January 19, 2021 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
Trump was never made of Teflon
On his last day, reassessing a political myth.
Today is Donald Trump’s last full day as president. While that’s cause for celebration, it’s also opportunity to look back and ask ourselves: Are the things we thought were true really true? I have in mind the notion that the president, during his time in office as well as his business life, has never faced serious consequences. According to Matt Flegenheimer and Maggie Haberman, writing in the Sunday Times, “the relationship between his words and their consequences has been fairly straightforward: He says what he wants, and nothing particularly durable tends to happen to him.” But:
in the final frames of his presidency, Mr. Trump is confronting an unfamiliar fate. He is being held to account as never before for things he has said, finding his typical defenses—denial, obfuscation, powerful friends, claiming it was all a big joke—insufficient in explaining away a violent mob acting in his name.
Put another way, the president was “Teflon Don” all the way up to the moment he ordered a mob attack of the United States Capitol. In the past, Trump could say whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted, and the GOP would stand by him. Now, for the first time, a president is twice impeached. Now, for the first time, this president is facing “durable” consequences. Twitter banned him. His business empire is tottering. His biggest lender cut him off. And: “Some once-reliable Republican congressional loyalists are revisiting their commitment, threatening his grip on the party, even as the president’s popularity with much of his support base remains undimmed.”
Consequences stuck to him until he sank under their weight.
But Flegenheimer and Haberman’s framing is more artistic than empirical. They want to write about “the irony of a president felled by the very formula that powered his rise: inflammatory speech and a self-regard that has congealed at times into functional self-delusion.” So they elevated Trump’s boast that he “could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and wouldn’t lose any voters” in order to knock it down. The Times prides itself on being aloof. The result is columns invoking Greek tragedy.
That’s not to say there’s no truth in their framing. It’s to say there’s probably not as much truth as the imprimatur of America’s “newspaper of record” would normally suggest. As I have said before, Trump was never made of Teflon. Things stick. They always stick. It’s just frequently hard to tell they’re sticking. In time, I think it will be clear that consequences didn’t slip off him so much as accumulate surely, slowly, then suddenly, until his presidency sank under their collective weight and out of sight.
Over time, students of American history will ask themselves why Donald Trump was a one-term president when virtually all incumbents are given another term. The answers will be various, of course, but all of them will begin with his having cheated to win the first time (in a conspiracy with the Russian government). They will end with his having cheated a second time (first, in a criminal conspiracy to smear Joe Biden in the 2020 election, second by actually leading an attempted overthrow of the US government).
Between the beginning and the end, Trump was never popular with the majority, not even once. Meanwhile, he allowed more than 400,000 individuals to die from a once-in-a-century plague. He never took responsibility. He never once offered compassion or contrition. He covered up for his ignorance, carelessness and mistakes. He covered up the fact that he was covering all of that up. Most of all, he lied, and he lied, and he lied.
Impeached twice for cheating twice. Take some comfort knowing that youngsters will see justice in that. And they will probably see justice in Trump’s rise being a white-power backlash against 21st-century democratic politics (embodied by the country’s first Black president) while Biden’s rise was a backlash against native-born fascism.
The lesson for presidents going forward is to never lose sight of being everyone’s president, never forget the need to expand your base, never give an inaugural address informing everyone, right from the start, that you’re the head of a suicide cult instead of a political coalition, and, above everything else, never ever ever commit treason. The new conventional wisdom should be that the president who betrays his country is a one-term, twice-humiliated pariah-in-the-making, who is also, without presidential immunity, facing the prospect of financial ruin. According to the Post, civil attorneys representing Trump’s myriad victims await the clock striking noon tomorrow.
If you mean Trump was never brought down by things that would have brought down other presidents, then I suppose, yes, he was made of Teflon. But that perspective is contingent. It reflects the here and now more than it does the future, where the present will look different and where the truth will be easier for everyone to see.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.