The most intriguing character in the latest tell-all book about Donald Trump is not the former president. It isn’t a Trump family member, or any of the White House staffers trying to quietly rehabilitate their reputations, or anyone in a position of power at all.
It’s Saundra Kiczenski, a 50-something employee of Walmart’s patio and garden department in northern Michigan.
Frankly, We Did Win This Election: The Inside Story of How Trump Lost is, for the most part, exactly what it says on the cover: a behind-the-scenes breakdown of Trump’s tumultuous final year in power.
Like every other account of the Trump presidency, it’s peppered with unsettling and occasionally shocking anecdotes, which shed new light on the dysfunction of Trump’s White House and the character of the former president himself.
But the author, Wall Street Journal reporter Michael Bender, weaves those revelations around the story of the Front Row Joes, a group of Trump’s most committed supporters.
Kiczenski was one of their founding members.
Throughout Trump’s candidacy in 2016 and then his presidency, the Front Row Joes followed him across the country like groupies pursuing their favourite rock band.
That analogy sounds trite, I know, but it’s actually rather fitting. Trump rarely says anything new at his political rallies. Usually he just plays the greatest hits, like an ageing band cycling through its old songs, trading off the audience’s nostalgia.
And that’s just how Trump’s diehard supporters like it. Some of the Front Row Joes attended more than 50 of his rallies, and they were usually first in line, often showing up days before the event.
Through the stories of Kiczenski and her friends, Bender goes some way towards explaining Trump’s enduring appeal, and why no lie, scandal or screw-up could ever sever his bond with millions of Americans.
The Front Row Joes are sympathetic characters; fundamentally decent people who found a larger purpose, and a new sense of community, in their shared support for Trump.
“Saundra’s life had become bigger with Trump,” the author notes.
But we also see the dark side of his influence. Trump uses and manipulates these people without remorse, indifferent to the harm he’s causing.
After the coronavirus pandemic struck, one member of the group, Randal Thom, fell severely ill with “high fevers and debilitating congestion”. Symptoms of Covid.
“He was convinced he had coronavirus but refused to go to the hospital. He didn’t want to take a Covid test and potentially increase the caseload on Trump’s watch,” Bender writes.
“I’m not going to add to the numbers,” Thom said.
Trump had repeatedly complained that the rising number of Covid infections and deaths recorded in public data made him look bad.
Thom risked his own health, denying himself treatment for a deadly disease, to stop that infection figure from going up. He seemed more concerned about protecting Trump’s petty political interests than preserving his life.
Is that what Trump would have wanted? Maybe not. The indifference is the point here. The president was too self-absorbed, too obsessed with his own political troubles, to stop and think about the consequences his words might have in the real world.
A less selfish leader would have seen the pandemic as a public health problem, and would have encouraged Americans to get tested and go to hospital, whatever effect it would have on the government statistics.
It’s quite simple really: if more cases are identified and more people are treated, fewer people die. This is why Australia’s premiers celebrate days with unusually high testing rates.
Every insider account so far, including Bender’s, has made it excruciatingly clear that Trump instead saw Covid as a political problem, a threat to his re-election.
So instead of dealing with it properly, he kept insisting it was overblown and on the cusp of “going away”, right up until election day.
His supporters believed him.
At his infamous Tulsa rally, with Thom in attendance, Trump said he’d told his staff to “slow the testing down”.
His supporters listened.
There’s a tragic truth at the heart of MAGA, one shared by most personality cults: the relationship is not reciprocal. Hardcore fans like Thom care more about Trump, and about the movement, than themselves.
Meanwhile, Trump cares more about himself than he does about them.
By the end of the book, Kiczenski is standing outside the Capitol in Washington DC, observing a scene that horrified the world: an anti-democratic mob swarming over the building, adorning it with Trump flags, tear gas hanging in the air.
She isn’t horrified by what she sees. She feels proud.
“Saundra was inspired by a vista of Trumpian strength and patriotism: the Washington Monument off in the distance, the majestic Capitol in the foreground, and freedom-loving patriots fighting like hell to stop a stolen and fraudulent election, liberate their country, and save their president,” says Bender.
Then there’s this quote, from Kiczenski herself.
“It just looked so neat. We weren’t there to steal things. We weren’t there to do damage. We were just there to overthrow the government.”
Hundreds of the Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol (to be clear, Kiczenski wasn’t among them, she stayed outside) have since been arrested and charged with crimes. Some will spend time in jail.
Two others died in the chaos, including Air Force veteran Ashli Babbitt, whom Trump is now trying to turn into a martyr.
