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When a Leader Just Won’t Go


In Nancy Mitford’s comic 1960 novel “Don’t Tell Alfred,” the wife of the new British ambassador to Paris arrives at the embassy to find that she has a vexing problem: Her predecessor has refused to move out.

Indeed, Pauline Leone, the wife of the previous ambassador, is so unhinged by the prospect of a status-free future that she has set up her own rival court, grandly receiving a stream of visitors as if for all the world she were still Madame L’Ambassadrice, the social arbiter of Paris.

“At the beginning one thought it was a lark — that in a day or two she’d get tired of it,” a British official says crossly. But no. “She’s having the time of her life,” he adds, “and quite honestly I don’t see how we shall ever induce her to go.”

As the nation ponders the awkward case of Donald J. Trump, a president who will not admit that he has been fired, it is helpful to consider him through the experiences of other people, fictional and otherwise, who have been unable to accept the arrival of unwelcome developments in their personal and professional lives.

Is Trump like King Lear, raging naked on the heath and desperately hanging on to the increasingly diminished trappings of power even as they are stripped from him? Or is he more like Bartleby the Scrivener, the inscrutable model of passive resistance who one day declines to do any more work or indeed leave the building, declaring: “I would prefer not to?”

Is he like Nellie, the character in “The Office” who installs herself at the desk of the regional manager when he is out of town and unilaterally appoints herself boss? Or how about George from “Seinfeld,” who quits one of his many jobs in a huff, unsuccessfully tries to get it back, and reports to work anyway, as if nothing had happened?

Timothy Naftali, a history professor at New York University, said that one way to view Mr. Trump would be as a version of Miss Havisham, the jilted bride from “Great Expectations” who lives forever in the past, never taking off her tattered wedding gown even as her house decays around her.

“He’s wearing the cloak of the presidency and he’s stuck in his room, getting dusty, while everyone else has moved on,” Mr. Naftali said.

No president in American history has ever before refused for so long to concede an election he has obviously lost. But when it comes to hanging on to an alternative version of reality, Mr. Trump has plenty of nonpresidential company.

There was Eteocles, a son of Oedipus in Greek mythology, who remained on the throne of Thebes, reneging on his promise to share it with his twin brother, leading to a battle in which they killed each other.

There was Gov. Edmund J. Davis of Texas, a Republican, who refused to leave office after losing the election of 1873, claiming that he had several months left in his term and barricading himself on the ground floor of the State Capitol. (The newly elected governor and his supporters installed themselves on the first floor, using ladders to enter through the windows.)

There was the Hiroo Onoda, the Imperial Japanese Army officer who would not surrender after the end of World War II, remaining in combat-readiness in the jungle for 29 years until his by-then elderly former commanding officer arrived and rescinded his no-surrender order.

And there was the entire government of Moldova, which in 2019 decided not to make way for a new government, leading to a bizarre situation in which both groups claimed for a time to be in charge of the country. The impasse finally ended when the former prime minister grudgingly stepped down in the face of growing national outrage and international pressure.

While American presidential transfers of power have traditionally been smooth, well-run affairs, world history is replete with examples of dictators and strongmen employing nefarious means to remain in office. Sometimes such rulers refuse to accept the results of honestly conducted elections. Sometimes they throw out term limits, and just keep on governing. Sometimes they jail, torture, kill or disappear their political opponents. (Sometimes they do all of those things.)

Mr. Trump has spoken admiringly about at least some of these practices, saying, for instance, that he was “probably entitled” to a third term “based on the way we were treated.” (That was before he lost the election.)

But given the news wafting like the occasional smoke signal from the White House, where some of the president’s advisers and relatives are reportedly attempting various psychological techniques to get Mr. Trump to accept the fact that he is now a lame-duck president, his behavior seems less like a putsch and more like an extended whiny tantrum. As Dan Rather, an elder statesman of American journalism, said on Twitter: “Dude. You lost.”

