The Antipope of Mar-a-LagoJanuary 29, 2021
he ousted leader refused to relent to reality.
Set against a backdrop of avarice and inequality and persistent sickness, distrust and misrule, the leader exploited and exacerbated societal unrest to seize and flaunt vast power—doing anything and everything he could to try to keep it in his grip. He resisted pleas for unity and calm. He tested the loyalty of even his most ardent and important establishment supporters. He was censured and then toppled. Still, though, he declined to consider even the smallest acquiescence. Besieged and increasingly isolated, he faded as he aged—but he never yielded. Some people believed he had no less than the blessing of God.
He was Benedict XIII—“the pope,” said Joëlle Rollo-Koster, a noted scholar of the Middle Ages, “who never conceded.”
Benedict, who died in 1423, was the last of the popes of Avignon, in what’s now the south of France. He was an “antipope”—in opposition, that is, to a sequence of popes presiding from the more customary hub of Rome—and insisted even as he was twice deposed that he remained the rightful pontiff. He tried to exert control from a fortress of a palace in a separate seat of power—propped up by a stubborn type of papal court, retaining sufficient political capital to pressure heads of states to pick sides, bestowing benedictions and other benefits and if nothing else gumming up earnest efforts to allay divides. Weary, irritated leaders, both religious and royal, “said, ‘You’re out, you’re out, you’re out,’” Rollo-Koster told me, “and he said, ‘No, I’m in, I’m in, I’m in.’”
Six centuries later, Donald Trump, twice impeached, is finishing his first full week as a dispatched post-president ensconced in his own Florida fortalice of Mar-a-Lago—committed by almost all accounts to do from his Palm Beach perch some modern-day variant of what Benedict pulled off for decades. The calamitous, lies-laced last few months of Trump’s White House term, and in particular the last few weeks, almost certainly will make this harder—the broad corporate blowback, social media silencing and historic (and ongoing) congressional condemnation piled atop his already looming legal, financial and reputational peril.
Even so, according to dozens of interviews with Trump associates, former staffers, biographers, Washington and Florida strategists and consultants, party functionaries, Palm Beach politicos and members of Mar-a-Lago, Trump is sure to try—to badger the man who beat him, to exact revenge against recalcitrant Republicans, to play a role of kingmaker and power broker, to return to his life-force rallies, to tease a 2024 comeback and to generally wreak what havoc he can on the public and body politic while enforcing fealty from his official (but contested) residence serving as his active home base and headquarters. And an early indicator of Trump’s undiminished influence: House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy—who’s gone in the span of half a month from saying Trump “bears responsibility” for the pro-Trump mob’s January 6 attack on the Capitol to saying “I don’t believe he provoked it” to asking for and receiving this week a patch-up lunchtime confab … at Mar-a-Lago.
“The new Trump Tower,” said former Trump political adviser Sam Nunberg.
“The MAGA capital,” said Christian Ziegler, the state Republican vice chair.
“He is going to essentially try to rule in exile,” said Rick Wilson, a former GOP operative in Tallahassee and a co-founder of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project, forecasting “a post-presidency like we’ve never seen.”
What will Trump’s post-presidency look like—and what will it do to America? There is no real precedent in the annals of the nation—and thus no real playbook for how to manage the kind of civic disruption it is likely to cause. But from history, and from people who’ve known him, it’s possible to stitch together a more-than-educated guess at what the country’s in for—a portrait of the nation’s first real anti-presidency.
The closest analog is probably the capitals of the Confederacy—and the self-evidently still unresolved aftermath of the Civil War—but Jefferson Davis never carried the legitimacy of having once been the president in the White House. And real former presidents, even the most compulsive limelight hounds, from Teddy Roosevelt to Bill Clinton, historically have made themselves scarce, consciously refraining from meddling in or even commenting on the affairs of their respective successors. Trump in this regard figures to be as contemptuous of convention going forward as he was in the past five-plus years. “We’re going to see something remarkably new,” said Princeton historian Kevin Kruse. “There will be,” added Lawrence Douglas, a professor at Amherst College and the author of a book about Trump’s endgame, “this kind of shadow ex-president.”
