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What will the New York Times do when Trump goes? An entire industry of outraged journalists and authors has grown out of the Donald's presidency

Sure, he's a narcissistic sociopath. But he's not dull. Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Sure, he's a narcissistic sociopath. But he's not dull. Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

October 8, 2020   4 mins

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that two months from now Donald J Trump has left the White House. And, to simplify things, let’s say — though we can be no means 100% confident in doing so — that he does not leave in the back of a paddy-wagon or the back of a hearse. I mean, let’s say that the election takes place, Joe Biden wins by a comfortable enough margin that even Trump realises that the jig’s up.

Let’s say he doesn’t fight the whole way to the Supreme Court, doesn’t try to start a civil war, doesn’t throw two arms around a stout leg of the Resolute Desk and have to be dragged crying and blubbering in a most undignified way from the Oval Office. Let’s say that. What happens next? Who are the winners and the losers?

Well, there’s the big man himself, for a start. There’s no question that Trump wouldn’t much like losing office. Defeat in the election would hurt his ego in ways that many of us will find it exquisitely sweet to imagine. Also, a return to civilian life would pose him two big problems. One is that he would be liable for criminal prosecution and civil litigation in so many departments you wouldn’t quite know where to begin. No doubt he’ll have a go at issuing a blanket pardon to himself, on all counts, before he leaves office.

That may help with all the Mueller stuff, the emoluments clause and so on; but it wouldn’t be of much use with civil cases over his various sexual and financial shenanigans. Also, if the leaks of his tax returns are to be believed, he’s soon about to have to find half a billion dollars or so to pay back his various creditors — and he’s no longer going to have the griftable assets of the Presidency to help pay them off. I know: your heart pumps jelly-babies, right?

But spare a thought for the real victims in all this. It will be all the people on my side: all those handwringing liberals whose dearest wish is the removal of the kandy-koloured tangerine-flake lie-machine from the White House. An entire industry has been built on the Trump outrage machine, and it has been as profitable and exhilarating an enterprise for his opponents as it has been for his family members. No longer.

Where does The Resistance go if it doesn’t have anything to resist? As Sleepy Joe ambles into the White House in his Wee Willy Winky nightcap, promising an era of sensible things done quietly, of technocratic solutions to tricky problems, of bipartisan fence-mending and all that sort of boring stuff, all the energy will go out of politics. The great glorious mad balloon-economy of Politics Under Trump will sort of… deflate.

The ideologues, conmen and chancers who rode Trump’s slipstream will slope back off to obscure internet talk radio stations, and it’s nice to have a giggle imagining Sebastian Gorka and Dinesh D’Souza resuming their academic careers. But so, too, will the characters whose public profiles were created, revived or energised on the back of Trump: Eric “Time for some Game Theory” Garland, Rick Wilson, David Frum, Louise Mensch, Claude Taylor, Sarah Kendzior and so on. No more inventive Never Trump button badges or amusing helium balloons. No more 98-tweet threads explaining why THIS. We will no longer be on the brink of a Philip Roth dystopia. Even Devin Nunes’s Cow, alas, will return to pasture.

And the comedians: people like Trevor Noah, Alec Baldwin, Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, Sarah Cooper and Piers Morgan. Like the alternative comics who flourished in the UK in Thatcher’s 1980s, these characters have drawn their energy from the aggression of the White House. They’ll have to find new ways to be funny – and if you ask me, it’s going to feel just a bit of a let-down sending up the Biden administration. John Major’s aertex underpants were never quite a substitute for the Iron Lady’s handbag.

Twitter’s share price will likely halve in value the day after Trump leaves the White House. Of course Trump himself will continue to send out ever more forlorn and irrelevant all-caps tweets, but those tweets will just be the sort of tweets any bitter ex-president could send. Millions of people are not going to log on every morning, as they once did, asking: did he start a war yet? He said what about who? He cratered which industry in 140 characters? This will be sad for ex-president Trump, but sad too for all the people who made Twitter careers out of being rude about him.

And even Fox News will slump. Nobody in power will now need to pay it the blindest bit of attention. And if — as seems quite likely — Trump’s post-presidential moneyspinner is establishing Trump TV, he’ll end up splitting its audience. Poor old Fox will most likely be left with the intellectuals, while the fun, salt-of-the-earth people who bulked out its viewing figures — the white supremacists, the survivalists and the toothless gun-freaks — will defect to Trump TV.

All those liberal organs of “resistance” have boomed in the age of Trump. I remember the New York Times’s CEO Mark Thompson telling me what brilliant things Trump’s denunciations of the “failing New York Times” had done for its circulation. The New Yorker, CNN, PBS, MSNBC, The Washington Post… watch their audiences taper off, their paginations thin down, as they are forced into a grim and dreary return to the status quo ante in an age of declining advertising spend and a moribund industry. “Democracy Dies In Darkness” sounds pretty cool. “Liberal Newspapers Ail In The Gloaming” not so much so.

Think, too, of the nice, liberal publishing industry. It has — especially in the US — become more or less a Trump publishing industry. A fresh blockbusting, zillion-selling Trump expose seems to come out every week. Woodward, Wolff, Mattis, Cohen, Michael Lewis, Mary Trump, Comey, Bolton, The Mooch etc; not to mention the smattering of supportive works from Fox News personalities, and administration stooges. Dear little Donald Trump Jr somehow persuaded the Republican National Convention to buy enough copies of his Triggered to make it a bestseller.

The critic Carlos Lozada claims to have read 150 such books by way of reasearch for his What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era. At the beginning of next year, all that will change. Like the first green shoots of some tentative rewilding project, airport bookshops will start to grow over once again with John Grisham novels, leadership manuals, and books about how to give a successful Ted Talk.

Politics, publishing and the media, in other words, will start to return to normal. And though, God knows, nobody sensible will be sorry to see Trump go, don’t let’s pretend that even the most fervent of his opponents won’t, after they stop punching the air, feel just that tiny little bit let down. As Julian Barnes wrote in Flaubert’s Parrot: “Isn’t the most reliable form of pleasure … the pleasure of anticipation? Who needs to burst into fulfilment’s desolate attic?”

Sam Leith is literary editor of The Spectator. His forthcoming book, The Haunted Wood: A History of Childhood Reading, is out in September.

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