Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is the author of the book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” and co-author, with Peter Eisner, of the book “High Crimes: The Corruption, Impunity, and Impeachment of Donald Trump.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court unanimously rejected President Donald Trump’s effort to overturn the presidential election in Pennsylvania. Hours later, the defeated President was back to spreading lies and conspiracy theories about being robbed of victory in an election that he lost to Joe Biden by more than seven million votes.
The madness of Trump’s they-stole-it-from-me crusade grows more obvious every day. And it raises a question that has been asked about him for years: Does he really believe what he says?
When Trump was just a businessman and TV celebrity, the answer didn’t matter. But now it does.
The man who occupies the highest office in the land is traveling the country in Air Force One, bringing along his Secret Service protectors and his presidential seal, and spreading his nutty claims.
At a rally last week in Valdosta, Ga., he tells his followers, “We’re winning!” even as one court after another, in state after state, tosses out his frantic attempts to upend the election by lawsuit. Ranting endlessly on Twitter and Facebook, he insists that victory was stolen from him. But the “evidence of fraud” that he says “is overwhelming” is actually nonexistent.
It’s all very crazy. It is also dangerous.
The danger became obvious when, on the night when Trump spoke in Georgia, armed protesters gathered outside a Michigan state official’s home to chant and shout obscenities. Their cries of “Stop the steal!” were obviously inspired by the President’s delusions. .On Saturday Trump put it this way: “We’re all deeply disturbed and upset by the lying, cheating, robbing, stealing that’s gone on with our elections.”
Michigan was also the place where, authorities said, the governor was the target of a kidnapping plot foiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Fourteen men were arrested. Authorities allege that they talked about executing the governor and burning down the state Capitol. Part of what motivated them, according to court records, was (Trump’s other favorite obsession) state restrictions to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
Even as cases, hospitalizations and deaths have climbed to new heights across the country, the President has persisted in attacking state and local officials who are fighting the pandemic with scientifically sound methods – mask requirements and limits on public gatherings. In Georgia, Trump said cities and state “should open up” to business as usual.
That view has put tens of thousands of people – like the supporters who stand should-to-shoulder without face coverings at his rallies – at risk of debilitating illness and death. One study by Stanford University estimated that Trump rallies were responsible for about 30,000 extra infections and 700 deaths as of Oct. 30. Nevertheless, people seem to take pride in putting their lives on the line for Trump, to show they agree with him when he says things like, “Don’t be afraid of Covid.”
Why would Trump downplay the coronavirus risk and put his supporters in danger? Well, it seems he believed that the business shutdowns many experts recommended to fight the pandemic would hurt him politically. The Washington Post reported Trump felt this way back in July when America had recorded three million cases and 130,000 deaths.
As the US death count more than doubled and cases rose nearly five-fold, other nations fared better with stringent shutdowns and mask requirements. One could only conclude that Trump’s continued public call to loosen public health measures was not sincere.
In a similar way, the President’s claims about the outcome of the 2020 election seem more an act intended to inspire the faithful to cheer and donate money than a matter of genuine belief.
With his court losses piling up and his lawyers reduced to presenting oddball witnesses at legislative hearings, Donald Trump knows he lost the election. CNN reported weeks ago that he has said so himself. However, by furiously insisting he was cheated and filing lawsuits across the country, he has been able to freeze fellow Republicans, who would otherwise congratulate Biden, and raise scads of money with appeals for a so-called Election Defense Fund.
Of the more than $200 million raised by Trump during the time he has bellowed about being cheated, only a reported $8.8 million has been spent on the lawsuits, according to figures released by the campaign last week and reported in the Washington Post. The rest may be put into a so-called leadership political action committee, which can fund all sorts of activities Trump might enjoy after leaving the White House.
Trump’s public denials about the election results will also help him escape the blow to his ego that might come with having to admit he lost fair and square.
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Having long established that he thinks that there’s little worse in life than losing, Trump’s image requires that he refuse to acknowledge a genuine defeat. Instead he will proclaim the American election system to be corrupt, and rally his followers to believe him, even though he knows this is not true.
So where does this leave us, as we consider whether Donald Trump believes the outrageous stuff he says? The only answer is that he doesn’t believe it, but he doesn’t care what damage he does to his country. Even if it makes people suffer and die, or leads them to take up arms against make believe enemies, he will keep it up for as long as the cash flows in and the faithful tell him he’s a winner.