Trump goes out with a whimper
Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour

When a recording of President Donald Trump's call with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger appeared in the Washington Post on Sunday, it was greeted, appropriately, with intense alarm. Even typically subdued political commentators and measured legal analysts were outraged. Trump's demand that Raffensperger "find 11,780 votes," thus theoretically flipping Georgia's 16 Electoral College votes against President-elect Joe Biden, was clearly outrageous and, many argued, a violation of multiple criminal laws. It was in line with the behavior he was impeached for and could clearly be considered a high crime on its own. Paired with Trump's implicit threat that Raffensperger may be prosecuted if he doesn't comply, the whole hour-long recording featured as perhaps the most disturbing installment yet in the Republican Party's embrace of authoritarianism.

But there is an element of the call that seems to be largely escaping notice: its pure pathos.

Even as the president tries to install himself for a second term after suffering a decisive defeat at the hands of American voters — both in the Electoral College and in the popular vote, which better reflects the sentiment of the country — he couldn't help but seem pathetic.

Right at the start of the call, he made the argument that he actually won Georgia — despite multiple investigations, a machine count, a hand audit, and a recount all finding otherwise — because he had such big crowds.

"We appreciate the time and the call," Trump said. "So we've spent a lot of time on this, and if we could just go over some of the numbers, I think it's pretty clear that we won. We won very substantially in Georgia. You even see it by rally size, frankly. We'd be getting 25-30,000 people a rally, and the competition would get less than 100 people. And it never made sense."

This opening remark showed how much his ego has been damaged by his loss, and how much he bought into his own hype. It was always clear to any reasonable observer that having larger crowds at rallies doesn't necessarily correlate with having a higher vote total. Many people might be perfectly enthusiastic to vote for someone for president who they would never bother to go see give a speech. One candidate may be genuinely more entertaining for the country but not actually the person a majority thinks should run the federal government. And in the middle of a pandemic, which Democrats took more seriously than Republicans, it was little surprise Biden intentionally avoided having large crowds.

But over and over, Trump insisted that he was popular and he knew what he was doing because he could draw a large crowd. Throughout his life in the public eye, he's valued being able to draw attention over pretty much everything else. To have that strategy fail, and to have been so wrong about what his crowds meant, is hard for him to fathom.

From there, Trump launched into a diatribe, surprisingly detailed, laying out several categories of votes that he thinks were fraudulent and illegitimate and that would, if corrected, swing the outcome of the Georgia race to him. The problem, of course, is that — in addition to the fact that the vote is already certified and the Electoral College has convened — his claims are nonsensical, erroneous speculation and extrapolation, or based on delusional conspiracy fictions that have bubbled up from fringe corners of the internet.

After all this time, Trump hasn't learned that the federal government is probably the most powerful information gathering institution on the planet, all designed to serve him; instead, he still relies on the thinnest of unverified rumors from social media to make his case to overturn an election.

If he had ever learned to pay attention to reality as the institutions of the U.S. government are designed to discover it, he would likely have handled the pandemic more competently and won the election outright, anyway. He likely lost precisely because he relies on a fantasyworld that he still doesn't realize won't save him.

He also made claims that undermined his central argument, even when he thought they supported it:

And I know you would like to get to the bottom of it, although I saw you on television today, and you said that you found nothing wrong. I mean, you know, and I didn't lose the state, Brad. People have been saying that it was the highest vote ever. There was no way. A lot of the political people said that there's no way they beat me. And they beat me. They beat me in the . . . As you know, every single state, we won every state. We won every statehouse in the country. We held the Senate, which is shocking to people, although we'll see what happens tomorrow or in a few days.
And we won the House, but we won every single statehouse, and we won Congress, which was supposed to lose 15 seats, and they gained, I think 16 or 17 or something. I think there's a now difference of five. There was supposed to be a difference substantially more. But politicians in every state, but politicians in Georgia have given affidavits and are going to that, that there was no way that they beat me in the election, that the people came out, in fact, they were expecting to lose, and then they ended up winning by a lot because of the coattails. And they said there's no way, that they've done many polls prior to the election, that there was no way that they won.

Trump doesn't have all his facts right, of course — Republicans certainly didn't win "every single statehouse" — but he has correctly gleaned the Republicans did better in 2020 than expected. But if he takes as given, which he should, that many Republicans did well in the election, then he's implicitly accepting that the election results were legitimate. Otherwise, making an argument based on them doesn't make any sense. The votes for president were cast on the same ballots as all the other elections.

