In the six weeks since the Presidential election, various theories—many of them persuasive—have been advanced to explain President Trump’s refusal to accept Joe Biden’s victory. Trump’s decision to attack the legitimacy of the election has been seen, correctly, as an attack on democracy itself, and as a purposeful and brutally effective use of disinformation. And also as the behavior of a would-be dictator who is dragging an entire political party into a fever dream of denialism. Trump’s protracted post-election fit has been analyzed as preparation for a comeback bid in 2024 and as a fund-raising scam that has brought in hundreds of millions of dollars to support his post-White House political efforts. Very likely, Trump’s continued rejection of his defeat is some of all the above.
But in politics, and especially with this President, the simplest explanation for something is usually the best one. Whatever the other reasons are for his ongoing post-election temper tantrum, it couldn’t be more clear that Trump is also motivated by the simple psychological fact that he really, really hates being called a “loser.” It’s one of his favorite insults, and a label he would do anything to avoid having affixed to his own name. Just in the course of this election year, he has called Chuck Schumer, the Senate Minority Leader, “a totally overrated loser,” and George Conway, the conservative lawyer who became one of his sharpest critics, a “deranged loser of a husband” to his adviser Kellyanne Conway. He said that Cory Booker, Chris Cuomo, John Kasich, and John Kelly were losers, too. In September, The Atlantic reported that he had called American soldiers who died fighting overseas “suckers” and “losers.” When the Republican senator Mitt Romney has criticized Trump, the President has responded by reminding the former Republican Presidential nominee of his defeat in the 2012 election. “loser!” he tweeted, after one such episode, taunting Romney by attaching a video of his 2012 concession alongside Trump’s 2016 victory speech. Since November 3rd, however, the word has practically disappeared from his vocabulary.
“If I lost, I’d be a very gracious loser,” the President told a rally, in Georgia, on December 5th—more than a month after he did, in fact, lose. On Monday, the Electoral College met in all fifty state capitals to ratify that loss. Trump was not only not gracious; he continued to refuse to accept his defeat. A few weeks ago, in one of his few post-election comments to the media, a very testy Trump insisted that he would leave office if and when the Electoral College certified Biden’s victory. “Certainly, I will. Certainly, I will,” Trump said. “And you know that.” Now that the Electoral College has affirmed Biden’s win, however, Trump is no longer acknowledging that he will leave office. CNN even reported, the other day, that, in private, he has backed away from previous indications to his aides that he accepts his defeat.
Perhaps Trump believes that his continued rejection of the reality of his loss makes him appear to be a fighter. Perhaps he really has convinced himself that the outrageous claims he is making about an election conspiracy so vast that it involves millions of fraudulent votes, a dead Venezuelan dictator, and Republican officials in a half-dozen states are true. Many commentators—including me—have pointed with alarm to Trump’s success at convincing millions of Republican voters to doubt the legitimacy of Biden’s win, and the fact that two-thirds of the House Republican Conference last week signed onto the quickly dismissed Texas lawsuit to throw out the results in four key states—Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—where Biden prevailed. If Trump’s goal was proving that the Party remains loyal to him, he has succeeded extraordinarily. Who could have imagined four years ago that a large part of the national G.O.P. leadership would be so devoted to Donald Trump that it would follow him down the path of outright rejection when the election did not go his way?
But there is another way of looking at what Trump has been doing since November 3rd, and it does not suggest a strategy of political genius—or, really, much of a strategy at all. In pushing back so insistently and filing so many baseless lawsuits, Trump has forced dozens of conservatives at every level of American society to attest to the integrity of the vote—and highlight Trump’s loss. Republican governors in states such as Arizona and Georgia have affirmed that he lost—not only their states but the election over all. Republican-appointed judges have affirmed that he lost. So have many Republican officials who played a role in certifying the results in the states that handed the Presidency to Biden. “Voters, not lawyers, choose the President,” Stephanos Bibas, a federal appeals-court judge appointed by Trump, wrote, in throwing out one of the Pennsylvania cases. Trump, he noted, can’t just tweet his way to victory: “Charges require specific allegations and then proof. We have neither here. Calling an election unfair does not make it so.” The Wisconsin Supreme Court, in a ruling by a conservative Republican justice, warned that Trump, in seeking to “disenfranchise every Wisconsin voter,” was testing the “faith in our system of free and fair elections.” The two cases that Trump sought to bring to the U.S. Supreme Court were so weak that the nine Justices declined even to hear arguments on their merits.
The President’s extraordinary challenge to the electoral system has forced even some of Trump’s staunchest loyalists here in Washington to finally push back and defend the integrity of the vote. Attorney General William Barr stated publicly that there was no evidence of widespread fraud sufficient enough to overturn the election results, and, after Trump became furious about that comment, announced his resignation, earlier this week. On Tuesday, in the wake of the Electoral College’s decision, even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell belatedly affirmed that Trump had lost, congratulated Biden, and urged Republican senators not to go along with further efforts to contest the result, because they risked forcing the Senate into a political loser of a vote. A few hard-core Trump supporters in the House are now pushing for a last stand on January 6th, when Congress must meet to receive the Electoral College results. But that effort, too, is doomed to fail, and could only result in McConnell’s Republicans having to vote against it in the Senate—and showcasing, once again, that Trump was decisively and convincingly defeated. “I don’t think it’s a good decision right now,” John Thune, the Republican senator from South Dakota, who is McConnell’s deputy, told reporters, on Thursday. “And I don’t think it’s good for the country.”
Is any of this really serving Trump well? I know we’ve got used to thinking of Trump as a genius in turning bad news on its head, in creating grievance out of setbacks and then using those grievances to further cement his hold over his Party. I’ve watched him run this play over and over again. I get it. But the alternate way of looking at his post-election behavior is that he is cementing his reputation as the sorest of sore losers. Not only that, but he is crying so long and loudly about the unfairness of his loss that he is forcing officials at every level of government, across the country, to take sides—against him. His frenetic efforts to deny his defeat have simply underscored it. Trump really is leaving office on January 20th, and he really will go out as an impeached and defeated President, forevermore listed in the history books alongside Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter and all the other one-termers he disdains. He is now, and will always be, a loser.
Read More About the Presidential Transition
- Donald Trump has survived impeachment, twenty-six sexual-misconduct accusations, and thousands of lawsuits. His luck may well end now that Joe Biden is the next President.
- With litigation unlikely to change the outcome of the election, Republicans are looking to strategies that might remain even after rebuffs both at the polls and in court.
- With the Trump Presidency ending, we need to talk about how to prevent the moral injuries of the past four years from happening again.
- If 2020 has demonstrated anything, it is the need to rebalance the economy to benefit the working class. There are many ways a Biden Administration can start.
- Trump is being forced to give up his attempt to overturn the election. But his efforts to build an alternative reality around himself will continue.
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