(Bloomberg Opinion) — A classic episode of “The Twilight Zone” from 1961, “It’s a Good Life,” features a telepathic, malicious 6-year-old brat named Anthony who holds an entire town hostage. Anthony transforms one adult who crosses him into a jack-in-the-box. Everybody else who wants to survive kowtows. “It’s real fine that you’ve done that, that’s real fine,” the local grocer tells Anthony after the boy gives a gopher three heads and then kills it.© Photographer: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images North America STERLING, VIRGINIA – NOVEMBER 22: U.S. President Donald Trump gives thumbs up to supporters from this motorcade after he golfed at Trump National Golf Club on November 22, 2020 in Sterling, Virginia. The previous day President Donald Trump left the G20 summit virtual event “Pandemic Preparedness” to visit one of his golf clubs as the virus has now killed more than 250,000 Americans. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
Nobody musters the courage to take on Anthony, and the episode concludes with one of Rod Serling’s knowing voice-overs: “If, by some strange chance, you should run across him, you had best think only good thoughts. Anything less than that is handled at your own risk, because if you do meet Anthony, you can be sure of one thing: You have entered ‘The Twilight Zone.’”
Like little Anthony, Donald Trump is testing us — just as he did when he rolled down a Trump Tower escalator in 2015 to announce his presidential bid in a flurry of venom and dingbatics and just as he is now by gesturing toward a coup and convincing a nation of traumatized worrywarts that he might pull it off.
Let’s let go of these fears and anxieties, shall we?
President-elect Joe Biden will be ushered into the White House on Jan. 20 and President-reject Trump — the man who lost the recent election by more than 6 million popular votes and 74 Electoral College votes — will be sent packing.
Trump isn’t departing without a titanic fuss, of course, and given his druthers he’d be quite content burning down the house rather than leaving it intact for someone else. But he’s not going to burn it down. And not because he doesn’t want to, but because he can’t.
It’s worth recalling that none of Trump’s grotesque and damaging behavior of late was unexpected. He’s spent most of the year telegraphing his desire to stain the Constitution and stave off relinquishing the presidency. He labeled the electoral process fraudulent before the election even took place, and everything he’s done since has been in character: deploying a squad of incompetent, tragicomically bonkers stooges led by Rudy Giuliani, Jenna Ellis and Sidney Powell to challenge the legitimacy of the vote and continuing to threaten and corrupt the Republican Party so it enables his caudillo act.
At the end of the day, Trump at his core is who Trump has always been — a vaudevillian bully. His history is also chock full of examples of people and institutions that not only stood up to him but batted him back after he puffed his chest and swung his fists.
His parents shipped him off to a military academy when he was 13 because, as he once told me, he was “very bad” and “bratty.” None of the teachers at the school brooked his garbage. “They’d go pow! And smack you,” he confided. “And you know, all of the sudden a spoiled kid says, ‘Yes, sir!’”
When he became the enfant terrible of New York real estate in the 1980s he tried browbeating an entire neighborhood on Manhattan’s West Side and made ludicrous threats against the city’s mayor so he could build a sprawling development capped off by an abominable, ill-conceived skyscraper. New Yorkers and their mayor grounded the project.
When he stiffed his bankers in the 1990s for billions of dollars he couldn’t repay, he savaged them in the media and pretended they needed him more than he needed them. The bankers corralled him for a spell so they could use him to help liquidate his portfolio and then excommunicated him permanently as a client.
Trump spent his term as president flagrantly embracing financial conflicts of interest and abusing the powers of his office. When he tried to strong-arm Ukraine’s leader to dig up dirt on Biden, several civil servants and soldiers, including Alexander Vindman, William Taylor, Marie Yovanovitch and Fiona Hill, fought back and helped stop it. The House of Representatives impeached Trump for those misdeeds.
While Trump also used his time in the Oval Office to exploit racism and bigotry for his own political purposes, the Black Lives Matter movement took to the streets to protest systemic racism. While Trump threw his hat into the presidential ring again this year, voters denied him a second term — with Black voters in big cities providing a decisive push.
There are more examples of the bully being thumped, just as there are myriad examples of Trump manipulating institutions and making end runs around the law. At the end of the day, however, Trump didn’t make the media crumble, the courts acquiesce, law enforcement look away or Democrats succumb. He has inflicted long-term damage on public trust and leadership, visibly rendered in the nation’s failed response to the Covid-19 pandemic, but he hasn’t managed to fashion a throne for himself despite his fascination with dictators, propaganda and blunt force.
The end game that is afoot won’t conclude well for Trump. The flotilla of ridiculous lawsuits he and his cohorts have filed claiming voting fraud have been beaten back so steadily and consistently that Team Trump was forced to change tactics. They’re now openly pushing for a coup by seeking interventions from Republican-led state legislatures to simply overturn the popular vote and Biden’s victory. But ballot counting in the presidential election hasn’t been delayed, no ballots that were counted were subsequently tossed out and no court has yet to postpone any state’s certification of the results.
There have been ugly machinations in states such as Michigan that give cause for alarm, but the fabric has held. Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, has taken on Trump’s legal trolls calmly and courageously. State and local Republicans nationwide, such as Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, have also largely refused to acquiesce to Trump’s electoral skullduggery, even though their party’s leadership has. On Saturday, a federal judge in Pennsylvania who is an Obama appointee — as well as being a former GOP official and member of the conservative Federalist Society — dismissed a Trump lawsuit seeking to overturn the vote in his state. He excoriated the suit before punting it:
“One might expect that when seeking such a startling outcome, a plaintiff would come formidably armed with compelling legal arguments and factual proof of rampant corruption,” Judge Matthew Brann ruled. “In the United States of America, this cannot justify the disenfranchisement of a single voter, let alone all the voters of its sixth most populated state. Our people, laws, and institutions demand more.”
That’s how you talk to a bully: honestly, unflinchingly and without losing faith in the validity and importance of the fact pattern. Trump has appealed Brann’s ruling, so we’ll see what the federal appellate court, and possibly Supreme Court, are made of if these legal life rafts float that far.
Still, Trump, who seems to have gone into hiding lately, is merely playing for time, not for a coup, and the clock is running out. His “elite strike force” of legal misfits began fracturing Sunday night, with Giuliani and Ellis kicking Powell off their team and one Trump campaign official advising the Washington Post that Powell was “too crazy even for the president.” Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican and reliable Trump apologist, labeled the Giuliani crew a “national embarrassment.”
Like Anthony in “The Twilight Zone,” Trump is a dangerous and damaged punk with some unusual powers. Unlike the adults in Anthony’s fictional hometown, however, not everyone in the real world is letting Trump get away with a takeover. He’ll continue to pollute the federal bureaucracy to make Biden’s transition and early presidency painful. But he won’t be staying around.