A Concession to Reality

The best possible version Donald Trump is conniving, self-serving, and phony.

Yesterday, Donald Trump gave what is likely the closest thing to a concession speech he will ever give, and under the only circumstances in which he would give even this much of one: extreme duress.

In the speech, he does not mention conceding nor does he name his opponents, nor does he admit in so many words that he lost. In my semi-professional analysis, he is still winking and whistling inaudibly to his most zealous and dangerously invested followers to let them think that it’s still anybody’s ballgame and give them hope that he’s still in the fight.

You can watch the speech on his Twitter account — the only tweet he posted yesterday after returning from his Twitter suspension — and if you do there’s something that will jump out at you in the middle, but for the benefit of anyone who can’t stand seeing his face or hearing his voice, I’ve included a transcript before my discussion of its contents.

I'd like to begin by addressing the heinous attack on the United States Capitol. Like all Americans I am outraged by the violence, lawlessness, and mayhem. I immediately deployed the National Guard and federal law enforcement to secure the building and expel the intruders. America is and must always be a nation of law and order. The demonstrators who infiltrated the Capitol have defiled the seat of American democracy.

To those who engaged in the acts of violence and destruction: you do not represent our country. 

And to those who broke the law: you will pay.

We have just been through an intense election and emotions are high. But now tempers must be cooled and calm restored. We must get on with the business of America. My campaign vigorously pursued every legal avenue to contest the election results. My only goal was to ensure the integrity of the vote. In doing so, I was fighting to defend American democracy. I continue to strongly believe that we must reform our election laws to verify the identity and eligibility of all voters and to ensure faith and confidence in all future elections.

Now Congress has certified the results. A new administration will be inaugurated on January 20th. My focus now turns to ensuring a smooth, orderly, and seamless transition of power. This moment calls for healing and reconciliation.

2020 has been a challenging time for our people. A menacing pandemic has upended the lives of our citizens, isolated millions in their homes, damaged our economy, and claimed countless lives. Defeating this pandemic and rebuilding the greatest economy on earth will require all of us working together. It will require a renewed emphasis on the civic values of patriotism, faith, charity, community, and family. We must revitalize the sacred bonds of love and loyalty that bind us together as on national family.

To the citizens of our country: serving as your president has been the honor of my lifetime. 

And to all of my wonderful supporters: I know you are disappointed but I also want you to know that our incredible journey is only just beginning.

Thank you, God bless you, and God bless America.

A few words about the genesis of this: I described his state as under duress, and I believe that is accurate. I don’t believe it is entirely by choice that he stayed off social media all day yesterday, nor do I believe that this speech was his idea. I believe he was pressured into it by several people close to him, likely including some of his lawyers and his family members, as a necessary move to blunt the calls for impeachment and removal.

I believe that the few people whose words he will ever take over his own instincts told him in no uncertain terms that he absolutely had to say the words that the experts put together for him and only those words, and I further believe that it is very likely that he couldn’t manage to do that.

If you watch the video, you’ll notice there’s a weird cut to a different camera angle immediately after he says that Congress has certified the results. I would infer from this that he went on to list several other strong beliefs he clings to about the election, beliefs which were cut out of the finished video in order to make sure they don’t undercut the real message of “Don’t impeach me, look at how civil and decent I’m being, not at all undermining democracy or inciting violence.”

In my long study of Trump’s speeches, one pattern I have noticed is that most of them are structured exactly like a particular kind of sandwich.

There’s a nice big fluffy piece of bread provided by a speechwriter at the beginning to grab attention. There’s another nice big fluffy piece of bread provided by a speechwriter at the end to bring it home.

And in between those two pieces of bread? That’s where you find the filling. That’s where the speechwriters load it up with all of Trump’s favorite toppings, along with plenty of room for Trump to be Trump.

In short, the perfect shit sandwich. They make sure he says what they need him to say and what they need the mainstream media and the mild moderate middle to remember is at the beginning or the end and they let him wallow in the muck any which way in the middle.

This structure endures through most of his rally speeches in the first three years of his term and in his big event speeches, and if we assume that those weird cuts in the middle of the speech are eliding Trump being inflammatory and/or off-script then this one fits the pattern, too.

But that is admittedly supposition. The weird cuts may just be an interesting if unimpressive bit of amateur cinematography.

I’m not the first person to notice the cuts nor the only one to offer this speculation. I mainly remark on it here in order to demonstrate my familiarity with his speeches for readers who started following me after I fell out of the habit of parsing them for the public, and to avoid the appearance of ignoring the elephant in the room.

The main reason I’m writing this is to do the thing I have done so many times, and offer an up close and deep look at what Trump is saying, how and why he’s saying it, and what he’s not saying.

I'd like to begin by addressing the heinous attack on the United States Capitol. Like all Americans I am outraged by the violence, lawlessness, and mayhem. I immediately deployed the National Guard and federal law enforcement to secure the building and expel the intruders. America is and must always be a nation of law and order. The demonstrators who infiltrated the Capitol have defiled the seat of American democracy.

I’m not a factchecker, but as has been pointed out by many people, there’s a big whopping lie in this. Donald Trump did not “immediately” call out the National Guard. He, whether by direct order or simple negligence, delayed the call that was eventually made by others going around him.