“Donald Trump’s not an ex-president—he’s a right-wing, nativist, revolutionary leader,” presidential historian Doug Brinkley told me recently. “He has a movement that is massive with global implications—that kind of revolutionary—and he took on the entire federal government of the United States. That kind of character doesn’t register as a typical ex-president.”
As unequaled as this is in the 245 years of the country’s existence, there are, however, rough parallels from other areas and eras around the world—tainted, brought-down kingpins, cast off to often island elsewheres. A defeated Napoleon was sent to Elba and then again to Saint Helena. Chiang Kai-shek went to Taiwan. Ferdinand Marcos made off to Hawaii. But none match the current moment with the resonance of Benedict XIII.
Manipulative and unabashed, he worked to cling to the trappings of power, sapped the sway of his counterpart popes and complicated attempts to mend the crippling split in the Roman Catholic Church called the Western Schism. Monarchs, clerics and other popes, his most potent adversaries, tried diplomacy, force and outright excommunication, ultimately stamping him a heretic—but they could never make the uncompromising Benedict altogether disappear. And there was an unexpected twist to Benedict’s intransigence, one Trump’s many high-ranking opponents would do well to heed: The harder and longer he held out, the more he was seen by some as a victim or a martyr, abidingly admired precisely because of his obstinacy and unwavering audacity.
“History never repeats itself; man always does,” said Voltaire, and Trump last Wednesday departed a rattled, armored Washington, pledging to “be back in some form.” Unwilling to acknowledge the legitimacy of his loss, he left town before the inauguration of Joe Biden—without having invited him to the White House, or congratulated him publicly, or even so much as mentioned his name. No longer roundly welcome in his native New York and all but chased from D.C., Trump jetted toward Florida, his habitual winter weekend getaway turned paramount political stomping grounds—the site of some of his biggest, most important wins; the bastion of a governor he helped get elected, two Republican senators and the House member who’s maybe his most fervent minion, plus a roster of media accessories and grassroots boosters; and America’s notoriously fact-flouting fantasy land, a hundred-year haven for hucksters and hustlers, outsiders, refugees and retirees, a sandy, sweaty Shangri-La of second chances, where Trump is now intent on concocting a papal-like court, a coterie of officeholders and wannabes, hangers-on and aides-de-camp, ring-kissers and the wholly beholden.
A little over a week ago, after Air Force One dutifully deposited the still-45th president on the tarmac at Palm Beach International Airport, Trump milked his last hour of presidential pomp. His final, full-on, lights-flashing motorcade snaked across the intracoastal waterway, past a BMW with a license plate that blared “LUV DJT,” past one sign wrongly saying he “WON!” and another asserting that “On the 8th Day God Created Donald Trump,” slowing to a crawl to let him bask in the clamor of shrieking, flag-flying, mostly maskless crowds at whom he pumped his fist. He pulled up to the front of his private, oceanfront club, greeted by a cluster of chanting fans. “Welcome home! Welcome home! Welcome home!”
The antipope of Mar-a-Lago, whose adherents have embraced him and his crusade with a religious, even cultlike ardor, got out of his shiny, fortified black Suburban, clapped, pointed and waved from the other side of a line of velvet ropes, and walked through the doors of his strange and very American sort of Holy See.
cross the Atlantic, some 600 years back, everybody said they wanted unity.
But unity was hard. “Comparing a pre-democratic system with a democratic system, there is kind of something odd,” Rollo-Koster said, offering a necessary caveat. “But behaviors remain constant throughout history regardless of the political system.” And unity was hard at that moment because of the whims and wants of leaders, because of ever-shifting protections and allegiances, and because people who had power didn’t want to give it up. “The schism,” wrote Barbara Tuchman in A Distant Mirror, “was a trap not easy to get out of.” It “lasted as long as it did,” as Rollo-Koster put it in her book, “because it benefited the private interests of many parties.”
In this case, though, often the crux of the trouble was just one man.
