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The Trump Presidency Has Reached the Rigor Mortis Stage

Signs of death include involuntary flexing, stiffening and mass resignations.

Zach Gibson / Stringer / Getty Images
Zach Gibson / Stringer / Getty Images

We think of death as a moment, and medical examiners certify exact moments of death. But in fact, death is a process with several stages, one of which is rigor mortis, when the body’s muscles stiffen and flex and can appear, for a moment, to be still alive.

That’s what we saw Wednesday: the Trump presidency in rigor mortis. Yes, it was outrageous and appalling that an angry, violent mob of rioters and insurrectionists stormed and sacked the Capitol. Yes, there should be investigations about how it was allowed to happen, and those lawmakers who abetted it should be held to account. But we should also see it for what it was: the final stage of the death throes of Trump’s attempt to do an end-run around democracy.

Trump himself acknowledged as much Thursday when he said he’d abide by “an orderly transition” of power. The window on the “orderly” part has closed, but the transition — the more important part is going to continue. It was even clear Wednesday night, when the House and the Senate reconvened to continue the certification of the electoral votes. Just look at the speech of Senator Lindsey Graham, a man who on November 8th, a day after President-elect Biden had been declared the winner, echoed Trump’s claims of voter fraud and declared that “Trump has not lost” and urged the president to “fight hard” and “not concede.” Cut to Wednesday night, as Graham declared that the “hell of a journey” he’d been on with Trump had come to its final stop. “All I can say is — count me out,” he said. “Enough is enough… I cannot convince people, certain groups, by my words, but I will tell you by my actions that maybe I, above all others in this body, need to say this. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are lawfully elected and will become the President and the Vice President of the United States on January the 20th.”

Or listen to Senator Mitch McConnell. Before the riot disrupted the counting, McConnell declared that, “If this election were overturned by mere allegations from the losing side, our democracy would enter a death spiral.” After the Senate reconvened, he continued: “They tried to disrupt our democracy. They failed. They failed to obstruct this Congress. This failed insurrection only underscores how crucial the task before us is for our republic.” And at 3:40 a.m. they finished that task, and along with it the Trump presidency, which is now in its own death spiral. And even if Trump won’t be attending the inauguration of his successor, Politico reported on Thursday afternoon that Mike Pence will. 

Then there’s the other unruly stampede, the one still going on, hour by hour: Trump allies fleeing him nearly as fast as his violent supporters stormed the Capitol. On Wednesday, Trexit gained steam with the resignations of four White House officials, who were joined on Thursday by two cabinet members, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and Secretary of Transportation (and wife of Mitch McConnell) Elaine Chao. Also on Thursday, former Attorney General William Barr moved to put some daylight between himself and the darkness of his former boss, saying that Trump had committed “a betrayal of his office and supporters.”

These are people who had extraordinarily high Trump Tolerance Levels, and the more likely reason they’re leaving isn’t because this was the last straw, but because there are no more straws left and the party’s over. Even The Wall Street Journal abandoned Trump, calling on him in an editorial “to take personal responsibility and resign” to head off the growing movement in the House to impeach him for the second time. Of course, that’s extremely unlikely — even when the White House was full, there was never any personal responsibility in sight. 

And finally, there was Trump’s speech Thursday night, which was called a “concession” but came across more like a hostage video, with a sullen Trump begrudgingly reading a text he clearly didn’t believe. “Now Congress has certified the results,” he said. “A new administration will be inaugurated on Jan. 20. My focus now turns to ensuring a smooth, orderly and seamless transition of power.” He closed by assuring his “wonderful supporters” that “our incredible journey together is only beginning.” No, we don’t need to further tax the exhausted Trump fact-checkers to know how wrong that is: this isn’t about beginnings, but endings.

There’s still nearly two weeks left before the corpse of this grim presidency is hauled away, and there will no doubt be some noisy twitching and flexing and stiffening yet to come — especially now that Trump’s chief noisemaker, his Twitter account, has been restored. But make no mistake, it might look alive, but, thankfully, it’s not. Any noise to come is simply a death rattle. Trump always wants to do everything bigger and better than anybody else. He has rarely if ever succeeded, but he can now boast of the biggest, baddest, most convulsive case of rigor mortis in the history of the republic. 

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