I remember a time when we were told to take candidate Donald Trump "seriously, but not literally." But the surreal tableau of Trump's standing in the East Room of the White House to falsely declare victory in the election once again proved that, often enough, Trump is more than happy to tell us quite literally what his plans are, even as we try to find some other way to interpret them.
"We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win this election," Trump lied. "So our goal now is to ensure the integrity for the good of this nation. This is a very big moment. This is a major fraud on our nation. We want the law to be used in the proper manner."
I confess I was never a huge fan of the Fox sitcom "Arrested Development" when it was airing in the mid-2000s. But there's a scene from early in the first season that has stuck with me through the decades, and it came to mind again Tuesday night, unbidden as my sleep-deprived brain processed what I was seeing. In this scene, eldest adult sibling of the Bluth family and failed stage magician G.O.B. (played by Will Arnett) has a paper bag stowed in the refrigerator of the model home the family has been living in. His brother Michael discovers the sack with the warning label "DEAD DOVE: Do Not Eat!" clearly written on the front.
Michael, played by Jason Bateman, pulls the paper bag from the fridge and, being human, looks inside. He discovers the dove that has ceased to be, and a wave of revulsion crawls over his face before he chides himself: "Well, I don't know what I expected."
That scene has been every news cycle of the last four years: a never-ending string of dead dove moments. Moments when everyone involved knows exactly what the stakes are because the president makes it exceedingly clear what's coming next — and yet we are still, if not entirely surprised, shocked when it happens.
It's the same feeling many of us had when Trump announced that he'd been diagnosed with Covid-19 after months of having downplayed the virus only to go right back out on the trail claiming that we've "rounded the corner." Or when he stood next to President Vladimir Putin and claimed that there was no Russian interference in the 2016 election. When Trump was given yet another chance to denounce white supremacy and flubbed it? That's a dead dove moment, too. Time and time again, when given the option to be anyone but the Trump we've all come to expect, he performs exactly as we knew he would.
And Trump insists on telegraphing his plays — for all his reputation for shrewdness and his ability to lie, he really can't help saying the quiet part out loud. After landing on the tarmac in North Carolina on Sunday, Trump issued a flat denial of an Axios report that said that he was planning to prematurely claim victory. "No, no, no, that was a false report," he insisted. "We'll look at what happens."
He then undercut himself, laying out the same argument he would make in a little over 48 hours in the White House. "I think it's a terrible thing when ballots can be collected after an election," Trump said, deeply misconstruing the rules for when ballots have to be returned in battleground states. "It's a terrible thing where states are able to tabulate ballots for a long period of time after the election is over, because it can only lead to one thing, and it's very bad. I think it's a terrible, dangerous thing. And I think it's terrible when we can't know the results of an election the night of the election in a modern-day age of computers."
Time and time again, when given the option to be anyone but the Trump we’ve all come to expect, he performs exactly as we knew he would.
Trump then called the Supreme Court's decision to let ballots be counted several days after the election — as long as they're postmarked by Election Day — "terrible," signaling how he expected the justices to vote next time. And if he has his way, that'll be soon.
"So we'll be going to the U.S. Supreme Court," Trump said in the early hours of Wednesday. "We want all voting to stop. We don't want them to find any ballots at 4 in the morning and add them to the list, OK?"
At the same campaign stop in North Carolina where he clearly wrote his label on the proverbial brown paper bag, Trump brought back an old standard: reciting the lyrics of the song "The Snake" to his cheering fans. It was a big hit back in 2016, when Trump twisted the words to be an anti-immigration and anti-refugee anthem. The irony has always been in how well he himself fits the denouement that he reads out with such glee:
"'Oh, shut up, silly woman,' said the reptile with a grin.
"'You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in.'"
We knew damn well that the 2:20 a.m. moment was coming, even as sources denied it. But even without that, we knew it would come because Trump will never change. He will never be presidential. He will always be the broken body of a white bird, feathers askew, no light behind the black beady eyes staring back up at us. I don't know what else we expected.