“Who shot Ashli Babbitt?” he keeps asking.
The answer is that Babbitt was shot dead by a Capitol Police officer, who remains unnamed, as she tried to force her way through a barricaded door and enter the Speaker’s Lobby, adjacent to the House of Representatives.
But ask yourself, on a more fundamental level, why Babbitt was shot. Why was this “innocent, wonderful, incredible woman”, as Trump has called her, even there? What compelled her to join that mob, to confront police, to breach the Capitol in search of traitorous politicians?
She was drawn there by Trump’s lies about the election. He told his supporters it was stolen. He urged them to come to Washington and march on Congress. He told them the vice president, Mike Pence, had the power to unilaterally overturn his defeat.
It was nonsense, and Pence had told him so in private at least “a dozen times”. But the people at Trump’s January 6 rally near the White House were genuinely shocked when Pence released a statement saying he would not reject the electoral college votes.
When the crowd poured into the Capitol Building a short time later, there were loud chants of “hang Mike Pence”.
“If Mike Pence would have come out of that building, I guarantee he would have died,” said Kiczenski.
“And if it wasn’t by gunfire, he would have been pummelled. They were going to kill him in the street.”
Let that sink in for a moment. “They were going to kill him in the street.” It isn’t the “liberal media” saying that. I’m not saying it. It’s coming from one of Donald Trump’s most devoted supporters.
If Trump had accepted the election result and encouraged a peaceful transition of power, as every other beaten president in US history has brought himself to do, none of this would have happened.
Babbitt would not have been in Washington on January 6. She’d still be alive. Those other Trump supporters now facing prison sentences would be free.
But there’s no self-reflection about his own role in what happened. No sign he feels guilty. No acknowledgment of responsibility for the suffering he caused for his loyal supporters, let alone the rest of the country. He just Does. Not. Care.
When Bender visits Trump for his last interview with the former president, he’s been hanging out at his Mar-a-Lago club, playing rounds of golf, basking in the adulation of his paying guests and moaning that he hasn’t got enough credit for (supposedly) saving eight Republican Senate seats.
The book gets its name from Trump’s quote late on election night, when he falsely claimed victory before a huge number of the votes in key states had been counted. He knew those votes would favour his opponent.
“Frankly, we did win this election,” he said. (He didn’t win it.)
Despite months of baseless speculation about voter fraud before election day, it turns out Trump hadn’t decided what to say until shortly before he walked out to face the cameras.
Behind the scenes, around 2am, the president was reportedly “in shock that he hadn’t won” the election. He stood in the middle of the White House residence with a “confused, dejected look” as more than a dozen people shouted advice at him.
“It was a s***show. And the saddest thing I’ve ever seen,” one official told Bender.
Trump ended up listening to just one man, Rudy Giuliani, who’d go on to lead his farcical efforts to get the election results overturned in court.
“Just say we won,” Giuliani said.
In the subsequent weeks, pretty much everyone around the president knew the election was over and figured he would eventually come to terms with his defeat.
At one point, attorney-general Bill Barr told Trump his Giuliani-led legal team was a “clown show” and his fraud claims were “bulls***”.
Secretary of state Mike Pompeo lamented that the “crazies have taken over”.
But conspiracy theorists, including pillow salesman Mike Lindell and lawyer Sidney Powell, had Trump’s ear, and met with him in the Oval Office, hatching increasingly unhinged schemes about seizing voter machines and declaring martial law.
Powell would later defend herself against a $US1.3 billion defamation lawsuit by arguing “no reasonable person” could have believed her claims about the election.
Lindell, unrepentant despite his own defamation lawsuit, is still insisting Trump will be reinstated as president, though he has backed away from his previous prediction that it will happen by mid-August.
Lindell, Powell, Giuliani – they’re all colourful characters. So is Trump himself. But while reading the book I found myself returning, like the author, to the stories of Saundra Kiczenski, and Randal Thom, and the other regular Americans outside the halls of power who believed in Trump and believed that he cared about them.
Then I’d read another chapter detailing the president’s failure to take his job seriously.
One last anecdote. The morning after ousting Mick Mulvaney as his chief of staff, as Covid cases had been detected in more than half of America’s states and governors were imposing states of emergency, Trump was at Mar-a-Lago. He was agonising over an insignificant detail: what the logo for the Republican National Convention should look like.
The convention was almost half a year away.
“I don’t really like the way the elephant’s nose is shaped. And there are only three stars. It should be five stars, like a five-star hotel,” he told aides.
This is how the president of the United States was spending his time in the middle of a snowballing, once-in-a-century crisis. And he wonders why he lost.
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