In an address to the American people, President-elect Joe Biden urged the incumbent President, Donald Trump, to get on television to quell the ongoing insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. It was either a sign of Biden’s congenital optimism or of his being locked into by-now-toppled manners of doing business in Washington: Getting on TV, even or especially in the worst of times, comes easily to the man leading the federal government. Quelling conflict runs entirely contrary to his nature.
And so it was that the American people got a video — scarcely over a minute long — in which Trump spoke in his comparatively more peaceful tones while praising mania. “I know your pain. I know you’re hurt,” he addressed rioters. “We had an election that was stolen from us. We had a landslide election and everyone knows it, especially the other side.” Praising the mission took precedence over addressing the method — let alone condemning it, which Trump couldn’t walk himself up to doing, simply telling his supporters to “go home now” as “we have to respect our great people in law and order.”
If this comes as a surprise, it’s in degree and not in point of fact. That the President who pointed out the “very fine people on both sides” of the Charlottesville riots in 2017 could not bring himself to even mildly criticize supporters of his, no matter how violent, is part of the pathology. But that quite so much of his video (which Facebook removed from its platform within hours of its release) urging them to stop the madness simply at “coup attempt” was devoted to messages of understanding and fellow-feeling startled, even now. Perhaps it’s just the emptying-out of any last person who could convince Trump to behave in a way that mimicked having the country’s best interest at heart rather than his own, any check not on the conspiratorial instinct within Trump but on the poor judgment to blame all that is happening on “these people” who he claims rigged the election.
For all that Trump’s use of social media has been heralded, he was and remains a creature of television, and — today — television outmatched him, placing in counterpoint violent and disturbing images the American people could judge for themselves with Trump’s own words. The man in the red tie on the White House grounds preached love and understanding to an army of marginalized true believers only he could still believe are misunderstood in their quest for justice. (That the man who once preached shooting looters on sight reassured these insurrectionists that “we love you, you’re very special” is almost so obvious a contradiction to let pass without comment, but these times have tended to allow bad actors’ deeds to go uncommented-upon for too long.) Once Trump flickered away, gone in 62 seconds, the searing and troubling images of a day of chaos remained, easily legible for what it was, and who’d led it to the doors of the Capitol and inside.
It’s tempting to call this an ending for the Trump presidency, or even its most memorably destructive set of images, but two weeks of his era remain, to say nothing of the rest of all of our lives in a nation he has spent four years redefining. The most unsettling part of Trump’s video message to his division of America was the vague malapropism at the end: “You’ve seen what happens. You see the way others are treated that are so bad and so evil. But go home and go home in peace.” In its ambient, could-mean-anything aura of menace, it maintains a campaign promise of Trump’s 2016 campaign: Only he can solve the problems of his truest believers, in part because, as regards the concept of the 2020 election as being rigged and requiring a reclamation by force, it is only his rhetoric that has made them problems in the first place.
The calm Biden presented served as a contrast, but also an emphasis; the next President’s stoicism and attempts at de-escalation brought to the fore what about Trump’s swirling miasma of hatreds is so toxic, and what is — to his supporters — so powerful. But it’s hard to say, after nearly four years culminating in a message of love for those who would tear this nation down and a threat for those who stand in their way, that Biden appeared more presidential than Trump. The lesson of these years — one that we may spend many of the years ahead learning, over and over — is that the window of what falls under “presidential” is defined by what the president does. Until today, it was just shy of presidential behavior to tell those who’d burn down Congress to get what they want that they were on a rightful, if unduly violent, mission. Now, thanks to a dark star made by television, one who cannot control what he and it have wrought together, it is. What else will become presidential on television in the days ahead will be our unfortunate fate to find out, live and as it happens.