Benedict XIII, already in his 60s, was made a pope in 1394, by mainly French cardinals, principally because he suggested he would be willing to step aside in an effort to fix the fracture in the church. That professed selflessness subsided once he got a taste of the throne. King Charles VI of France sent envoys to Avignon to urge him to abdicate. Benedict’s retort: “I would rather be buried alive.” The king broke with him in favor of neutrality, and many cardinals and clergy followed suit, chastising Benedict for “creating and fostering schism.”
The niceties of diplomacy having failed, the king ordered mercenaries to lay siege to the papal palace. It lasted a year. Benedict, trapped, was forced to eat cats, rats and sparrows. He still didn’t surrender. And ultimately, and unexpectedly to the most elite and entrenched, a substantial share of the hoi polloi and rank-and-file sided with Benedict the victim rather than the royals and their hired hands. The king grudgingly restored his backing of Benedict.
“Certainly,” the British critic Edwin Mullins wrote of the rebel pope, “he appears to have remained quite undaunted by his own predicament, even reveling in it, personally urging on his small garrison, forever devising fresh strategies to foil his attackers, and continuing to maintain that as the Vicar of God he was receiving God’s help and hence inevitably would triumph over his enemies.”
“They bombarded him,” Rollo-Koster told me, “but he was in his freaking palace, and he stood firm, and people thought, ‘You know, maybe he’s right.’”
What Benedict really wanted was to be the pontiff in Rome, in the Vatican, the actual seat of power. He threatened to invade but never did. He made movements to talk to his rival popes—there were three of them during his tenure as an “anti”—but he never did. And he talked about healing the schism, just enough, to keep the French crown and connected clerics in suspense, or at least at bay. Even as he aged, even as his support and loyalty waned, keeping the story going was as important as getting anything done.
When he was deposed the first time, by the Council of Pisa in 1409, he excommunicated all the cardinals and patriarchs—calling them the “schismatic” heretics, posting on all the churches in Avignon a papal bull, like some kind of medieval tweet or email blast. And when he was deposed the second time, by the Council of Constance in 1417, his response was just as truculent. He excommunicated the entire council.
“Trump,” said Rollo-Koster, “is the new Benedict XIII.”
vignon, once a warm-weather backwater, had become by the time of this saga “a place,” in Mullins’ words, “where unholy opulence was coupled with greed, rapacity, nepotism, corruption, a shameless abuse of its power and wealth, and above all an outrageous moral laxity.”
Florida, in other words, is just the place for Trump and what he’s about to try to do.
“There’s no one more ‘Florida Man’ than Donald Trump,” Tallahassee-based Republican strategist Slater Bayliss told me.
“He is peculiarly suited for Florida,” said Mac Stipanovich, the semi-retired operative, lobbyist and all-around political fixture in the state, who shifted over these past few years from Republican to independent to registered Democrat largely on account of Trump and the ways he’s changed the GOP. Other equally or more pro-Trump states—he cited Texas or Alabama—“they’re just not,” he said, “culturally nouveau riche enough or morally louche enough to be a better fit for Donald Trump.”
“Florida is the Trumpiest state in the union,” added Joshua Karp, a Democratic consultant who’s worked there on House, Senate and gubernatorial campaigns, “and for a million reasons.”
“Start with geography,” said Mark Braude, the author of a book about Napoleon and the former French emperor’s exile in 1814 and ’15 on the Mediterranean island of Elba. “The whole point of exile,” Braude explained, “whether it’s self-imposed or imposed by others, is the importance of being removed from the main seat of power, and what that does to somebody’s reputation and sense of self is totally important, I think, to both Napoleon on Elba and Trump in Florida.”
Florida is not an island but a peninsula, of course, but the peninsula is so long there can be (I say as a former resident) an almost palpable sense of separation from the rest of the nation. Avignon is almost 600 miles from Rome. Elba is almost 800 miles from Paris. Mar-a-Lago is almost a thousand miles from the White House.
Another way the state’s an apt fit for Trump: Florida exists in its present-day form because of a century of shady selling of sand and swamp—a prerequisite of the round-and-round boom-and-bust cycle, from the 1920s land frenzy on, not simply supply and demand and no income tax, but an anything-goes, devil-may-care air and a devoted indifference to history and climatic constraints. “Florida,” said Karp, “has been a state for a long time where the truth just doesn’t matter.”