This has always been one of the most glaring flaws in Trump's post-election claims of fraud. If Democrats were able to steal a handful of swing states away from Trump, why couldn't they have managed to steal enough Senate races to give themselves a solid majority? That doesn't make any sense.

The pathetic truth is that Trump probably has trouble accepting this point because it would mean recognizing that he did worse when many of his colleagues did well. The big problem in his re-election campaign was himself.

That's another fact his ego seems unprepared to let him accept.

At other points in the call, Trump repeatedly cut off his own lawyers who were trying to make concrete arguments and obtain specific concessions from Raffensperger. They, too, seemed to buy into many of Trump's delusional and fringe theories about the election, but they had a more measured approach to the conversation that they hoped could encourage Raffensperger to give them some of what they wanted, such as access to additional voter data. Consider the following exchange, which starts with Trump's attorney Cleta Mitchell:

Mitchell: Well, I would say, Mr. Secretary, one of the things that we have requested and what we said was, if you look, if you read our petition, it said that we took the names and birth years, and we had certain information available to us. We have asked from your office for records that only you have, and so we said there is a universe of people who have the same name and same birth year and died.
But we don't have the records that you have. And one of the things that we have been suggesting formally and informally for weeks now is for you to make available to us the records that would be necessary —

Trump: But, Cleta, even before you do that, and not even including that, that's why I hardly even included that number, although in one state, we have a tremendous amount of dead people. So I don't know — I'm sure we do in Georgia, too. I'm sure we do in Georgia, too.
But we're so far ahead. We're so far ahead of these numbers, even the phony ballots of [name] , known scammer. You know the Internet? You know what was trending on the Internet? "Where's [name]?" Because they thought she'd be in jail. "Where's [name]?" It's crazy, it's crazy. That was. The minimum number is 18,000 for [name] , but they think it's probably about 56,000, but the minimum number is 18,000 on the [name] night where she ran back in there when everybody was gone and stuffed, she stuffed the ballot boxes. Let's face it, Brad, I mean. They did it in slow motion replay magnified, right? She stuffed the ballot boxes. They were stuffed like nobody has ever seen them stuffed before.

Trump couldn't even understand the case Mitchell was trying to make, and was annoyed that she wouldn't just push for Raffensperger to accept, whole-hog, all the wildest accusations about errors in the election. His own steadfast adherence to delusional conspiracy theories stood in the way of his own representative doing what she could to try to establish parts of those very conspiracy theories.

At the same time, there's a real crisis going on that Trump is doing little to stop. COVID-19 is surging to its worst level ever in the United States, while new and dangerous versions of the virus are emerging. The vaccines are finally here, and they work, but they're not getting out fast enough. The country isn't doing what it would take to slow the spread as the vaccine is administered widely, and despite Trump's promise that most of the country could get the shots "immediately," we've fallen behind even more reasonable goals in distribution. This means we'll likely have many, many more deaths and illnesses than were necessary. And instead of taking responsibility and trying to change course, he's blaming the states and refusing to work to fix the problem.

He's much more invested in learning the details about bogus election theft narratives and pressuring state officials to take them seriously.

This is not a man who has a firm grasp of what's going on. He's listening to people who tell him what he wants to hear — "Trump media," he calls it — and regurgitating it as best he can. Importantly, he doesn't even really care about what's true, because when Raffensperger or his lawyer, Ryan Germany, offer corrections, he just dismisses them. He won't even really listen to his lawyers if he doesn't like what they're saying.

It's a primitive and childish way of processing information, and it's how the president is spending his last days in office.

The fact that he's found himself in such a weak and pitiful state doesn't mean he's not still dangerous, of course. The presidency and Trump's particular bully pulpit still hold immense powers, and he can unleash a lot of chaos between now and Biden's inauguration, as well as in the days after. His conduct in recent weeks and months may be fundamentally weakening American democracy, and it's hard to say when or if it will fully recover.

But with Congress set to convene on Jan. 6 to officially count the votes in the presidential election, there's no viable path for Trump to be declared the winner. Military leaders have repeatedly made clear that they will not participate in a coup against the incoming administration. The one thing Trump wants most of all right now — to stay in power — is firmly out of his grasp. And in response, he is driven to whining.