It was a sad spectacle. Here was an ageing comic confronted by a shrinking audience, his jokes landing with a thud, his star beginning to fade.
Donald Trump suddenly finds himself where he has never been: a secondary story, overshadowed by Joe Biden, dominating the news cycle no more.
On Tuesday, Biden introduced the brainy grownups of his government-in-waiting at a weighty event with lofty talk of restoring America’s moral leadership and saving the planet from the climate crisis.
An hour later, at the White House, a turkey was pardoned by a lame duck discovering how fickle the media circus can be.
The gathering in the Rose Garden was naturally diminished by the coronavirus pandemic, but his last Thanksgiving ceremony was a muted affair that also struggled to break through on cable news.
“Ladies and gentleman, the president of the United States and Mrs Trump,” said an announcer, the words suddenly elegiac as abnormal administration fades to black.
Trump, true to himself to the end, began by lauding the Dow Jones industrial average breaking 30,000 for the first time. He praised his wife, Melania, for revamping the Rose Garden, and welcomed his daughter, Ivanka, and son-in-law, Jared, who are perhaps contemplating their bumpy re-entry to New York society.
Trump talked about the tradition of presidents sparing birds from the Thanksgiving table, dating back to Abraham Lincoln and receiving formal pardons every year since George HW Bush. This year’s pair, Corn and Cob, were selected from the official presidential flock of 30, he said. “Some real beauties.”
The president talked about the nation’s love of farmers and the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the pilgrims on the Mayflower. He thanked doctors, nurses, healthcare workers, and scientists who have fought the coronavirus pandemic and raced towards a vaccine, but could not resist using the term “China virus” for old time’s sake or bring himself to offer condolences to families of the quarter-million Americans dead.
“We send our love to every member of the armed forces and the law enforcement heroes risking their lives to keep America safe, to keep America great, and, as I say, ‘America first’,” Trump said. “Shouldn’t go away from that: America first.”
It sounded like a feeble plea from a dying monarch, given that Biden had just vividly put the Barack Obama band back together with an explicit repudiation of “America first”.
What was missing from Trump’s brief remarks were the puns of the Obama years that made his daughters cringe, or Trump’s own brazen jokes in 2018 regarding an online vote on which turkey should survive – “This was a fair election. Unfortunately, Carrots refused to concede and demanded a recount, and we’re still fighting with Carrots” – or his bleak humour about his own impeachment a year ago.
The reality of losing, for a self-declared lifelong winner, is evidently not a laughing matter. Earlier on Tuesday, Trump retweeted a picture of himself brooding over the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office with the caption: “I concede NOTHING!!!!!”
A man scooped Corn up on to a table festooned with autumnal flowers and mini-pumpkins. Trump and Melania walked over. With raised hand, Trump said: “Look at that beautiful, beautiful bird. Oh, so lucky. That is a lucky bird. Corn, I hereby grant you a full pardon. Thank you, Corn. What a bird. Thank you.”
He added: “Happy Thanksgiving to everybody. Thank you very much. Thank you, everybody. Have a good one.”
So it was that as Biden prepares to take the reins of power, Trump is left with the equivalent of ribbon-cutting. The one-time champion of attention has lost his crown to a challenger he deems unworthy. As he departed, reporters shouted, “Mr President, will you be issuing a pardon for yourself?” and “Will you invite president-elect Biden?”
Answer there came none. The man who could never stop talking to reporters has now taken a vow of silence. Bringing up the election result is as awkward as making conversation at a Thanksgiving dinner hosted by a divorcing couple.
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