It was a fitting end to the reality-show presidency that the final firing had been engineered — as if by producers of The Apprentice — into what felt like a climactic nail-biter of a series finale.
Credit executive producer Donald Trump.
It was Trump and his Republican allies who falsely decried vote-by-mail as a fraud-prone scam, ensuring that the votes counted later in swing states like Pennsylvania would trend dramatically Democratic.
He set up the drama perfectly: On election night, Trump appeared to be triumphant, boasting early leads in many of the same states where he'd vanquished Hillary Clinton in 2016. But then, bit by bit, ballot by ballot, Trump watched his lead crumble into dust.
By Saturday, Nov. 7, every major news organization — even Trump-boosting Fox News — called it for Joe Biden. After four seasons, the President Donald Trump Show had been canceled.
Trump not only lost by a whopping 5 million votes, he had also been defeated by the exact same number of electoral votes he'd dubiously characterized as a "landslide" in 2016.
But Trump isn't one to go quietly. Instead, he's been rage-tweeting against the dying of the light.
He clings to his belief that he can't possibly be a sucker or a loser. He screams in-all caps, "I WON THE ELECTION, GOT 71,000,000 LEGAL VOTES."
He tweets about "hundreds of thousands of votes that should not be allowed to count," that Philadelphia elections were a "mountain of corruption & dishonesty," that "Nevada is turning out to be a cesspool of Fake Votes" and — commenting on a tweet about brainwashing from the guy who draws the Dilbert comic — that "people will not accept this Rigged Election!"
Trump shattered one presidential norm after another — norms about releasing tax returns or profiting from the presidency or threatening world leaders armed with nukes over Twitter or bragging about penis size from a debate stage.
But now, he's demanding that Republicans join him in shattering one last norm, for old time's sake, insisting that they challenge the integrity of an entire presidential election. Many of them have fallen in line.
Because Trump hadn't just won the trust of the Republican base. He's accomplished something far deeper and more long lasting: He's stripped away their trust in practically everything else, in media companies, in doctors, in Facebook and Twitter, even in elections themselves.
There's one premise that Republicans and Democrats can agree on: Trump has exposed something deep and dark about America's institutions.
"Trump has stirred the pot so much that a bunch of crap is coming up from the bottom," U.S. Rep. Russ Fulcher (R-Idaho) tells the Inlander. "And we're finally seeing it."
ALL HIS BASE BELONGS TO HIM
There was a fantasy among some Trump critics that as soon as Trump was defeated, he'd disappear into the mists and everything could return to normal.
Tim Miller, political director of Republican Voters Against Trump and a veteran of the presidential campaigns of Jeb Bush, John Huntsman and John McCain, scoffed at the notion.
"He's not going anywhere," Miller told the Inlander before the election. "He has this massive base of support."
Back in 2016, Trump used his white-knuckled grip on that base to rip the party away from stodgy establishment politicians.
Trump snapped his fingers, and Republicans switched their position on free trade. Suddenly, they were cheering on tariffs — taxes on American businesses — as part of getting tough on China. Suddenly, after the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, it was the Republicans who were deeply distrustful of the CIA and the FBI.
Fulcher describes his horror at witnessing how much power and little accountability intelligence agencies had. To Fulcher, all the pushback from government officials against the president was proof of how successful Trump had been at spooking the status quo.
"What happens when a parasite is threatened with losing its host? It does incredible things to try to keep the host alive," Fulcher says. "That means 'get rid of Trump.'"
Trump convinced his base to trust him, not his generals. When a beloved conservative icon like former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis accused Trump of making a "mockery of our Constitution," they sided with Trump.
Trump convinced his base to trust him, not doctors. Tommy Ahlquist, a former emergency room doctor who ran for Idaho governor in 2018, describes sitting at lunch with a Trump-loving friend, pleading with him to start wearing a mask, only to be met with a bunch of stuff about how it's a "politicized hoax" and "Trump this and Trump that."