But the most important reason Florida’s the ideal locale for the antipope of Mar-a-Lago is the politics. It’s “the center of America’s political universe,” said Florida Studies professor Gary Mormino.
And it’s filled with Trump fiefs.
In Tallahassee is Ron DeSantis—governor, some contend, thanks to Trump tweets. Deeper into the Panhandle is perhaps the most pro-Trump bulldog in Congress in Matt Gaetz. Also on Capitol Hill are two GOP senators—Rick Scott and Marco Rubio—who both have had to navigate Trump-entangled terrain in Washington and back home and (in the case of Rubio) the bruising ’16 campaign trail as well. The state’s vast, rural, hard-up inland areas as well as pockets of older, wealthier, overwhelmingly white conservatives—both spots are stocked with Trump supporters, broadly representative of the two main poles of his coalition. And South Florida, especially Miami-Dade County, which can feel more than anything like the Caribbean, boasts the staunchest bloc of Trump’s nonwhite support. Now it’s home, too, to his favorite child in Ivanka—rumored to be considering a primary challenge next year for Rubio’s Senate seat—and her husband, the former White House wingman Jared Kushner, and their family. Trump won Florida in 2016. He won it by even more in 2020—the 3.3-point margin a landslide by its usual razor-thin swing-state standards.
When Trump started running for president, way back in June 2015, he prioritized Iowa and New Hampshire. After that, though, and quickly after that, according to a person with direct knowledge of his mindset, he zeroed in on Florida, making multiple calls a day to his advisers in the state to keep tabs on his standing. “He’s been Floridacentric ever since,” this person told me. “That was his metamorphosis from being the New Yorker to being something else.”
He switched his main residence from Trump Tower to Mar-a-Lago in October 2019. He had a “homecoming” rally in Sunrise, just south of Palm Beach, the next month. “He’s the first Floridian president,” state GOP chair of chairs Evan Power told me.
“This state’s on fire for Donald Trump, and I think that’s going to have a long-lasting effect. He started a movement. He’s energized, and he’s redefined, frankly, the Republican Party here in the state of Florida—across the country as well, but specifically here,” said Ziegler, the party vice chair.
“Southeast Florida is one of the political capitals in the entire country, and it’s MAGA country now,” he added, citing the prevalence of conferences, fundraisers and homes and businesses of conservative media notables like Rush Limbaugh, right-wing commentator Dan Bongino and Newsmax CEO, Trump pal and Mar-a-Lago member Chris Ruddy. The Republican National Committee’s spring donor meeting is scheduled for April in Palm Beach, and Trump’s invited.
“I think just kind of the get-rich-quick-and-dirty-and-hope-somebody-becomes-president-to-pardon-you culture that he surrounds himself with is probably more prevalent in Florida than other parts of the country,” Kevin Cate, a Florida-based consultant and former Barack Obama spokesman, said of Trump. “He surrounds himself with yes-men and yes-people. And there’s way more Trump stans with aluminum foil under their red hats in Florida than there are in New York.”
f the Sunshine State is Trump’s papal state, Mar-a-Lago’s set to serve as his papal court—his own peculiar kind of curia, populated by 21st-century equivalents of footmen, butlers and lackeys, cardinals, dukes and lords.
Having said on his way out of Washington “goodbye, but hopefully it’s not a long-term goodbye,” Trump arrived in Florida last week with a small clutch of aides that included senior adviser Jason Miller, political director Brian Jack, social media director Dan Scavino, assistants Beau Harrison, Molly Michael and Margo Martin, and a band of Secret Service—whose protection of members of his family he extended for the next six months in an extraordinary decree on his way out of office. But Trump’s court, based on my recent round of conversations, will involve his family, of course, and also could include, among others, longtime advisers Dave Bossie and Corey Lewandowski, possibly the pardoned Steve Bannon and Roger Stone, Rudy Giuliani, Ruddy, Gaetz …
“You can count on a group of the hangers-on, the bootlickers and ass-kissers,” said Wilson of the Lincoln Project.
Who else will be seen at Mar-a-Lago?
