Earlier this week, Axios reported that Donald Trump is considering a “made-for-TV grand finale” during which he’d dramatically leave the White House on Inauguration Day and fly Air Force One down to Florida. There, he’d hold a rally for his supporters (that would run counter to Biden’s inauguration), announce his 2024 candidacy, and likely begin an Avignon presidency from Mar-a-Lago.
Like most of Trump’s ideas, his “finale” is completely deranged and bad for the country. It’s also exactly what America deserves.
Electing Donald Trump wasn’t an aberration. His shocking victory and destructive presidential term were a direct product of the American conservative movement run amok, a malinformed electorate, and an obsession with television. Trump is the first person to successfully subvert the two party system by channeling conservative voters’ disaffection with political elites into a concrete populist movement (at least in name if not practice). And he did so by eschewing longstanding political norms and, frankly, being really good on TV. Trump’s instinct for capturing media attention and understanding the audience better than broadcasters did is what ultimately got him elected. Major news media is still focused on ratings and horse race political coverage, which means Trump will continue making news long after he’s left Washington.
For the last four years Trump has tried to turn his every action and word into made-for-TV political theater. Sometimes it’s worked, sometimes it hasn’t—but his unpredictability and general destructiveness have held us captive by default. How do you not pay attention to the person with his finger on the nuclear button as he mulls mutual destruction with North Korea? Or threatens to start an illegal war in Iran? Or treats a global pandemic killing hundreds of thousands of his own country’s people as a public relations issue? Journalists, commentators, and politicians alike have tried to explain away Trump’s antics as some blip in the American political system, but how could that possibly account for an entire political party falling in line behind him or sympathetic news organizations playing to his every whim? And how does it answer for the 74 million people that voted for him this year?
Trump is a feature of the system, not a bug. It was only a matter of time until someone exploited voters’ dissatisfaction with establishment politics and the media’s preference of ratings over truth. Leaving the presidency in dramatic fashion will work because people won’t be able to resist watching how biblically stupid it’s going to be and that media organizations will be forced to cover it. It’ll probably be relegated to the B- or C-block or sit below the fold as some passing news story, but no president has ever done anything like this before and Trump knows it. Flying off to a rally as he starts his presidency-in-exile is so unprecedented and colossally batshit that it’s almost irresponsible not to cover it in some form.
Even the threat of a Trump Avignon presidency is undeniably bad for America. He’ll keep collecting donations, feeding his supporters’ anger and distrust of the American political system as he gears up to tear it down once again. Trump will continue sowing discord and division, jumping on every Joe Biden misstep and concocting political scandals in plain daylight—basically doing what he does now, but without the scrutiny of the presidency (particularly on the legality of his actions). It might be a good idea to prosecute him, but since Biden doesn’t seem too keen on that, Trump will continue his vice-laden raging existence in perpetuity, occasionally making waves and stealing headlines.
It doesn’t matter how obvious the stunt or distraction is—the fact that we sorta kinda need to see what crazy thing Trump does next is the source of his power. Collectively ignoring him won’t work. Whether we’re blindly loyal to him, keeping tabs on the historical context of his actions, or trying to clown every single thing he does, we’ll never be able to completely avert our eyes. Trump, despite his (former) anti-establishment bonafides, is a unique creation of the American political system and a weird extension of ourselves, whether we want to admit it or not. Watching his bizarro exit is part of our penance for creating him.