able to ban the gatherings in a way they couldn’t while he was in office. When a vaccine becomes widely available, people will be getting back to their lives with a vengeance and Joe Biden will be getting credit for the end of Covid and the genuinely rebounding economy that follows. We can expect a hemorrhaging of support from the voters who swallowed the lie that Trump’s success was somehow theirs. That’s not a message that a loser can hope to sell.
Donald Trump’s celebrinotoriety will remain substantial. But, having lived so long on an unimaginably high plateau of media attention, he will be like a junkie accustomed to the purest heroin who is suddenly forced to service his raging addiction only with cough syrup. He will still desperately watch TV several hours a day, uncomprehending why the mainstream media no longer feels the need to slavishly follow his every move.
This is a man who only feels alive by seeing himself on camera. When he is deprived of that sustenance, he will feel more dead inside than he even feels now, as he grapples with the incontrovertible post-electoral truth that he will never be rid of the stench of loserdom.
Many of us are panicking because Trump is threatening to run in 2024 — as if the man who would run then would bear much resemblance to the pre-November 2 tyrant we’ve suffered under. I’m not worried. There isn’t enough Adderall in the world to replace the elixir of constant, glaring attention that comes only with being the most powerful man in the world. Mr. Ex-President will be all Ex and no President, a punctured hot air balloon with no flame to keep it aloft, thumping to the earth in deflated ignominy.
If he had a heart, he would die of a broken one. Instead he is likely to suffer the fading fate of Joe McCarthy or Walter Winchell, a huge pimple on the complexion of American history, the ugliest asterisk ever.