President Trump boards Air Force One on Jan. 12, 2021. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

We’re about to find out whether Trump actually believes his baseless accusation that the vote was “rigged” — or whether he’s just been blathering on in search of gullible folks willing to support a lost cause and maybe drop another few bucks in a fantasy-driven ex-president’s 2024 comeback kitty. (The money is likely to be more urgently needed to pay Trump’s bankers and criminal defense lawyers as prosecutors close in. Global revulsion with the Trump brand is already sapping his real estate holdings.)

Whether Trump mounts a no-holds-barred investigation to probe election fraud should be of particular interest to his tools within the local congressional delegation. Rep. Steve Scalise and Sen. John Kennedy come immediately to mind. Without offering a shred of evidence themselves, they are among Republican legislators who chose to parrot the president’s demand to overturn the election. That would have meant disenfranchising the 81-million Americans who voted for Joe Biden — the largest tally in history — and it already has denied the President-elect the smooth transition to the Oval Office required by law and tradition.  

If Trump has actually convinced himself that he won the election, only to see “enemies of the people” somehow snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, how could he NOT vigorously pursue vindication. His place in history is at stake. Worse yet, stripped of his presidential immunity and powers of office, Trump faces both criminal and civil prosecution in New York where a grand jury has been pondering charges that reportedly include tax fraud and falsified loan applications. Elsewhere across an America Made Great Again, the state of Georgia is considering charges against Trump for election tampering. His own Department of Justice refuses to rule out proceeding against Trump for fomenting the insurrection that led his followers to vandalize the U.S. Capitol, a melee in which five people died. Even soon-to-be former Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is said to be warming to the idea of a conviction in Trump’s upcoming impeachment trial. 

A man with a fragile ego stands accused of being the worst American president ever and, not incidentally, the only one to have mounted a direct assault on our Constitution’s rules for choosing a successor. He calls the election he lost by a certified seven-plus million votes a “landslide” victory. But even with so much riding on a post-presidential search for facts, Trump’s base, especially its congressional faction, may be headed for deep disappointment. Rather than vindicate himself and his followers by striving doggedly to prove his lies about the election, Trump — to judge from all he has shown himself to be — is more likely to fold like a busted craps player at his bankrupt casino. He will betray the base’s faith in his fight for truth and justice, just as he has betrayed so many of his enablers and allies, Vice President Mike Pence only the most recent of them. 

Worse than that, if the investigation of the Capitol attack establishes complicity by the White House and by congressional Republicans suspected of offering guided tours through the building to wannabe Insurrectionists the day before the Jan. 6 riot, America will face a convulsive reckoning that makes Watergate look like just another dull day on the Hill.     

This is the president who said he would march along with the Insurrectionists all the way to the Capitol. Instead Trump slipped away to watch the mess unfold on television. Thus, did POTUS abandon to their fate, the mob he had stirred up and the members of Congress they were threatening to hang (Pence) and shoot (House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi.)  

“Be there, will be wild,” Trump had exhorted his base, urging them to come to Washington on Jan. 6 and prepare to “fight.” A day after egging on men and women ignorant and gullible enough to take him at his word, Trump tried out a new, not very convincing persona: statesman. Reading carefully from a teleprompter and sounding about as convincing as a hostage held at gunpoint, he meekly called for law and order and asked the faithful to give non-violence a try. For the few minutes it took to do the speech he postured as a foe of the divisiveness that has been the hallmark and chief political tactic of his entire presidency. A week later he became the first president in history to be impeached twice. 

No doubt there are Americans who took Trump at his word, who believed after four years of his addiction to lying, that he had gone cold turkey and was speaking from the heart. But the video came as a disappointment to more than a few of my Trumpist neighbors in South Mississippi and to the much larger army of Trump fans accustomed to scanning a slippery-tongued president’s remarks for welcome winks toward QAnon and coded references to white supremacy. Trump? Enemy of the hatred and divisiveness he has engendered so relentlessly? Trump speaking the simple truth? Get serious. Which is exactly what Trump has to do. Get serious. 

With the presidency behind him and time on his hands, he will have both the opportunity and an obligation to verify the unproven claim that he actually was elected to a second term.  The claim has been laughed out of court by scores of judges, many of them Trump appointees. Even the Wall Street Journal and Fox News, the throbbing heart of Rupert Murdoch’s formerly pro-Trump media empire, have come to their senses. Repeating Trump’s lies and embellishing his crazy conspiracy theories have made a laughingstock of Trump minions like Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, both of whom stand a good chance of being disbarred. Flirtation with truthlessness may have made it hard even for the likes of Scalise and Kennedy to climb up off their knees, recover some self-respect and try to relaunch their political careers.  

Grant Trump this much. Proving his detractors wrong — proving that the 2020 election was a conspiracy so vast it engulfed 50 states and drew strength from deceased Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez — would be the greatest reversal of fortune in American political history. It would also deal a stunning blow to the “fake news” media that Trump loathes and to the millions of liberals and centrists who think of his whole presidency as essentially a fraud enacted by a fading reality TV star. 

In other words, there’s a tremendous amount at stake. American democracy for one thing. The Trump presidency’s place in history for another. We’ll soon see if Trump believes in either of them very deeply. It would mean doing more than just flouncing off to Palm Beach in a snit and becoming the first losing incumbent in 150 years to snub his successor’s inauguration. It would mean mounting a serious and orderly fight — doing the necessary research — to prove his reckless and so far evidence-free claims about the election being “stolen.” It would validate the decision by Scalise and Kennedy and other congressional enablers to set aside their dignity and kiss Trump’s feet so lovingly and for so long.

This column was updated to reflect news developments on Wednesday morning.

Jed Horne, retired Lens opinion editor, shared two Pulitzer Prizes for coverage of Hurricane Katrina during his many years as city editor of The Times-Picayune. His books include “Desire Street,” about a Louisiana Death Row case, and “Breach of Faith,” about Hurricane Katrina. 

The Opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Opinion Editor Amy Stelly at astelly@thelensnola.org.