Perhaps President-elect Joe Biden should be thankful that President Donald Trump is hosting and starring in his final White House episode, an especially egregious one. Even the faithful must wonder about shaking up the defense department because of resentment. But then what should we expect?
Historically Presidents have stood down in relatively gracious ways. When cooperation is the denouement, the spotlight swiftly shifts to the incoming President and various critiques of his moves headline the daily news. Sometimes the critiques are not so admiring.
Today Trump gives Biden cover on two fronts and continues to provide reporters and pundits a narrative bubble in which they don’t have to think. Most importantly for Biden, Trump’s temperament reminds voters why Biden was elected. Attitudes are defined by the age-old question, “compared to what?”. As this final episode unfolds I suspect that even some of the Trump voters who didn’t feel an intense loyalty are happy to count down the days till departure.
My experience with politicians is that they prefer to avoid coverage of the process that leads to the grand announcements. Political processes are enduringly messy and often downright ugly as big egos surrounded by their spear carriers jockey for advantage in the new center of power. Trump provides cover.
And the reporters who have earned a lifetime award in Trump trashing have yet new indignities to animate their minds and pens. Trashing the President’s conduct is much easier than drilling down on personnel and policy. Biden’s choices for his cabinet and White House staff signal policy directions that beg to be at the head of the news and analysis.
But, since Trump coverage is often a magnet for readership frequency, let me add a few paragraphs.
Democracy is hard. Look around the world, ascendancy is often paired with authoritarianism—China is a poster child as they lock down the Uighurs and undermine democracy in Hong Kong.
America has been for several centuries the antidote. We, Americans, have told the story of sharing power by our actions. Sure the thoughts and the words of the founders were crucial but they are abstract. Our actions have given life to the theories and for the most part our dedication to freedom, democracy, federalism, republicanism, and more recently equality, have been compelling messages to people yearning to be free.
In much of the world, head of government succession doesn’t work well. Attempted and actual coups are not unusual. Power struggles dissipate national strength and not infrequently at the end of a gun.
President Trump’s use of the courts is how we do things. So I certainly do not begrudge his right to challenge election results on the allegation of evidence-based cheating of one kind or another. What is maddening, however, is the insincerity of knowledgeable Republicans who give verbal support to his related storyline—the election was stolen. Fear of political retribution writes only one script—false.
But, every responsible leader (yes, if you are in the Congress you have a public responsibility) must make clear that as Trump litigates he must also instruct his administration officials to open the windows and cooperate with the President-elect and his transition team. I do not know of any constituency that supports a transitional breakdown in government continuity. And that is especially true with the institutions that protect us from various foreign and domestic threats.
Some have reported that in private conversations President Trump has spoken of running for President again in 2024. While the winning script in contemporary politics is uncertain, Trump supporters might want to consider the perishability of personality cults. Trump and his most ardent supporters might well find that free speech, age, overexposure, and parody will deplete his attraction. Indeed, his 2020 loss has already hurt.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.