We have to let it go.
The past three weeks have brought a flurry of stories about Joe Biden, the coronavirus, vaccines, and Marjorie Taylor Greene. But there have been almost as many stories about what exactly former president Donald Trump is doing right now. The most recent of these was a New York article from last week, “What’s Trump Up To?” This story joined “Why Has Donald Trump Clammed Up?” also from New York, “What will Donald Trump Do Now?” from the Telegraph, and “So What’s Donald Trump Been Up To?” from Gizmodo, which have all been published since January 29th.
Trump’s silence has been deafening. A tweet by conservative writer J.D. Vance blamed this status on Trump’s ban from Twitter. But as Matthew Yglesias and others pointed out, Twitter is not the only way that a person can get their message out in 2021: “the fact is he hasn’t been banned from Fox or talk radio or from launching a Substack or going on Clubhouse … for whatever reason he has chosen to lay low.”
The Republican Party is clearly addicted to Donald Trump. His supporters are party line zealots on most issues. He brings in fundraising dollars. His 2020 campaign helped the party nearly regain control of the House of Representatives, even though his antics cost it control of the Senate in 2021. Most importantly, Trump’s rise has convinced Republican politicians that a Trumpian primary defeat imperils their future more than their general election opponent. This notion fueled opposition to Trump’s impeachment and the immediate censures from the home states of senators who voted for conviction. As a pro-Trump Republican said of his apostate senator Pat Toomey’s vote for impeachment, “we did not send him there to do the right thing.”
But the obsession does not stop there. The media has built an entire ecosystem around Trump news. Trump stories retain viewers more than any other. Pro- and anti-Trump takes make easy copy for newsletters and magazines. Entire series of news stories over the past four years have been built off Trump tweets. Without Trump as president, this cash cow has disappeared. CNN’s ratings in the first week of Biden’s presidency were down significantly. News writers and producers keep running “Where is Trump?” stories because the word “Trump” brings in money, even if he is now mostly out of the public eye.
This problem extends to a variety of fields. Historians, for example, have spent countless hours focused on parallels between Trump and earlier demagogues. They have begun numerous projects studying the 1930s, the McCarthy era, and the Jacksonian age looking for ways to understand Trump’s rise and success. But what happens to those projects when Trump is no longer around? There has been a precipitous drop in Google Trends metrics for numerous historical search terms related to Trump, such as populism, McCarthyism, and tyranny. The Trump boom in the field noted by historian Moshik Temkin in 2017 will, without a doubt, be followed by a Trump bust.
It is of course possible that Trump will run again and win in 2024. The nation should not forget he exists and can still do damage. But we also need to plan for a world without Trump, his influence, and the money that is brought in from stories about him. Trump’s opponents hoped for five years that he would one day be gone. Now, we need to start acting like he is.