“Anyone running for a Republican primary,” said Ziegler. “I don’t think anyone beats Donald Trump in a Republican primary, and I think it’s very difficult to beat a Donald Trump recommendation in a Republican primary.”
Here, then, at the outset of his post-presidential chapter, the role of Mar-a-Lago is in this way a Bizarro extension of what it’s almost always been for Trump.
It originally was built—in the land-boom ’20s—as a mansion for cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post. Trump bought it in the go-go ’80s. He converted it into a club a decade later. When he was the president, he took to calling it the Winter White House. Over the decades, though, it’s been for him more than a sun-splashed redoubt.
“The reason he loves Mar-a-Lago,” Laurence Leamer, the author of a book about Trump and his Palm Beach roost, “is that like many wealthy men or people he’s created his own universe around him. And that’s what he’s created at Mar-a-Lago—where people are constantly stroking him. Wherever he goes, they’re just celebrating him.”
“No matter what else is happening in the world,” a club source told People magazine in 2019, “he is treated like royalty at Mar-a-Lago.”
“I’m the king of Palm Beach,” Trump once crowed to biographer Tim O’Brien.
But in this new context, Trump will raise money, stoke talk of a 2024 run and aim to quash the careers of candidates who’ve crossed him, deploying post-Twitter methods to continue to press his message to people who support him—and to pique the people who don’t. In many respects, though, it’s not some marked change as much as a return to the way he likes it, a comfort zone long ago established on the 26th floor of Trump Tower—a relatively small staff within shouting distance, put there and kept there mainly to nod and egg him on as he watches and comments and plots and fights and generally just mixes it up instead of having to respond to constant scrutiny and actual make-or-break responsibility. “He will be able to surround himself,” biographer Gwenda Blair told me, “with people whose job it is to elicit that same supreme sense of not just self-confidence but domination, of absolute control.”
Last Thursday, Trump’s family, top donors and supporters put on a welcome-back luncheon for him at Mar-a-Lago. Earlier this week, he planted a more official flag in Palm Beach County, opening his post-presidential office to “carry on the agenda of the Trump Administration through advocacy, organizing, and public activism.” As was the case in Avignon, the presence of power, even of an alternative ilk, is almost certain to spawn an ecosystem of gawkers and underlings, opportunists and money men.
“If you’ve ever been to Mar-a-Lago or any of his clubs, you have to appreciate the detachment from reality by not just him but by the members as well, so their sort of craziness—it’s validation of his craziness,” Michael Cohen, his former fixer and attorney, told me. “And when I say supporters, I’m not talking about just the average Joes—I’m talking about politicians that continue to support this notion of his that he won.”
“He’ll settle scores,” biographer Michael D’Antonio said. “He’ll reward certain people.” He’ll be “a troublemaker,” said Barbara Res, a former Trump Organization executive. He’ll be “the ultimate Monday morning quarterback,” said Jack O’Donnell, a former Trump casino executive. “Every little hiccup, every little mistake—and believe me, Biden’s going to make mistakes, things aren’t going to be perfect, the stock market’s going to dip—he’s going to relish those opportunities.”
“He’ll cash in on being a former president in a way that we haven’t seen,” Mark Updegrove, a presidential historian and the author of Second Acts, a book about post-presidencies, told me—noting that Harry Truman, for instance, didn’t use brand-name pens for fear of implicitly endorsing one company over another. “He’ll see it as a badge of honor to make as much money as he possibly can,” Brinkley said. “He’ll be grifting,” said Cate, “because that’s what he does.”
Trump’s been bringing in money like mad, fundraising off the election he lost but said he won—and that mother lode of more than $200 million, which ostensibly was going to be used to fight the result in court, actually is his to do with as he sees fit. He’s already loosed emissaries to remind GOP senators that he intends to still be a force in the party—and to punish those who defy him. He’s wasted no time targeting his most conspicuous dissidents. And in the past week, he’s watched all but five Republican senators vote to call his current impeachment unconstitutional and state parties in Hawaii, Oregon and Arizona not only side with him but censure essentially anti-Trump heretics. For a one-term president whose time in the White House included (and some say caused) his party’s losses of both houses of Congress—and who’s been stripped of one of his favorite and most effective weapons in Twitter—Trump, nonetheless, so far from Mar-a-Lago has been remarkably successful in compelling allegiance. Witness the McCarthy meeting.
hat remains to be seen, though, is whether all this will work, or work as well not merely in the wake of the grievous end of his presidency but in the face of any additional consequences to come.
