Column: Trump’s non-concession concession, in literary terms

President Trump pardons Corn, the national Thanksgiving turkey
President Trump, in one of his few public appearances since the election, pardoned Corn, the national Thanksgiving turkey, on Tuesday.
(Susan Walsh / Associated Press )

In Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” we meet a mid-level bureaucrat who, for reasons unknown, decides to stop doing his work. “I’d prefer not to” is Bartleby’s signature line. He delivers it whenever he’s asked to perform a task, jamming the gears of the whole institution.

In Emily Murphy, head of the General Services Administration, we had our own national Bartleby. For weeks, she preferred not to do her job: to ascertain the apparent winner of the recent presidential election and release funds so the president-elect could prepare to govern.

Speculation mounted that she, like President Trump, was refusing to move the transition forward as part of Trump’s vain effort to overturn the election. Even for those who’d dialed down their fear of a coup, Murphy’s delays were unsettling. The president’s lawyers’ efforts to put a whammy on American democracy by disenfranchising voters after the fact were melting down. But anxiety still simmered. Maybe a Bartleby coup would be Trump’s last stand.


But it wasn’t.

On Monday, Emily the Scrivener submitted a petulant authorization letter. It was an authorization nonetheless. The transition funds have been released, and the weird letter tacitly acknowledged the obvious: Joe Biden won the election, no matter how you slice it.

Almost simultaneously, Trump admitted on Twitter that, though he still thought he’d “prevail” (at what again?) he was “nevertheless” going to have Murphy and his underlings do what needed to be done “with regard to initial protocols.” Meaning: give the reins to his successor, the soon-to-be-46th president, Biden.

Hear that? Trump would “prevail,” but “nevertheless” he would ... not prevail. With these jumbled and stilted tweets, Trump admitted defeat. A whimper, not a bang. And, sure, Tuesday he was retweeting a meme of himself not conceding, but Murphy’s paperwork said otherwise. The world is rolling on.

Still, it’s hard to relinquish dread, the sickening pit-of-stomach sensation that has attended Trump’s presidency for four cortisol-spiking years. Every hour has seemed like a kick in the gut.

Would Trump bring, as he once threatened, “fire and fury” on North Korea, a hostile nuclear power that could flatten us? Would he keep jeopardizing American allies and supporting American enemies? Would he keep tearing up families and packing his vile detention camps?

James Madison was right. The electoral college is a shoddy piece of work that keeps coming back to haunt us.

It has been relentless. Was he pushing the specter of black-clad anarchists so the National Guard could open fire in American cities? How far would the U.S. military go in supporting his vindictive crusades? Would he continue to shrug at the pandemic, up to and including blocking Biden’s team from getting organized to save lives?

Now it’s time to put the foreboding aside. The catastrophes, for the most part, have already happened.

Trump has served all but a full term crashing around in American institutions and moral codes, damaging some and laying others to waste. We are a nation pervaded by suffering, unemployment, tribal hatreds, disenfranchisement and widespread illness.

And yet, the 2020 election was “the most secure in American history,” according to a bipartisan team of election officials. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will take office in less than two months. A Cabinet of seasoned professionals is forming. The next administration is already setting in motion plans to address four emergencies: the pandemic, the ailing economy, racial injustice and the climate crisis. They need what the American people need: discipline, not dread.

Instead of focusing on our fears about what else Trump and his saber-rattling supporters can do, we should attend to what we know we must do, especially to mitigate the pandemic.

The joke proposal to cancel Thanksgiving has some truth to it. In the face of the winter COVID-19 surge, with thousands testing positive daily and hospitals facing dire staff shortages, Andy Slavitt, who oversaw Medicare and Medicaid under the Obama administration, has urged us to find in ourselves a spirit of wartime sacrifice, however alien it may seem, as we wait for vaccines to come on line.

This holiday season stay distant, stay masked. Stay home.

As for Trump, for once, feel free to start ignoring him. Here’s another literary reference: Trump as Ozymandias, the central figure in an 1818 English sonnet by Percy Bysshe Shelley.

The poem describes a wrecked statue of a king that stands in the desert. It’s a ruin: two massive stone legs without a torso or head. The head lies nearby, its face showing “a sneer of cold command.” The pedestal reads “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: / Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Trump’s version: Crying out “I concede NOTHING!!!!!” via retweet.

Sure, Jan. (To move from Melville and Shelley to a “Brady Bunch” meme.)

Trump can deny reality all he wants. Biden will be inaugurated. He can keep at his ceaseless lying. Accountability will come. Broken, he can proclaim he’s the king of kings to a desert. History is leaving him behind.