The Plot Trump Lost

When was the last time you listened to Donald Trump for longer than 30 seconds? Longer than a clip sailing by in a tweet or a TikTok or packaged on the evening news? Lovers and haters alike seem filled to the brim with information about this man, unable to take in any more or alter their view of him.

If you haven’t lately, he talks about the 2020 election a lot, still, but in ways that are a little different from before.

Onstage, sometimes he refers to it with a certain subversive lightness, like another thing he’s not supposed to repeat but does, like a punchline. “You speak up a little bit about the election — ‘He’s an insurrectionist,’” he said in Waterloo, Iowa, this month, to laughs.

But sometimes the 2020 election as Mr. Trump describes it sounds like a crisis he cannot move beyond. “Had the election not … turned out the way it did — I’ll try to be nice,” he began in Iowa. “Had it not turned out the way it did — you know when I say that, I mean,” he said, then with more emphasis, “had the election not been rigged.”

What if, what if. He was in an open-air warehouse on a windy, 51-degree Saturday and would return to the hypothetical again that day — had the election not been rigged, if the election hadn’t been rigged. The enthused crowd sat; eight Secret Service agents stood, flanking an elevated Mr. Trump and staring off into crisscrossing directions under an arched ceiling.

The overall effect of the event — standing security detail, a big American flag against a cinder-block wall, “I Want It That Way” by the Backstreet Boys playing and at least eight people in T-shirts with the Trump mug shot on them — was like a concentrate of a Trump rally. We’ve been doing this so long as a country, he and we have become more abstract, operating in shorthand and fragments of the past.

Onstage, he seamlessly moved between prepared text to talking about whatever was on his mind, then back in disorienting intimations, suggestions, asides and loops. “Household incomes rose by a record $6,000 a year under Trump, right? I love that mug shot. I love that beautiful woman right there with the mug shot,” he said at another event that afternoon, in a hotel convention center in Cedar Rapids.

He’ll talk about how the day he stopped calling Hillary Clinton “crooked” was a good one for her, she celebrated that night, now he calls her beautiful, because she’s a great beauty — then with no variation or substantive transition beyond the word “but,” he goes back to prepared stuff about how the 30-year mortgage rate recently hit a 23-year high. A long riff about what prosecutors aren’t doing to the radical left, straight back into “but we delivered record increases in real family income.”

Amid these digressions and jokes and tales about negotiations with foreign leaders, he’ll bring back a menacing clarity of voice so that each precise word about the indictments against him is all you can hear or think: “People realize that they’re fake and phony and they’re political.”

As he used to say, he once had a nice life, which he gave up for this. But Mr. Trump said it the other night in West Palm Beach with the added dimension that “instead, I sit it in courtrooms.” He talks about how all the cases against him are connected and how they’re really after you, the voter, and he’s just standing in the way — though each time he said this in Iowa, his heart didn’t seem quite in it.

He brings a lot more emotion to tracing everything going wrong in the world back to: What if they hadn’t rigged the election? Then, in the dream sequences that pepper Mr. Trump’s speeches, there would be no inflation, no war in Ukraine, no bad Afghanistan withdrawal. Forget what we’ll do now or what we should have done then.

The broad themes Mr. Trump is working with right now are that Mr. Biden picked economic policies that are crazy and because the Afghanistan withdrawal was so bad, the world has fallen apart — but with 2020 always lurking nearby. “All these things wouldn’t have happened if the election weren’t rigged,” he said in Cedar Rapids. “If the election weren’t rigged, you wouldn’t have Ukraine, you wouldn’t have had any of it. It’s so sad what they’ve done. There’s plenty of evidence. It’s all there. You know it.” In Florida last week, he added one to the mix: Hamas would never have attacked Israel. “You’re in a different world,” he said in West Palm Beach, “and it’s getting worse.”

Being assigned to one of the juries in these pending Trump cases would change someone’s life— a dividing line between the past and future. “Don’t use your real names with each other,” the judge told jurors at the beginning of E. Jean Carroll’s defamation trial. “My advice to you is not to identify yourselves, not now and not for a long time,” he told them on the last day.

“When I would get in my car, I was like, ‘I just left that, and I have to just go do my job now?’” one member of the Fulton County special grand jury told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I just know things that are hard to know.’”

If people seem to be unable to take in more information about Mr. Trump and if the election is shaping up to be a familiar repeat, the year ahead will not be. He views the world as one of perception, to be worked over and over again until it bends. To serve as a juror in this random selected position of authority, tasked with assessing what happened, for it to be your responsibility to step outside yourself and whatever you think about Mr. Trump and make decisions about him and the law is a weight that only a few dozen people will know. The rest of us will be outside in the chaos of perception, trying to make sense of it.

And he’ll be inside and outside, perhaps still revisiting the decisive moment of his defeat and linking it with anything that’s gone wrong. “We would have had a deal with Iran. We would have had no inflation. Russia would have never ever in a million years gone into Ukraine,” he said in Waterloo. His sense of what if, what if, can draw a listener back further, to think about how much “what if” still shapes politics.

The entire Republican Party has, for nearly a decade now, operated on a dream sequence of the possibility of passive collapse. What if he just went away? When Joe Biden ran in 2020, his campaign looked to correct the decisive mistake of the past: Mr. Trump’s victory in 2016. That was not, Mr. Biden often suggested, who we were. The implicit promise was the restoration of morality and normality. What if the 2020 election could be a reset?

It’s easy to follow all these dream sequences into another: What if Mr. Trump could just return to New York, had never run for president, were no longer talking in loops? What if the country didn’t have to live through a remix of the 2020 election or change people’s lives by putting them on juries or live in the unknown we have not yet really reckoned with of what it will be like to live through the trials of our former president?

This election seems like the one before only on the surface. Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden and the rest of us keep getting older; everything and everyone seems a little fried. Eight years in, there’s nothing that weird about seeing people wearing T-shirts with his mug shot staring back at him while a Backstreet Boys song from 1999 plays, the entire Republican field sounding like echoes of Mr. Trump as he talks about Mrs. Clinton, moving in and out of the present and back in time sonically.

Mr. Trump remembers what things used to be like. “A normal politician gets indicted, and we’ve seen it hundreds of times over the years,” he said in Iowa, though he’s done versions of this elsewhere, too.

He described that guy’s approach after getting “the pink slip” and dropped his voice into a washed monotone. “‘Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to announce that I am going home to my family. I will fight, I will fight, fight, fight for the rest of my life.’”

“Do you understand? This is standard,” he said. “With me, it’s different.”

Katherine Miller is a staff writer and editor in Opinion.

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