“He cannot bear being the loser and so now is doing everything within his power to assault the reality he hates,” said Joseph Burgo, a clinical psychologist who has studied Mr. Trump and written about his appeal to voters.

“Once he has exhausted all possible avenues to challenge the election, he will spend the rest of his life insisting the system conspired to deprive him of his victory,” said Dr. Burgo, the author of “The Narcissist You Know: Defending Yourself Against Extreme Narcissists in an All-About-Me Age.” “He will take refuge in blame, self-pity and righteous indignation to shore up his sense of self, thereby warding off the humiliation of true defeat.”

Meanwhile, many Republican legislators, loath to upset Mr. Trump, are helping to prop up the illusion that he is still somehow in power, in a way reminiscent of the courtiers who flattered, lied and enabled their way through the final days of Emperor Haile Selasse’s reign in Ethiopia in Ryszard Kapuscinski’s “The Emperor.”

Interestingly enough, there appears to be some precedent for this within the Trump family itself. When the president’s father, Fred, developed Alzheimer’s, the family reportedly conspired to help him believe that he still ran the Trump organization. According to Vanity Fair, the elder Mr. Trump would show up for work every day, signing blank papers and using an office phone connected only to his secretary’s line. “Fred pretended to work,” a family friend told the magazine.

With his vast coterie of enablers willing to believe his baseless assertions about the election, Mr. Naftali said, Trump might be better compared to the Wizard in “The Wizard of Oz.”

“Many of us assumed that Trump’s behind-the-curtain moment — when Dorothy arrived and, thanks to Toto, found out that the Wizard was a humbug — would come because of his handling of the Covid emergency,” he said. “But one of the reasons the president is able to continue this fantasy that he won a second term is that 73 million people don’t agree that he was a humbug. Even though the Wizard is on his way out, Oz still exists.”

Of course, angry people can be very dangerous when backed into corners, and Mr. Trump’s belief in his own falsehoods has already had damaging, real-life consequences. Some sympathetic right-wing media outlets and many Republican officials are refusing to acknowledge that Joseph R. Biden Jr. is the president-elect. Millions of people appear to believe Mr. Trump’s assertions that the election was stolen and that the coronavirus, now raging out of control, is not a serious problem. His supporters are marching in the streets to protest the election result, and it remains to be seen under what circumstances he will finally leave the White House.

All these things raise the question (asking for a friend): How do you get someone to face reality and get out of the White House?

For clients who have lost their jobs during this unsettling time, said Megan Walls, an executive coach and career adviser in Chicago, she works to help them accept what has happened and move on. “The reality is that we can’t control Covid or jobs or business — we can only control ourselves,” she said.

However, she added, Mr. Trump would not be a good candidate for the kind of coaching she offers.

“I won’t work with people who are avoiding the situation or acting like a victim,” she said. “Anyone who is digging their heels in — I can’t help him until they help themselves. Maybe they don’t need a coach; they need a psychotherapist.”

How about flattery?

On Twitter, the Trump-admiring journalist Geraldo Rivera compared the president to a heavyweight champion who knows he has lost but grittily fights on in case he can eke out a victory. His lyrical description — “Still, he’s going to answer the final bell, looking for the knockout he knows is a long shot”— inadvertently brings to mind the delusional Black Knight in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” who won’t surrender even after his arms and legs have been hacked off. (“Tis but a scratch,” the knight declares. “What are you going to do, bleed on me?” King Arthur responds.)

As for the former ambassador’s wife who overstays her welcome in “Don’t Tell Alfred,” embassy officials decide that the best way to evict her is to deprive her of the attention she craves. “We must bore her out,” an official says.

Finally, reluctantly, she leaves, taking on a diva-ish air of wounded glamour as she encounters a crowd of guests arriving for a party to which she has not been invited.

“She shook hands, like a royal person,” Mitford writes, “as she sailed out of the house forever.”

Susan Beachy contributed research.

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