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.
Much as he demands we see him as a man with an uncanny knack for winning, Donald Trump is ending his presidency by proving that his big talent may be his extraordinary ability to defeat himself. In fact, it seems that he only feels successful when he goes his own way, even if the path takes him over a cliff.
Exhibit 1A in the case for Trump’s irrational self-destructive impulse is the way he urged his supporters to challenge the Covid-19 pandemic and go vote for him in person on Election Day. According to Georgia’s Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, this strategy backfired as more than 24,000 Republicans who participated in the state primaries did not vote at all on November 3. Trump’s margin of defeat in the state was about 13,000.
“In effect, what you’re doing is you are suppressing your own voters,” Raffensperger told Bloomberg. “I have no control over what campaigns do, and if they do ill-advised actions that suppress their own vote, what can I do?”
Trump was advised that his vote-in-person idea could backfire because voters who favor his party had a strong habit of voting by mail. By casting doubt on the mail-in system telling supporters to vote in person instead, Trump may have been depending on the fact that some states tally the votes cast on the day of the election first, which would cause TV news networks to show him leading on election night. This Red Mirage, as it was called, was likely part of a larger scheme to set up a false claim, to be made as his rival’s votes were tallied, that something nefarious was afoot.
If the Georgia Secretary of State is correct, it could help explain how Trump not only became a rare first-term president not to win re-election but also lost Georgia – the first Republican to do so since 1992.
The President’s handling of the pandemic provides another example – call in Exhibit 1B – of how in his devotion to doing things his way, facts be damned, he hurts himself. From the beginning of the crisis Trump defied expert advice and ignored the examples set elsewhere. Instead of championing basic public health practices like mask-wearing and social distancing, he insisted the virus would magically disappear. He stuck with this approach even as America suffered more deaths per capita than most developed countries and rolling crises in hospitals, as case numbers peaked in different locales.
Trump’s commitment to downplaying the pandemic, with the excuse that he wanted to protect the economy from public panic, was consistent with his tendency to stay stubbornly committed to a choice, even when it turns out to be wrong. For him, admitting an error and changing directions seems to be worse than any actual failure. Even one that costs American lives. So when he saw he might lose the election, he didn’t change his tune about mail-in voting but poured enormous effort into discrediting the process that might hand him a loss.
Just as Trump’s emotional attachment to his failed pandemic policies planted the seed of his defeat at the polls, his commitment to discrediting the election itself is assuring that he will be viewed as a destructive child and not as a man equal to the dignity of his office. Proof of this – Exhibit 1C – is his firing of the Department of Homeland Security official who led a most successful effort to secure an election that saw record numbers of Americans voting, despite the Covid-19 pandemic, and little meddling of the sort Russia practiced to influence the 2016 election on Trump’s behalf.
In firing Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Director Chris Krebs, the President falsely accused him of making inaccurate comments about the way the election was conducted. Few could doubt that in fact Krebs was dismissed because he contradicted Trump’s baseless claims that he was somehow cheated.
In the Krebs episode Trump performed the remarkable feat of harming himself in multiple ways. First, he lost the chance to take credit for a success that any reasonable leader would proudly claim. Second, he demonstrated his pettiness, which even fellow Republicans noted in a public way. Third, he reminded the nation that instead of accepting defeat with the grace of a well-balanced adult who cares about the country, he is pursuing a futile protest that is causing costly delays in the transition to the Biden administration. (Among his many motives for this frenzied activity may be to somehow delay legal problems he could face leaving office. The New York Times reported that in New York state, for example, payments that appear to be made to his daughter Ivanka are under scrutiny by the state attorney general.)
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If President Trump felt the usual concerns presidents have had for their legacies, he would be showing the grace others have demonstrated in defeat. Instead, heedless of the damage he does to himself and the country, he is being faithful to deviant behavior he has exhibited all of his life. He is also showing signs of a lifestyle he seemed to be open to long ago, when he told friends he might end up like one of the famous figures of his youth, the billionaire Howard Hughes.
Once a dashing pilot, industrialist, and moviemaker, Hughes descended from a life of glamor into a bizarre, reclusive existence marked by isolation, paranoia, and a crippling fear of germs. At death, which was apparently caused by consuming massive doses of aspirin, the 70-year-old Hughes weighed less than 100 pounds and his 6-foot, 4-inch frame had shrunk by 2 inches.
In leaving this world, Hughes became known more for his tragic personal struggles, portrayed to gruesome effect by Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Aviator,” than for his accomplishments. In his way Trump risks a similar fate as he leaves the presidency. He may believe his stubborn way of playing politics to be an asset, but it’s more likely to be regarded as the reason for his failure.