Millions of Americans — 88.7 million of them, to be precise — have been waking up for the last three weeks with an unfamiliar sense of emptiness. Reaching for their phones for their accustomed fix of outrage and bemusement, an erratically capitalized, eccentrically punctuated guide to the obsessions and grievances that would drive the day’s news cycle, they are forced to acknowledge that the once unthinkable has occurred: @RealDonaldTrump is really gone for good from Twitter.
And not just Twitter: The man whose office refers to him as “45th President Donald J. Trump” has been almost entirely silent in public since Jan. 20, when he became what the rest of the country knows as “former President Trump.” No raucous rallies featuring “two-minute hates” against the media. No impromptu tarmac question-and-answer sessions with reporters. No rambling phone chats with Fox News hosts, the ones that sometimes went on so long the interviewers had to gently cut him off by reminding him of how busy he must be. Even the 2024 campaign that he was widely expected to launch on Jan. 21 hasn’t gotten off the ground, except for the part that involves raising money.
“The once ubiquitous Trump has been plotting out his political future,” Politico wrote not long after he went into his Florida exile. “But without a social media loudspeaker through which to tease his plans, few know what to expect next, including his own former aides.”
One person who has heard from Trump is the “QAnon congresswoman,” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who bragged about receiving a “GREAT call” from Trump on Saturday, as she faced calls for her resignation or removal from Congress in light of conspiratorial and anti-Semitic rantings that keep coming to light. She didn’t specify what was great about the call, and Trump hasn’t commented publicly.
The obvious explanation for Trump’s unaccustomed reticence is that he is busy preparing his defense for his upcoming impeachment trial in the Senate. Part of his preparations involved replacing one set of lawyers over the weekend with new ones, including a former Pennsylvania district attorney best known for declining to prosecute actor Bill Cosby over allegations he drugged and sexually assaulted a woman, allegations that resurfaced years later and resulted in Cosby’s conviction.
Consistent with his refusal to concede defeat, Trump reportedly wants to base his defense on his own bogus claims that he actually won reelection, rather than the procedural argument that his impeachment was mooted when he left office. That is a claim that 45 Republican senators have already signaled they accept, which would give him an automatic acquittal. The case that the election was stolen from him by Democrats was raised in dozens of lawsuits filed by his campaign and other Republican officials in November and December and has been uniformly rejected in the courts. He will almost certainly be acquitted anyway — it takes 67 senators for a conviction — but for Trump’s lawyers to try to make the case could just as easily call attention to how flimsy it was in the first place.
But there’s not much evidence of activity on that front. Where are the investigators fanning out across the country looking for the legendary hordes of deceased citizens who cast votes on Nov. 3? The subpoenas for the Dominion voting machines that in Trump’s fantasies were rigged against him? (His bulldog defender, Rudy Giuliani, has been sued for defamation by Dominion for an eye-catching $1.3 billion, which might largely have foreclosed that line of inquiry.) Indeed, Trump’s insistent claim that the election was stolen from him — which his supporters took as signifying license to steal it back by invading the Capitol — is central to the case against him. Raising it as a defense runs the paradoxical risk of making the accusation seem more credible.
Another possible explanation for Trump’s silence is that he is, belatedly, discovering the virtues of discretion — particularly now that he no longer enjoys the immunities and perks of office, such as having the Department of Justice to do his bidding. The writer E. Jean Carroll, who claims Trump raped her in a New York department store dressing room years ago, is suing him for defamation because in denying her accusation he called her a liar. Under Attorney General William Barr, the Department of Justice undertook to defend the suit, but the Biden administration might not be so compliant.
Or maybe it’s just that Trump hasn’t yet found a form of expression as convenient and congenial as Twitter. It is no exaggeration that Trump’s political career owes as much to Twitter as to “The Apprentice.” He understood, better than any other political figure, that he could use that platform to reach voters directly, without the expense of buying TV commercials or the inconvenience of media fact-checkers or the awkward constraints of grammar or logic. It was a venue for him to feed his insatiable desire for approval (“Do you think Putin will be going to The Miss Universe Pageant in November in Moscow - if so, will he become my new best friend?” he tweeted on June 18, 2013) and to boast about his television ratings, approval ratings, IQ, money, golf game (“Just won The Club Championship at Trump International Golf Club in Palm Beach…”) and even his hair (retweeting a fan who wrote that his “hair is magnificent. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.”)
But above all, Twitter’s staccato, telegraphic style is the perfect medium for Trump’s preferred form of discourse, the insult that gains force by sheer repetition, rather than, say, plausibility. Trump gleefully pursued grudges and resentments against enemies including Barack Obama, who was the subject of fully 1,686 of his posts — nearly one out of 30 — as recently as Dec. 30; Hillary Clinton (887, of which 366 refer to her as “Crooked Hillary”); Rosie O’Donnell (66); and Fox News (348, which sequentially chart his delight at being interviewed on air, appreciation for their obsequious coverage and, more recently, outrage toward anchors he considered insufficiently fawning). The New York Times has compiled a comprehensive list of the hundreds of people, organizations, places and ideas Trump insulted on Twitter from when he declared his candidacy, in 2015, through Jan. 19, 2021, running alphabetically from ABC News (“knowingly have a sick and biased AGENDA”) through Kim Jong-un (“I would NEVER call him short and fat”), to media proprietor Mort Zuckerman (a “dopey clown”). You can’t put out a press release under the letterhead of “45th President” Trump just to insult Whoopi Goldberg (“never had what it took”), or maybe you can, but it lacks the emotional satisfaction of sending out a tweet and watching the likes and retweets pile up by the thousands.
In fact, as with so many things about Trump, an explanation rooted in the man’s personality may be the simplest and closest to the truth, the implicit point of Mary Trump’s biography of her estranged uncle, “Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man.” Mary Trump, a mental health professional herself, describes the 45th president as unstable, cruel, vain, greedy and — as numerous armchair psychologists have discerned — narcissistic, a personality type that reacts with rage and/or hurt withdrawal to any form of rejection. And what could be a greater rejection than losing a presidential election?
Author Laurence Leamer, a Palm Beach resident who wrote the 2019 book “Mar-a-Lago: Inside the Gates of Power at Donald Trump’s Presidential Palace,” told the Associated Press that Trump’s interest since leaving Washington is having sycophants “stroke his ego.”
“He goes through his days and people tell him he’s fantastic, he’s great, he’s unbelievable — that’s what he wants,” Leamer said.
It’s worth remembering that during the campaign Trump promised that if he lost, “you’ll never see me again.” Not many people believed him, but maybe we should have taken him at his word.
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