Donald Trump Confronts a New Label: Loser
For the first time in a life that has been free of consequences for his failures, Trump has been held to account on the world’s largest stage. “Iwin, I win, I always win. In the end I always win,” Donald Trump once said. Now, though, for the first time in his life, in a public and historic way, he has lost.
As he has so relentlessly in the past, Trump is fighting against being tagged with a label that he has considered toxic to his brand. He has refused to concede. “The simple fact is this election is far from over,” he said in a statement just after the election was called. He promised to fight the results in court, alleging, without evidence, that a massive electoral fraud had robbed him of victory. But his talent for recasting reality to his advantage was incapable of overcoming a statistical truth not only accepted but dictated by the majority of the nation. He lost.
He lost because he lost Pennsylvania. He lost because he lost Wisconsin. He lost because he lost Michigan. Although he held Florida and Ohio and got more total votes than he did in 2016 and again overall outperformed most polls, the embattled incumbent ultimately lost in 2020 because he lost the support of just enough people in just enough places to lose.
For a half a century, time and again, Trump was able to fail and yet persuade the world that he hadn’t. He shirked personal bankruptcy by shunting to others the financial wreckage in his wake, fogged over defeats by insisting they were not, developed over time an armor of seeming untouchability, benefiting from people failing to act who could have held him to account — lenders, regulators, prosecutors and political power brokers. In this election, however, hundreds of millions of voters have done what all of them did not, making Joe Biden the next president and saddling Trump with a decision not as decisive as some pundits had predicted but nonetheless a loss.
Beyond the electoral math, the 45th president was rendered a one-term president because of the well-chronicled collection of his most core characteristics. What fueled Trump’s appeal during his improbable 2016 campaign turned steadily more untenable over the course of his four-year term. Normally, a president with a thriving economy builds up a reservoir of public approval and support — but Trump never did. His unappeasable need for affirmation, adoration and attention inhibited him from adding to his base of ardent supporters; it also led to the constant churn and uncertainty of his White House, as he dismissed those in the administration willing to push back and promoted the yes-men who were content to “let Trump be Trump.” His abiding conviction in the utility of division and chaos led to a whirl of staff turnover and a cascade of head-spinning feuds and inflammatory tweets that unnerved and exhausted a larger and larger share of the population as well as a share of his Washington allies. And his obsession with blind positivity, with image over reality, with the flouting of fact — his congenital unwillingness to share any credit or take any blame, his practically pathological commitment to putting up a tough front — all of it prevented him from demonstrating sufficient empathy to acknowledge the sweeping pain of the coronavirus pandemic that overshadowed his final year in office. In the end, the problem for Trump was “his Richter scale narcissism,” in the words of biographer Tim O’Brien. “If the only person you care about is yourself,” he said, “you can’t do things for other people.”
“Everything revolved around his own ego,” Brendan Buck, a former top aide to Republican speakers of the House John Boehner and Paul Ryan, told me. “The narcissism wasn’t necessarily used to advance some overarching goal or agenda or to change the world in any particular way. It was the end in and of itself — to just get the attention.”
“You can’t run the presidency by id and instinct, and that’s what he’s done,” longtime Democratic strategist Bob Shrum said.
“His narcissism prevented him from ever pivoting to broaden his appeal beyond his base,” said Republican consultant Rob Stutzman. “He simply chose over and over and over,” added Michael Steel, a former Boehner aide who worked for Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign, “not to reach out, not to expand his coalition, but simply to double and triple and quintuple down on that same low-40s percentage of the American populace that thinks he can do no wrong.”
For Trump himself, the consequences to come loom large — politically, legally, financially, historically, personally. Even so, and even with this outcome, Trump stands as one of the more influential presidents in modern history. In addition to exacerbating the country’s polarization, hastening the decline of discourse and legitimizing disreputable, illiberal elements of America’s patchwork electorate, he steered to the right for years the judiciary up to and including the Supreme Court, rolled back environmental regulations as the dire effects of climate change became more and more clear and alienated democratic global allies while currying favor with some of the planet’s most menacing despots.
Going forward, too, his loss almost certainly will not strip him of so much of what he most fundamentally covets — more than enough adherents who grant him the energy and the sway that sustain him, his penchant for mischief and a platform to make it matter, and the built-in clout, of course, of any former president. Though he is and always will be seen by many as a disgrace, Trump, distractible but irrepressible, transactional and vengeful, ever a formidable mix of entitled and aggrieved, nonetheless is set to vacate the White House as a disruptive social, cultural and political force.
For now, though, he is a loser — a figure whose departure from by far the most important public stage of his life will make him the one thing he never could bear.
To those who know him and have watched him over the years, Trump’s comeuppance at the hands of voters, narrow as it was, had an almost mythological feel. What built him up is what brought him down. What made him win, or at least claim victory, again and again, is what made him lose. He never moderated. He never modulated. He was who he was, and so he is who he is — in the judgment of the bulk of the voters of America, a failed president.
“It’s the opposite of the hero’s journey,” said Tony Schwartz, the co-author of “The Art of the Deal.” Defeated by a decisive crisis — unlike the classic protagonist, though, going home unchanged.