The president was insistent as he left office: “We’re not going anywhere.” It had been a turbulent end of the presidency—impeachment, appalling pardons, and a lengthy dispute over the outcome of the presidential election—but he knew that he had a devoted following, and he had every intention to remain a force in politics. And not just him: His family was eager to cash in on his electoral success, too. Usually a former president laid low for a while after leaving office. He wasn’t going to do that. He’d remain a political force, and the dominant figure in his party.
But the plan didn’t go well. The president sat at his new home—he had decamped from his longtime home state—guzzling Diet Cokes and calling friends to rage about how unfairly he’d been treated and complain about overzealous prosecutors. “You get tired of listening to it,” one friend confessed.
The year was 2001, and the former president was Bill Clinton. “When a president leaves office we expect him to disappear for a while, cede the stage to the new guy, give us some time to forget why we weren’t so sorry to see him go,” Time intoned.
It’s unlikely that Donald Trump will be calling Bill Clinton up to commiserate, not that Clinton would take the call. But if somehow they connected, the two men might find they had something to discuss. Although making any statements about Trump’s relative irrelevance feels like tempting fate, he has remained unexpectedly peripheral since leaving office. You’re not imagining it. The Washington Post’s Philip Bump showed recently that Google search interest and cable-news images of Trump have both returned to roughly where they were before he ran for office. Only cable-news mentions remain significantly elevated, but even they have dropped steeply.
An outburst over the weekend—speaking to a room of Republican officials and donors, Trump called the most powerful elected Republican in the nation a “dumb son of a bitch”—underscores his fade. The speech got some attention, but not much. The time when “covfefe” could consume the nation for days on end is, mercifully, past.
One common theory for Trump’s disappearance is that his ban from Twitter (and other social-media sites) effectively knocked out his ability to reach a wide audience. With the Twitter account at his fingertips, he could blast whatever thought or diatribe was at the top of his mind to millions of followers; the press would dutifully report on the latest outrage and the discourse around it. Adding to the credibility of the theory, Trump’s eclipse seemed to begin around January 8, when Twitter announced the ban.
Trump clearly misses the feeling of tweeting and getting immediate feedback. He’s taken to emailing statements—sometimes several in a day—to reporters, presumably in the hopes that they’ll tweet them, but it’s not the same. For one thing, freed from the constraints of 280 characters, he tends to ramble into the kind of incoherence manifested at his rallies. For another, sentiments that took on some comprehensibility in the churn of social media feel disembodied and nonsensical when they land in my inbox. (Why exactly is Trump sending this statement praising Stephen Miller? Did I miss something, or did he? Or both?)
But the Twitter theory has flaws, too. Trump’s tweets could still make government officials quake, but they had already begun to lose their potency by 2019. Fewer people were responding to them, and Trump’s attempts to make up for that decline by simply tweeting more often further diluted the effect. The nation seemed to grow blasé (for better or worse) about the president’s most outrageous remarks.
Besides, someone of Trump’s fame doesn’t need a Twitter account. As an insurgent presidential candidate in 2015, Trump found that the account provided a useful way to drive the conversation, even though few journalists or politicians initially took his run seriously. But by the time he was president, Trump had plenty of other ways to commandeer media attention: press conferences, formal interviews, Oval Office addresses.
Although he sometimes eschewed these methods as president—he didn’t give an Oval Office address until almost two years into his term—he’s now using the ones that remain available to him. For a period beginning after the January 6 coup attempt, Trump was uncharacteristically silent, apparently heeding the advice of aides who suggested that he should keep his head down while the Senate was still considering his impeachment. Since the Senate failed to convict, Trump has been more vocal. He has continued to make public remarks, including to the Republican National Committee gathering last weekend, and has given interviews to several of his favorite cable-news outlets. He’s also given at least a dozen interviews for books about his presidency. Trump could probably get more attention if he gave an interview to a more adversarial interviewer—Trump with Jake Tapper or Mary Louise Kelly, or a rematch with Chris Wallace or Lesley Stahl would surely produce fireworks—but it wasn’t that long ago that a call-in to Fox and Friends was plenty newsmaking on its own.
Trump may be a victim of his past success in driving the news cycle. First, the press has perhaps finally started to learn its lesson about covering his emptiest, most trolly outrage bait. Second, Trump’s ability to control the news depended in part on ever greater provocations. Once you’ve tried to overturn a presidential election, you don’t have a lot of room to escalate. (Knock on wood—if anyone could find space, it would be Trump.)
Trump succeeded by making himself a vessel for the grievances of his base, but his complaints about the election—though he has tried to frame them as about a theft of the election from the American people—are fundamentally just about what he sees as a personal affront to him, rather than some broader issue. Polls show that many Republicans believe the 2020 election was tainted, and the damage that will do to faith in democracy in the long term is dangerous. In the more immediate future, however, no one will remain as personally angry about it as Trump. Some followers who saw him as a man who could challenge the establishment will view his defeat as proof that politics is irredeemable, and will slide into apathy and disengagement. For others, Trump’s loss makes him into a loser—especially damaging given how much Trump hates losers. They will seek other heroes now.
Even as he loses control of the news, Trump remains in control of the Republican Party. A sizable minority of the population still backs him. He tops polls of GOP voters for 2024 presidential candidates. Leading Republicans like Kevin McCarthy and Steve Scalise make pilgrimages to Mar-a-Lago to shore up their standing. The campaign committee for Senate Republicans seems to have invented a prize just to give to Trump. Even figures such as Mitch McConnell and Nikki Haley, who harshly criticized Trump over the coup, have puerilely said they would back him if he were the 2024 nominee.
But what Trump retains is negative power—the power to torpedo a Republican who won’t stay in lockstep with him. (In theory, at least; we’ve yet to see a test.) He has lost most of his positive power—the ability to make things happen, to hand out appointments and pardons, to push forward causes. The basic problem for Trump is that, despite his best and most nefarious efforts, he is no longer president. He just doesn’t matter that much now.
This obsolescence happens to every president once he leaves office—even ones, like Bill Clinton, who leave office relatively popular, which Trump has never been. Throughout his political career, Trump has acted as though he is immune not only to legal consequences for his actions but also to all the conventional rules of politics, and has managed to convince many pundits that that is true. So far, he’s been successful at dodging the law, but the rules have already caught up to him.