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Donald Trump has generated one shock after another. First as a candidate, then as president, Trump tweeted nasty insults, promulgated conspiracy theories, mishandled the pandemic and the attendant recession, and empowered corrupt, incompetent cronies.
Dealing with these incessant hits has been like responding to a child who eats way too much sugar. Every additional morsel unleashes a whirling dervish, acting with abandon and no concern for others.
The latest jolt to our body politic is the news that Trump discussed unconstitutional means of staying in office after losing the presidential election — an imposition of martial law, seizing vote counting machines and rerunning the election. If that happened, the U.S. would be an autocracy, not a democratic republic.
A senior administration official quoted by Axios reporter Jonathan Swan warned, “it’s impossible not to start getting anxious about how this ends” when Trump is “retweeting threats of putting politicians in jail, and spends his time talking to conspiracy nuts who openly say declaring martial law is no big deal.”
In a never before needed statement, top Army leaders made it clear they won’t participate in a coup, saying, “There is no role for the U.S. military in determining the outcome of an American election.”
Yet this authoritarian sore-loserism yielded very little response from politicians.
Most likely they think Trump won’t try to use the military to stop Joe Biden from taking office. And some Republicans are still afraid of crossing Trump because they don’t want to turn off Trump’s base.
Deep tiredness is also part of the nonresponse to Trump’s latest flirtation with dictatorship. As political scientist Daniel Drenzer puts it, Trump has been the “toddler in-chief.” Because undisciplined toddlers require close attention and intervention, they are just very exhausting to be around.
As American politics recovers from Trump’s poisonous sugar high politics, three dynamics will drive it.
First, President-elect Biden brings a calmness to replace our frenetic recent reality. Biden doesn’t do name-calling and there are no tantrums. He’s not irritable, easily distracted or full of braggadocio.
It’s been comforting, really, to watch his events introducing Cabinet nominees. What we see is a grownup who works with other grownups, all of whom care about communicating and governing with quiet competence.
Take the event put together by the Biden transition last week to introduce his Climate Team. Between statements by Biden, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and individuals picked to serve in the incoming administration, listeners learned two sorts of things. One was the personal and professional lives of those selected.
But besides this inspiring, illuminating information, you could hear the administration’s strategic approach. For Biden and Harris, tackling climate change wasn’t a stand-alone concern. Rather, it was tied to health problems caused by pollution and disparities in which communities suffered from environmental damage, repairing frayed international relations, and creating millions of well-paying jobs.
Second, particularly if Mitch McConnell continues to control the U.S. Senate, passing Biden’s legislation will be exceedingly difficult. In the latest COVID bill, Republicans prioritized aid to corporations as Democrats focused on helping low-income and middle-class Americans.
Biden knows that. Barack Obama recalled in his memoir that “Biden told him of how McConnell had blocked one of his bills. When Biden tried to explain the bill’s merits, McConnell responded, ‘You must be under the mistaken impression that I care.’”
But Biden’s experience, knowledge and team will help him get some things done in Congress and through executive action. What we’ll see mostly is a slow, grinding policy process with some notable successes.
Third, Trump will lurk as a vocal observer and meddler. He’s tried to undermine the transition. If he again runs for president, he’ll freeze the race. Although his claims of non-existent voting fraud have been dismissed by the courts, most Republicans are believers.
But for most — who never approved of Trump’s job performance, didn’t back him in 2016 or 2020, and think Biden won this year’s election — Trump’s statements as a former president will just become part of the background noise.
And so Americans, recovering from the Trump era, will move on.