One of the earliest signs came in early February. Donald Trump and his team issued assorted written statements and legal filings which went to comedic lengths to avoid use of the phrase "former president" -- suggesting the Republican believed he was still the rightful leader, despite having been rejected by his country's electorate.
Two months later, Trump sounded like a politician who believed it was still possible his defeat would be reversed and he'd be welcomed back into the White House. Soon after, the former president reportedly told associates he believed Arizona's indefensible election audit "could undo" the 2020 presidential election.
Last week, he celebrated a poll showing most Republican voters "believe Donald Trump is the true president," and this week, the New York Times' Maggie Haberman noted that Trump "has been telling a number of people he's in contact with that he expects he will get reinstated" to the presidency by August.
She's not alone. National Review's Charles C. W. Cooke, a prominent conservative writer, published this piece yesterday:
...Haberman's reporting was correct. I can attest, from speaking to an array of different sources, that Donald Trump does indeed believe quite genuinely that he — along with former senators David Perdue and Martha McSally — will be "reinstated" to office this summer after "audits" of the 2020 elections in Arizona, Georgia, and a handful of other states have been completed. I can attest, too, that Trump is trying hard to recruit journalists, politicians, and other influential figures to promulgate this belief — not as a fundraising tool or an infantile bit of trolling or a trial balloon, but as a fact.
Last night, CNN ran a related piece, reporting that Trump has "been asking advisers in recent weeks if he could somehow reassume the presidency this year after listening to farfetched suggestions from conservative commentators and allies."
A former Trump adviser added that the former president has been listening to "the bottom of the bottom of the crazies in the barrel."
At this point, I can hear some of you shouting at your screens. It doesn't matter what Trump thinks, the argument goes. He's irrelevant. His delusions are inconsequential. Our time is better spent focusing on those in positions of power, not former officials slipping deeper into derangement.
I wish it were that simple. The mistake at the heart of that argument is the idea that Trump no longer has power.
To be sure, he lost his bid for a second term by a fairly wide margin, making Trump a civilian with no official authority or responsibilities. That said, the United States only has two major parties, and right now, one of them is becoming a sycophantic personality cult toward a man who is, as National Review's Cooke put it, actively engaged in "a rejection of reality, a rejection of law, and, ultimately, a rejection of the entire system of American government."
What's more, Trump fully expects others in his party to climb aboard his train to Bonkers Town. The Washington Post reported this week that the former president is "consumed" with his anti-election lies, which the Republican is turning into "a litmus test of sorts as he decides whom to endorse for state and federal contests in 2022 and 2024."
All of which helps create a contemporary GOP filled with officials committed to the same deranged ideas animating the party's effective leader.
The concern is not that Trump will actually reacquire presidential power at some point over the next three-and-a-half years. That is literally, legally, and institutionally impossible. "Reinstatement" may be the Republican's endgame, but it will not happen, at least not before 2025.
Rather, the concern is that Trump is deliberately undermining our democracy; few in his party are willing to tell him this is dangerously insane; his party is aggressively pursuing anti-voting and anti-election measures in service of the lies and delusions; and as Rachel explained on last night's show, it's an open question as to what the former president's allies, inside government and out, will be expected to do as Trump maintains the idea that he's the real president, reality be damned.
When a democracy and its institutions are under attack, it's a mistake to look away, even when the attackers are ridiculous.