Donald Trump has entered the Norma Desmond phase of his presidency.
Desmond, you'll recall, was the character at the heart of Sunset Boulevard, Billy Wilder's classic 1950 film noir — a has-been silent movie star pining for the long-gone attention of the masses, living in a crumbling-but-ostentatious mansion, given company mostly by the sycophants and enablers on her payroll, scheming constantly about how to return to the spotlight. When it becomes clear that will not happen, that she has been living out a fantasy, she lashes out destructively.
And at the end, when it comes time for her to leave her mansion, Desmond is convinced to do so only when promised that she is, at long last, taking center stage once again.
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"You see, this is my life! It always will be! Nothing else! Just us, and the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark!" she says, gazing ostentatiously into the lens. "All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up."
Sound at all familiar?
Trump's attempts to steal the 2020 election — while dangerous — have become just as darkly comic as Desmond's efforts to regain her lost fame. Last week, Trump sent Sidney Powell before the cameras to falsely allege President-elect Joe Biden had won the election only through the help of a conspiracy involving (among others) the maker of voting software, "communist money," and the deceased Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez. It was a stream of absurdity, lies, and crazy talk, too much even for Fox News' Tucker Carlson to dignify. On Sunday, Powell was dumped unceremoniously from Trump's legal team.
All this ridiculousness can be understood if you realize that Trump is doing more than just trying to keep a job he can barely be bothered to do (over the weekend he skipped out early on a virtual gathering of world leaders, after he had spoken, but before a session on the COVID-19 pandemic). Like Desmond, he can feel the spotlight slipping away, and cannot bear to give it up.
You see, the spotlight should be turning toward Biden. He is the president-elect after all, about to take office in the midst of a terrible economic and public health crisis. We should be talking more about his agenda, what he will do to dig America out of this mess, about the people who will be staffing his administration. We should be looking forward. Instead, Trump has commandeered our attention once again. He isn't just keeping Biden away from the government's legal transition process — he is stealing the bully pulpit Biden could be using to build consensus for quick action on the biggest challenges facing the country.
Some of this — not all, but some — is the news industry's fault. Whatever else you think of Donald Trump, he has been good business for The New York Times, CNN, and other outlets trying to keep their footing in a fracturing media environment. Trump is a terrible president, but he puts on a good show. Which means his departure from the White House must present an Augustinian temptation to reporters, editors, and (ahem) pundits: "Lord, give us a boring president — but not yet."
Trump, though, justifies the attention. He is still president, after all, which means that what he does still matters. And his attempt to upend America's voting laws and traditions, combined with his team's contempt for truth and fair play, means this is a genuinely scary moment in our history.
But as Trump learned this weekend, keeping the spotlight sometimes comes with a price he doesn't want to pay. He reportedly told friends that Powell was fired from his legal team because she was "too much" even for him. That doesn't compute — Trump has lately lauded the barely-connected-to-truth histrionics of second-tier conservative TV networks like OANN and Newsmax because Fox News hasn't been loyal enough for his tastes. When has "too much" ever been too much for Donald Trump?
There is one form of attention Trump despises, however: mockery. He cannot stand the thought of being laughed at. Powell's performance — and her firing — earned mockery even from prominent conservatives. That's the kind of "too much" that is too much for Trump.
In Sunset Boulevard, Norma Desmond snaps back at a character who observes she "used to be big" during the silent era. "I am big," she protests. "It's the pictures that got small." Our outgoing president may think similarly of himself, but that wouldn't be right. For decades now, he has been a master at summoning big attention. But in the ways that matter in being a decent human, a successful businessman, or a good president, Donald Trump was always small. He is ever-ready for his closeup — he just isn't good for much else.
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