"[Trump] comes out and completely pooh-poohed masks and all this public safety stuff," Ahlquist says. "Of course, that emboldens people. It became about, 'I'm not wearing a mask because he's not wearing it.'"
(If there was anyone who could have convinced his supporters to sport a new accessory on their heads, it was the guy who sold his followers over a million red Make America Great Again hats.)
And now, with the coronavirus surging to never-before-seen levels, Trump's comments in the next few months could determine whether millions of people in his base wear masks, accept restrictions or even take the vaccine that his administration has been championing.
To be clear, many in the GOP aren't die-hard members of Trump's base. If anything, generic Republicans seem to be more popular. This election proved that, as millions of the voters who couldn't accept Trump were still willing to vote for down-ballot Republicans.
But Trump's pull with his base is still so strong that those Republican leaders don't want to risk running afoul of his supporters.
Former Washington state Attorney General Rob McKenna says that tension regularly put some of his Republican friends like Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Washington) — who did not respond to an interview request — in a tough position.
"She doesn't want to alienate her base," McKenna says. "Some of them love Trump. But she personally finds it difficult to defend some of what he has said." Trump losing, McKenna believes, makes things easier for her. But Trump's defeat doesn't necessarily mean Republican leaders won't keep living in fear of an angry Trump tweet.
"Trump is going to save all of his attacks for the media and for any of the Republicans who try to distance themselves from him," Miller says.
"She doesn't want to alienate her base. Some of them love Trump. But she personally finds it difficult to defend some of what he has said."
THE ONLY POL THAT COUNTS
Miller predicted before the election that Trump's base wasn't going to believe he'd lost, no matter how large the margin.
"These people are gonna think it was stolen from them," he said. "They're going to think it's unfair. It was the media. It was the Chinese. It was the ballots."
And sure enough, that's what happened.
"Do not listen to the MSM," the Spokane County Republican Party wrote on its Facebook page on Nov. 7, using a derisive term for "mainstream media" after the election was called for Biden. "It is not over!"
Though Republicans had done much better in the election than polls had predicted, a Nov. 9 Morning Consult polling firm survey found that Republicans' trust that the election was "free and fair" plunged from 68 percent before the election to 34 percent.
The Trump era had supercharged Republican animosity toward journalists. It wasn't just that he'd yell "fake news" at every critical story. It was that Trump lied so much — about everything from crowd sizes, cheering Muslims, hurricane routes to voter fraud — that calling them out made news outlets seem vehemently anti-Trump.
In the past five years, according to a Gallup poll, Republican trust in the media plunged from 32 percent to 10 percent.
Fox News wasn't immune. After Fox called the election for Biden, Trump turned on his longtime media booster, retweeting attacks on the network, charging that the reason their ratings were plunging was that they "forgot the Golden Goose."
Even as the New York Times reported that election officials in all 50 states didn't find any evidence suggesting significant voter fraud, few Republicans were willing to congratulate Biden on his victory last week.
Fulcher accused media outlets in a statement of being "more interested in declaring a Biden victory than identifying all the facts." McMorris Rodgers told KXLY that there were stories "concerning enough" to her that she supported Trump's lawsuits challenging the process.
The few Republicans willing to dispute Trump's dubious voter-fraud claims became targets not just of Trump but of their fellow Republicans.
Last week, Washington state gubernatorial candidate Loren Culp condemned Kim Wyman, Washington's secretary of state, for "badmouthing the president of the United States" after she criticized Trump's fraud allegations.
Culp had been beaten worse than any Republican in the last 20 years — trounced by more than 550,000 votes, or more than the populations of Spokane, Spokane Valley and Tacoma combined. But he, too, refused to surrender, claiming there were "hinky things" going on with the vote, and that with mail-in voting, "Who knows who's tampering with the ballots?"
