Trump is growing smaller before our eyes

Trump’s delay in signing the bill will mean one fewer week of enhanced unemployment benefits for millions of struggling Americans; his demand that everyone receive checks of $2,000 instead of $600 will be ignored by Senate Republicans unwilling to do too much to stimulate the economy over which Joe Biden will preside. So after signing the bill, Trump issued a typically dishonest, self-aggrandizing and self-pitying statement, which before whining about voter fraud included this:

Fortunately, as a result of my work with Congress in passing the CARES Act earlier this year, we avoided another Great Depression. Under my leadership, Project Warp Speed has been a tremendous success, my Administration and I developed a vaccine many years ahead of wildest expectations, and we are distributing these vaccines, and others soon coming, to millions of people.

Much of this is false, but more than anything else it’s just pitiful. Trump has always demanded credit for imagined successes or the accomplishments of others, but seldom has it sounded so feeble.

According to various reports, Trump’s aides and members of Congress finally persuaded him to sign the bill by managing him like an angry toddler, letting his tantrum run its course. One of the ways they seem to have done so is by fooling him into thinking that he possesses something like a line-item veto. They unearthed a process known as “rescission,” which hasn’t been used in decades but gives the president the ability to request that individual spending items be rescinded.

So in Trump’s statement, he proclaimed that the bill included “wasteful” spending, and “I will send back to Congress a redlined version, item by item, accompanied by the formal rescission request to Congress insisting that those funds be removed from the bill.” It was an attempted assertion of strength — but a completely hollow one, since even if the White House gets around to making the request (and I’m betting it won’t), Congress can ignore it. Which it will.

And Trump is about to receive one more demonstration of his weakness: This week Congress will return and override his veto of the defense appropriation bill, offering a final humiliating coda to his extraordinarily thin legislative record. Trump’s powers, formal and informal, were never as great as he claimed. And now they’re slipping away as we head toward Jan. 6, when Congress will accept the verdict of the electoral college while he whines and moans from the sideline about how unfair it all is, to no effect whatsoever.

Nevertheless, there are still good reasons to believe that Trump will remain a powerful force after he leaves the White House; he retains the loyalty of much of his party’s base, and he will work to punish any Republican who fails to grant him the attention and allegiance he craves. By holding out the possibility that he’ll run again in 2024, he can promise the party a restoration that will wipe away the Biden presidency; that could have a strong appeal.

The myth of the stolen election is central to that project, and to the president’s own psyche: It says that the story of 2020 is not that Trump is a failure and a loser, but that he is (as always) a victim, and justice can be obtained by putting him back in his rightful place of power. But as he continues to proclaim the myth, reality might make it less compelling even to those now inclined to believe it.

For the next four years, Biden will be president. It will be his face on the nightly news and his actions on the front page of the newspaper. He will command both attention and power. And Trump? With no ability to make decisions with more practical importance, he might appear smaller than ever by comparison.

The truth is that both of these futures are possible. In one, Trump remains the leader of the opposition and a president-in-exile, his every outburst celebrated by millions of fans and his control of the GOP unchallenged. In the other, he grows smaller and smaller, his miserable complaints about the unfairness of it all only repelling people from him. We don’t know yet which will come to pass, but the second future is obviously far brighter for the rest of us. And it has never looked more likely.

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