Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is the author of the book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” and co-author, with Peter Eisner, of the upcoming book “High Crimes: The Corruption, Impunity, and Impeachment of Donald Trump.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Today Trump is a loser. But don’t expect him to admit it.
Like so many of President Donald Trump’s so-called jokes, his recent quip about leaving the country if he lost “to the worst candidate in the history of politics” contained a hint of truth. It was there, in the phrase he uttered before a punchline, about how he might have to leave the country, when he said, “I’m not going to feel so good.”
The one certain fact about Trump in his moment of defeat in his race against former Vice President Joe Biden is that he is not feeling good at all. Presidents are rarely denied when they pursue a second term – it has happened four times in the last 100 years – which means Trump cannot escape the label he hates most of all: loser. Losers are, in Trump’s view, undeserving of respect, admiration, and affection. “We love winners,” he famously observed about America in 2018. “We love winners. Winners are winners.” Which means that now he is a loser, and, by definition, not so much loved.
Our last loser president was George H. W. Bush who, though he felt hurt when he lost his re-election bid, kept his feelings to himself. Bush befriended his successor and became much admired for it. Our new one-termer, Trump has never shown much respect for gracious losers, preferring the status of victim whenever things don’t work out for him. For proof, consider this self-indulgent nugget from a commencement speech he gave at the Coast Guard Academy: “No politician in history — and I say this with great surety — has been treated worse or more unfairly,” said the President.
If presidents depart as they governed – and they seem to – we should expect Trump to defy the example set by the first president Bush and, before him, by Jimmy Carter, who was devastated by his loss but conceded, and aided the Reagan team’s transition before setting a standard for former presidents with his human rights and charitable work. Trump is not a man inclined to concede he lost anything fair-and-square and may well deprive Biden of the kind congratulations that traditionally signals the peaceful transfer of power.
Way back in September the President refused to affirm he would accept the outcome of the election, and predicted the contest would end up before the Supreme Court. It’s important here to recall that the court has only involved itself in one presidential election ever, and that case involved a dispute over a relatively small number of votes in a single state. In 2020, Trump seems ready to challenge the results in many states because, as one advisor told CNN, “He feels it’s being stolen from him.”
The President is acting as if his refusal to accept defeat is motivated by something deeper than his commitment to his self-manufactured image as a winner.
Although he is generally inclined to resist admitting defeat – preferring to take disputes to court – Trump has another big reason to try anything to stay in office. Like Nixon before him, Trump faces the possibility of legal trouble as he leaves the protection of an office that, according to Department of Justice policy, makes him exempt from prosecution. Unlike Nixon, who only faced federal trouble, which he escaped thanks to a pardon from Gerald Ford, Trump will be succeeded by a Democrat he spent years insulting. Whether Trump could pardon himself is unclear, but even if he could, he still faces the potential of peril in state courts – where no pardon emanating from the White House can save him.
In New York, Donald Trump faces criminal investigations at the state and county levels where investigators have been delving into his business practices. He is also imperiled by enormous loans that will be due soon after he leaves office and tax problems that would saddle him with even more debt. Add business losses of $1 million per day due to the coronavirus pandemic and Trump has more than the usual reasons to dread returning to private life. Some have estimated Trump’s assets as far outweighing his debts, but they could still pose problems for him.
In addition to the problems he faces in business and the courts, Trump will leave office as perhaps the most polarizing president in history. In the same survey that found Trump to be the “most polarizing” of all presidents, political scientists surveyed earlier this year also placed him dead last in their measure of “greatness,” well behind one-termers George H. W. Bush and Jimmy Carter.
Given Donald Trump’s dismissive attitude toward experts of all stripes, from climate scientists to epidemiologists, he might not put much stock in the judgments offered by political scientists or historians – but we do know how he feels about opinions rendered by ordinary Americans. He responded to his 2016 popular vote deficit against Hillary Clinton with an immediate claim, unsupported by evidence, that the margin was set by illegally-cast ballots. Although a commission he established to prove that voter fraud was a serious problem famously failed, Trump would continue making the claim well into 2020.
The President’s repeated efforts to rewrite the facts of 2016 seem to have been intended to persuade America of his alternative reality – more akin to the con man’s gaslighting technique than any ordinary political argument. This practice of repeating a lie or a misrepresentation to create confusion and, among his more devoted followers, agreement, was one of the main ways the President alienated much of the electorate.
In its most recent poll on Trump’s character, conducted five months ago, Gallup found only 36% consider him honest and trustworthy. At the same point in his first term, Barack Obama scored 60%, while Bill Clinton scored 46%. When the Pew Research Center sought character comparisons between Trump and Biden, the President also came up short on honesty – 36% to 48% – and “even tempered” – 60% to 25%.
Given Americans’ views of his character, the election result is not just a rejection of Trump’s policy but a verdict on his abrasive, preening, and cruel personality. Although substantial numbers of Americans may have favored his goal of reducing undocumented immigration, the way that he went about it – by separating children from their parents and forcing asylum-seekers to wait in squalor in Mexico – was revoltingly cruel. President Trump also used the deaths of innocent third parties to attack those he regards as political enemies, and he even called America’s war dead “suckers and losers.”
One by one, Trump’s first-term violations of the norms of human decency made him vulnerable to a reelection challenge, but even placed in a pile together they can’t compare with the suffering the President has overseen during the pandemic. From the moment he learned about the coronavirus, he decided to underplay it – all the way to the end-of-campaign rallies where he induced tens of thousands to risk infection. Trump politicized the response to the reality of Americans facing sickness and death.
As revealed in writer Bob Woodward’s recent book, “Rage,” and his publicly-released recordings of Trump and others, the President was keenly aware that the virus was, in his own words, “easily transmissible.” Nevertheless, he questioned the value of face masks and social distancing, and packed people without masks into indoor and outdoor rallies. The President sought to limit the economic impact of the pandemic by arguing that the disease was no more dangerous than seasonal flu, meanwhile admitting to Woodward the opposite.
With more than 230,000 American dead and 9.3 million infected, America under Trump has suffered more than most developed nations. Experts generally agree that the administration’s failures made the pandemic toll worse.
In the end Trump’s practice of personalizing everything means that the election became a referendum on him alone rather than on his policies or his administration of the government. Americans passed judgment on his personality, his character, and the public image he built during four years in office and forty years in the public eye.
Central to the Trump myth has been the fact-defying notion that he has always been a winner. Line up all of his failures – the airline, the casinos, the so-called university, various consumer brands – and it’s easy to see that he never was the winner he claimed to be.
Facing the possibility of mounting legal troubles, challenges to his wealth and a nation he helped to divide, Trump may feel he has no choice but to continue fighting the election verdict and, upon leaving office, commence a media crusade to press that claim that he was robbed. He likely sees in the nearly 70 million who voted for him a vast audience and the base for a presidential run 2024.