It is easy enough to imagine what Donald Trump’s customized personal hell might be like, and not just because there is already so much footage of it available. His hell would be one of his 2020 rallies, the ones in which he vamped and barked and drawled through distended 140-minute recitations of whatever was on cable news earlier that day. He did that in packed and distressingly humid Sun Belt convention centers while gleaming like a joint of char siu pork and he did it while swaddled in heroic overcoats on wind-blasted Great Plains airstrips. There was one where he brought up the rapper Lil Pump, whom he called Little Pimp; sometimes he would do a strange little mince-and-pump dance afterwards to The Village People’s “Macho Man.” Footage of him doing that was something like his campaign’s closing argument, in the election that he and many other people still can’t quite admit that he lost. Recently, after a rally in the town of Commerce, Georgia, he did it again.
Trump’s own hell is exactly that kind of event, except he is not onstage. In that hell, Trump can only stand there with everyone else, looking up at some other heedless wealthy man as he tells odd dilatory anecdotes about his own amazing success and nasty unfair enemies, or burps up half-digested chunks of cable news gristle. In that hell, Trump is instead stuck with the lumpen aspirants and stans, with their t-shirts and impacted opinions, stuck clapping and whooping whenever the big man in charge pauses to let them do it. In that hell Trump is consigned to the audience, cheek by jowl with swirly-eyed diehards who, but for their TV-watching habits or load-bearing personality disorders or some other unhappy demographic accident, might have been Parrotheads a tick or two too predatory or aggrieved or otherwise un-chill to really fit into the community.
But that is hell, and where Trump is now—definitively out of office, flitting through a gilded house arrest of his own making at various golf clubs bearing his name, banned from any social media site big enough for him to want to be on it—is much more like purgatory. He is still blithely sending to voicemail the consequences that he’s avoided for his entire life. The bet on which his entire being hinges, which is that someone born like him can pretty much do whatever he wants at all times without repercussion, is still very much in play. Breathtaking amounts of money, billed by the hour, and a quietly heartbreaking sum of (other people’s) labor and time are committed every day to maintaining this uneasy stalemate. As purgatories go, it is both luxurious and extremely high-maintenance.
Still, a well-appointed purgatory is no less purgatorial. Trump is swaddled in the high-thread-count luxury to which he has become accustomed, and surrounded by supplicants and greasy underlings in the ways he likes to be, but he is not really in the public eye anymore. Every now and then he calls into his favorite cable shows and does that thing he does where he kind of free-associates about the four or five things he cares about for nine consecutive chorus-free minutes like a septuagenarian RXK Nephew, which is mostly what he did as president but which no longer moves markets or even really makes news. He is banned from the social media sites that made him, and the janky fake Twitter that his people have made for him is so unwieldy and unpopular that he can’t bear to be associated with it. When he shows up on one of the lower-rung juche networks, he looks uncanny and medicated. The vibe is that of an infomercial advertising exquisite commemorative plates not sold in any store.
Trump still periodically issues little encyclicals on his own letterhead about whatever is troubling him—it could be gas prices going up, shamefully, when “tomorrow people start driving in the biggest automobile days of the year,” or it could be the very sad state of horse racing. It often is very hard to parse. These missives lack the trigger discipline that Twitter requires, and so are closer to the little videos he used to make where he’d sit at his big desk and demand to know What’s Going On with the lady Ghostbusters movie. These latest utterances cannot really be found by anyone unless someone with a platform finds them and shares them.
This is the purgatory made especially for this man, who needs more than anything else to be seen and heard. Trump is free to golf all day and watch his favorite TV friends endlessly ask and refuse to answer the question What Is Going On, and he gets all the steam-table beef flaps he can eat and all the selfie requests from psychotic realtors he can stand. But, and here is the purgatorial taunt in it, when Trump powerfully strokes a hole-in-one on a 181-yard par-three, blasting a five-iron that sailed magnificently through a very strong wind, he has to dictate the official statement to some aide for anyone to know about it, and then the aide has to push it out on a website, and then someone else has to notice that there has been an official statement from The 45th President Of The United States to that effect. Eventually, though, the truth will come out.
Anyway, there’s a lot of chatter about it, quite exciting, and people everywhere seem to be asking for the facts. Now, finally, we can put that chatter to rest. Ernie Els and the other great tour players joining Trump on that day saw before he did that his shot went clank into the hole. But that is what happened. The mainstream media will not talk about it; they will act as if it didn’t happen. The big online platforms who hold themselves out as the new arbiters of truth clearly believe that this information is too dangerous to be shared widely. The gatekeepers and great institutions atop our discourse do not want you to know it. But it is no less true for this. The guy who was president before got a hole-in-one on the golf course, and his very close friends who were once pro golfers clapped and were very impressed by his work.
It’s worth noting that this is absolutely something that Trump would make up if he felt like people were talking too much about a brutal foreign war, for instance, instead of him. But also it probably actually happened, because Trump really is a decent golfer—maybe or maybe not “the best golfer of all the rich people” but still pretty good—and because this sort of thing will eventually happen if you are a decent golfer and play golf every day. If Donald Trump were in hell, this magnificent shot would have rimmed out, and would continue to rim out every day forever while, like, Corey Pavin and Yasmine Bleeth laugh and laugh at his ridiculous failure. “You hit that five iron like a poor guy,” Bleeth would laugh, and Trump would have no answer, because he would be in hell.
But because Trump is lucky enough to be in purgatory, this shot quite probably went in, and then it took days for anyone even to register him crowing about it, and when they noticed they mostly thought “huh” or “what a strange man.” It could be worse, but that is the fundamental fact of purgatory. In lieu of punishment, his stupid little triumphs are now his alone, and insignificant. Not quite hell, then, but not far off the green.