Three Donald Trumps and the Judgement of History


In the astonishing aftermath of Joe Biden’s convincing win in the US Presidential Election there now seem to be three separate Donald Trumps locked in the White House. None of them are him; but he is simultaneously all of them. Shakespeare would have understood this figure; at once propelled to the throne by the forces of history over which he had no control, and yet the author of his own remorseless downfall once he was there.

One of these three Donald Trumps is the twitterer – a fatally wounded animal, raging against fortune and unable to comprehend how he could be so unpopular with slightly more than half the American electorate when he is adored by the other half. This is the apolitical, other-worldly Donald who inhabits his own reality and has shown a genuine ability to bend the objective truth of events by sheer will-power and self-belief to his own version that is believed by many noisy millions of his supporters. Like Othello, the wife-murderer trapped in his chamber, he blasts the world that has brought him to this and ditches the last threads of self-awareness in self-pitying anger.

And then there is the rational Donald Trump – the man who could run a business empire, albeit not without successive bankruptcies, but who thinks he knows about power, big deals and who believes that he has to be a bad loser if he is to be a winner. This Donald Trump knows that he lost the election fair and square. This one hoped against hope that something would turn up at the eleventh hour to reverse the trend, or at least to buy time; or somehow to upset the deck and revive his chances of hanging onto the White House – something, anything. In politics, playing for time is often not the worst option. But elections are not open-ended processes and in the US Constitution the business of transferring power is controlled by certain dates set in statute. And like a military commander who stayed just too long in a losing position, Donald Trump is now surrounded and his options are gone. So, the Commander in Chief has to find a ladder down which to climb so that he can vacate the White House – or be ejected from it – before 20 January 2021. He needs a form of words, a veil of respectability, to rescue him from the position the twitterer Donald put him in, even as he regularly relapses into that wounded and howling animal.

And then there is the third Donald Trump, the one that is really frightened of the real inquisitor – the judgement of history. More in his nightmares than legions of Democrats lining up to accuse him during his wretched sleep, the judgement of history looms over him, as it does every leader. Political power is transitory, but the judgements of history have a tendency to be final, with very little scope for an appeal, except among a learned few historians. The judgement of history will certainly be that like George Bush snr and Jimmy Carter, he was only a one-term president, rejected by the American people after a short trial run. But supposing the judgement is that he was the worst president in living memory – or even the worst president ever? That is a judgement to chill the heart of any modern-day Richard III, facing not just death but eternal disgrace.   

But the third Donald Trump has also been, perhaps only half-consciously, developing a sly plan to influence the judgement of history as it fast approaches. The election was ‘a steal’; there was ‘massive corruption’ and ‘voter fraud’ involved; US democracy has been attacked by a Democrat-led coup. No matter that there is no evidence for any of this. As some regimes in the 1930s learned, if the lie was big enough and repeated often enough, then some of it would stick anyway and create conspiracy theories from which many political strands could be spun. And in the present post-truth era, where the echo chambers of social media allow alternative realities and the wildest conspiracy theories to flourish, there is some chance that Donald Trump might create his own judgement of history. The ‘stolen election of 2020’, thinks this Donald Trump, will become the new ‘who shot John Kennedy?’ conspiracy story that will run at least as long as that one has. And as he bounces around between his three alter egos, perhaps there are times when he is convinced by it himself. And he can keep fuelling the conspiracy when he eventually finds the ladder down which he can climb from the Oval Office where the first Donald Trump presently holds him hostage.

The ‘stolen election’ conspiracy gives this Donald Trump his way out. It gives him his lines for the years ahead as he, and his family, have to live with the hardening judgement of history. This sly Donald Trump may also feel that the grand conspiracy theory will help him next year as he faces the New York State Prosecutors’ Office, who will be first in line to deliver papers on Mr Trump as soon as possible when he has ceased to be President. They appear to have a number of financial and tax charges to lay – which will, of course, be yet more evidence of the Democrat-led grand conspiracy that stole from him a transformative second term in the White House and delivered the government of the country into the hands of its enemies.  

Will the ‘stolen election’ conspiracy affect the judgement of history in the long run? Probably not. It is more likely to deepen its damning nature. Nevertheless, the Trump Administration rode a wave of something genuine in US social history. The Administration and its widespread bases of support were not a political aberration, even if the man who led it was. Nor were those bases repudiated by the electorate – more than 70 million voted to continue with them.

But the man himself continues to struggle between his different alter egos to avoid the reality of personal humiliation. Dignity has never been his strong suit and is unlikely to emerge now, except perhaps fleetingly if he finds the political ladder to clamber out of the Oval Office window. Like Shakespeare’s Lear, he is expelled from his kingdom with only half his wits intact. But unlike King Lear, he is very unlikely to reach any magnificence in his personal tragedy. At best maybe, Lear’s sly and bitter fool.