"No, I'm not conceding," Culp says. "Not doing it. Not a quitter. Don't give in. Don't back down."
Even if Trump goes away, his imitators will remain.
A HIGHER POWER
But so far, nothing suggests Trump is going away.
Even if Fox News abandons him, even if he never holds a single rally, he can still taunt and troll from the internet's sidelines — elevating or destroying Republican fortunes according to his whims.
He doesn't need the bully pulpit of the Oval Office. He still has the megaphone of Twitter and Facebook. Trump gamed social-media algorithms with an uncanny ability to go viral with wild claims or outrageous provocation.
But Trump's greatest potential source of ongoing sway over Republicans is also his Achilles heel. Twitter built up the modern incarnation of Donald Trump. It could extinguish him just as easily, and observers have already speculated that Twitter might pull the plug on Trump's account once Biden takes office.
Indeed, the Trump era has already dramatically changed social media sites' approach to moderation. As Trump made one wild claim after another in the days after the election, tweet after tweet of his was obscured behind warning labels flagging his claims as "disputed" or "misleading."
This year, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have dramatically cracked down on what's allowed on their platforms, deleting pro-Trump QAnon conspiracy theory pages, flagging misinformation about the pandemic and banning accounts of figures like former Trump strategist Steve Bannon (after he suggested Dr. Anthony Fauci's head should be on a pike).
Twitter even briefly banned users from sharing a controversial New York Post article about Biden's son Hunter.
Republicans are furious: They see all this censorship as a reaction to Trump — imagining a world where social media sites not only ban the president, but ban them as well.
The Spokane County Republican Party charged on Facebook that the social media's censorship is a "violation of our Constitutional Rights" and that it's "just what the Nazis did."
Yet in reality, the First Amendment is the thing that prevents the government from ordering Facebook to allow comments on their website.
Fulcher says that congressional members have been meeting to figure out their strategy.
"Do we attack it from an antitrust perspective? Do we attack it from a transparency perspective?" says Fulcher, a former tech company executive himself. "None of us want to eliminate the First Amendment side of it, but how do you deal with this? It's clearly not right."
Republicans may be powerless to stop it. Come January, they won't control the presidency and Democrats want tech companies to crack down even harder on alleged misinformation.
In other words, when Trump leaves office, the extent of his influence depends on his ability to remain in the good graces of Silicon Valleys' kingmakers in hoodies. They, not the GOP, are the ones with the true power over Trump.
With just a snap of their fingers, they could do what Joe Biden couldn't: Make him shut up, man.
ONCE AND FUTURE KING
The Republicans didn't write a platform at their convention this year, just a proclamation that they "will continue to enthusiastically support the President's America-first agenda."
So what happens next?
Miller, the Republican Voters Against Trump strategist, predicts the party will continue on a "pretty Trumpy route" of populist white grievance.
"They'll continue to focus on the bad guys being the immigrants and big tech and the Chinese, and I think trans[gender] Americans will get thrown into that," Miller says.
Fulcher envisions a return to the Tea Party era's focus on debt and deficits, which both skyrocketed under Trump. He even believes that Republicans should risk "political suicide" by confronting "the big elephant in the room, no pun intended" — Social Security and Medicare.
Former Washington state AG McKenna, meanwhile, calls on Republicans to double down on their surprising recent gains with Black and Latino voters by seeking out racially diverse leaders like Black Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina or Cuban-American Sen. Marco Rubio from Florida.
"This country is becoming less white decade by decade," he says.
Indeed, there was a time that it looked like Rubio was going to be the future of the party. There was a time Rubio called Trump a lying "con artist" who instigates violence and couldn't be trusted with the nuclear codes. But that Rubio is gone. Like the rest of the party, he long ago bent the knee. He knows who the king of the GOP is and knows who will likely still be the king in the future.
"If [Trump] runs in 2024," Rubio told reporters last week, "he'll certainly be the front-runner and will probably be the nominee." ♦