But this opening is less about giving him credit for something he didn’t do than it is about rewriting the narrative overall to put him firmly on the side of Congress and the American people in deploring the attack, which he definitely had nothing to do of and did not encourage or provoke.

To those who engaged in the acts of violence and destruction: you do not represent our country. 

And to those who broke the law: you will pay.

This is where we start to get into the wink-and-nod territory. To the mild moderate middle, he’s saying exactly what they would expect any president to say. To any politicians who feel like they’re reluctantly cornered into applying consequences to his actions, he’s doing the same thing, possibly giving them an out or blunting their attacks if they’re sincere and keep after him.

But to the people who at his instigation stormed the capitol, he’s saying something different. They understand that “And to those who broke the law: you will pay.” to be referring to a different group of people than themselves.

They have spent years imagining he’s part of a massive sting operation designed to bring down an evil cabal of powerful elites who have committed crimes beyond the pale, of which “stealing the election” is only the most recent and far from the worst.

To them, Donald Trump saying “those who broke the law will pay” means that the sting is still on and the game’s not over yet.

Whether he intended it or not, this ambiguity strikes me as more significant than a later one which more people seem to have seized on.

We have just been through an intense election and emotions are high. But now tempers must be cooled and calm restored. We must get on with the business of America. My campaign vigorously pursued every legal avenue to contest the election results. My only goal was to ensure the integrity of the vote. In doing so, I was fighting to defend American democracy. I continue to strongly believe that we must reform our election laws to verify the identity and eligibility of all voters and to ensure faith and confidence in all future elections.

More rewriting of recent history. I can imagine the negotiation between Trump and those who crafted this speech on this paragraph as being tense and heated. He doesn’t mention fraud or say the election was stolen, only says that he believes reform is needed. That’s the best possible version of Trump’s beliefs on the election, the most palatable. Things like voter ID requirement sound entirely reasonable to people who don’t understand 1) how unequal access to such things are across the country and 2) how easily the Republicans can manipulate such access in order to squelch votes from places they fear demographically.

Now Congress has certified the results. A new administration will be inaugurated on January 20th. My focus now turns to ensuring a smooth, orderly, and seamless transition of power. This moment calls for healing and reconciliation.

Return of the ambiguity. I am assuming that Trump flat out refused to say that he lost, that he concedes, or to name the winners. He’s spoken of a peaceful transition to his own second term enough times that even the mention of a “new administration” here isn’t going to be enough to signal to his die-hard followers that he’s not going to be president anymore after January 20th. They just read it as “the second Trump administration” and imagine it means he’ll finally get around to draining the swamp, replacing all the deep state traitors with “patriots” who are loyal to him.

As we come to the ending, it’s really not that interesting. He might as well have stood up and just repeated the word “boilerplate, boilerplate, boilerplate” for a minute or so.

2020 has been a challenging time for our people. A menacing pandemic has upended the lives of our citizens, isolated millions in their homes, damaged our economy, and claimed countless lives. Defeating this pandemic and rebuilding the greatest economy on earth will require all of us working together. It will require a renewed emphasis on the civic values of patriotism, faith, charity, community, and family. We must revitalize the sacred bonds of love and loyalty that bind us together as on national family.

To the citizens of our country: serving as your president has been the honor of my lifetime. 

And to all of my wonderful supporters: I know you are disappointed but I also want you to know that our incredible journey is only just beginning.

Thank you, God bless you, and God bless America.

The thing about this closing is that he’s saying the right things, the presidential things, and as a man who has long believed in magic words he will no doubt be frustrated when him having said all of the right words and none of the words he was told he couldn’t, it doesn’t shut his critics up.

But these would be the right words for a president to say at this moment in our history. They’re not the right words for Donald J. Trump, the man who invited people to DC and then sent them to the capitol filled with stories about elites stealing their votes, to say.

What Trump’s speech didn’t say was “I’m sorry” or “I take full responsibility.” What he didn’t do is admit his complicity, even framed as a mistake.

This speech is by far the most artificial and unconvincing thing about Donald Trump’s presidency to date, even in comparison to his spray tan or his aggressively sculpted combover hairstyle. Watching it, it’s obvious he doesn’t mean it, but even if he meant every word, some of them are lies and they still reflect the man who said “I take no responsibility.”

Well, that’s not entirely true, I guess. He did take responsibility for the National Guard. He just doesn’t deserve it.

Essentially, this speech was a display of Trump on his best behavior with the emphasis on display. It along with his continued silence on Twitter are an attempt to show not just that he’s willing to play ball for the next two weeks to avoid impeachment or further consequences but that he’s able to in the first place.

As Trump speeches go: it’s not overtly inflammatory, it contains very few outright lies, it directly attacks no one, it’s not rambling or discursive and contains little private jargon, and above all, it’s short. That last point alone might elevate it to the top tier of speeches he’s ever given.

But in abdicating responsibility for what he’s done and taking credit for things he actually obstructed, this speech reveals what a sham Trump’s current posture is. This is Trump’s best self, the best version of himself, and it is as hollow and phony as his sham of a business empire is.

If Congress and the national commentariat allow themselves to be mollified by this facile, manipulative, and manipulated display and mistake his willingness to be solemn and serious for an act of contrition, then he will once again learn the lesson that he can do whatever he wants without consequences, and have no reason to not only repeat his sickening attack on democracy but to go bigger with it, since now he knows the first way didn’t work.