The establishment, as it did with Benedict XIII, has tried and is still trying to effectively excommunicate Trump.
It didn’t work the first time, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to work the second time, either. The establishment in Palm Beach, reminiscent of the French king with Benedict, will have to decide how hard to try to hold Trump to an original understanding—the 1993 agreement he made with the town that says he can’t use Mar-a-Lago as his full-time residence. The legal establishment? Trump’s jeopardy persists, in New York if nowhere else, but this week the Supreme Court shut down a pair of suits alleging he derived private profit from his public service. And real and looming is a siege, so to speak, of sanctions from the business and cultural establishment—corporate dissociating, dried-up lending, the specter of dips in Mar-a-Lago memberships or any lasting diminishment in see-to-be-seen prestige—but there are plenty of growing signs Trump could stand pat in his palace like Benedict and that these developments could add up to a hiccup more than a coup de grâce.
George Norcross, a top Democratic mover and shaker in New Jersey and the brother of congressman Donald Norcross, gave up his Mar-a-Lago membership, and some others apparently are quietly doing the same or considering it.
“A cop was killed,” one disappointed member told me, referring to the riot on the Hill. “Other people were killed.”
And yet …
“There are some members who just love Donald Trump, and he can do no wrong, and it doesn’t matter,” said Jeff Greene, a former member and Palm Beach real estate bigwig.
“There’s still going to be people who like him,” said member George “Guido” Lombardi—who’s one of them.
Others, too, dismissed the idea that the alarming coda of the Trump presidency constituted any kind of death knell for his post-presidency. If it’s any indication, the last years of the plague-beset 1300s looked for Benedict like the end. They turned out to be only the beginning.
“He’ll continue to hold court,” Palm Beach-based Republican consultant and fundraiser Blair Brandt told me when we talked about Trump and his prospects. “I think the notion that Mar-a-Lago has been canceled is a total stretch,” he said, “and I think that speaks to the fact that people forget how politics works and how short memories can be.”
Especially in Florida.
“Florida’s been a place where people retire, or go to remake themselves, or reinvent themselves,” a former top staffer to a top Florida Republican said. He told me a quick story from years ago about a bar in Miami called Monty’s. “I remember walking in there,” he said, “and seeing a throng of women, all well-dressed, good-looking, kind of anywhere from their mid-20s to mid-40s, all surrounding one guy. And in the middle of that throng was O.J. Simpson. And this was after he had killed his wife. So, you know, celebrity and money and notoriety—attracts a certain type of element. And now imagine it’s the former president of the United States.”
Rollo-Koster, the expert on the Avignon popes, for her part couldn’t help but think in a longer-arc scope. In 2000, more than half a millennium after Benedict XIII finally died in his mid-90s, two ne’er-do-well brothers stole his skull from a small museum in Spain. It was, according to news reports at the time, worth an estimated $315,000. The thieves tried to extort the local village council in exchange for the return of all that was left of the remains of the antipope one writer described as “the most tragic,” “the most implacably stubborn,” “and in some respects … the most intriguing of them all.”
Why, though, I asked incredulously, would bones of this rogue pope from a bygone age pack such residual power?
“Because,” Rollo-Koster said, “people loved the idea that he never said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘I believe that I am the legitimate pope. You can do whatever you want to me. You can even steal my head once I am dead! I still have legitimacy. And the behavior of people around him kind of reinforced that legitimacy—even a small group of people.”
Trump will turn 75 in June. His mother was 88 when she died. His father was 93. Rollo-Koster offered a prediction. “He will be beatified, one way or the other. He may not be beatified religiously, but I am sure he will be beatified by his base with some form of pseudocanonization. It will happen. People will save those MAGA hats as precious relics,” she said. “People will come—I’m sure he will have a golden mausoleum. He will have a Taj Mahal someplace, where people will come in droves, and will burn candles, and will bring their children. I’m calling it.”