Trump Is the Loser

The president has become the thing he most despises.

Donald Trump leaves the White House briefing room on November 5. (Carlos Barria / The Atlantic)

“We’re going to win so much that you’re going to be sick and tired,” Donald Trump promised in 2016. Over the next four years, the American people did get sick (nearly 10 million of them so far from COVID-19), and they did get tired, and in the end they decided they’d had enough.

In doing so, they exposed Trump, whose entire career and public persona have been built on an image of constantly winning, as a loser. With Pennsylvania having completed its blue shift into Joe Biden’s column, the election is effectively over, and the president has been defeated. The exact contours of the loss aren’t clear yet, but the ultimate outcome is.

Trump has not admitted it, and probably won’t. There’s no reason to expect a grudging concession from him, much less a gracious one; perhaps the most interesting question is whether he’ll bother to show up for Biden’s inauguration, and how he’ll behave if he does. On Thursday, before Pennsylvania flipped blue, Trump spoke for the first time since early Wednesday morning, delivering an unhinged and baseless statement insisting that the election was being stolen from him. (Many of the TV networks, which are very slowly getting wise to his tricks, quickly cut in or made it clear that the statement was nonsense.) As Biden took the lead in Pennsylvania on Friday, the Trump campaign’s general counsel insisted that the race was still on.

“The false projection of Joe Biden as the winner is based on results in four states that are far from final,” Matt Morgan said. “Biden is relying on these states for his phony claim on the White House, but once the election is final, President Trump will be reelected.”

Some Republicans, who belie their party’s name by putting partisan allegiance over loyalty to the republic, have rallied around Trump, including Senator Lindsey Graham, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and Senator Ted Cruz, though other Republicans have condemned Trump. This could change over the coming days: Maybe as the stench of loss grows, the GOP will split from Trump, though many times over the past five years, we’ve seen Republicans express their initial revulsion at a Trump statement and then quietly get in line.

Trump and his allies can cause a ruckus, and they can inflict damage to Americans’ faith in institutions on their way out, but the many lawsuits the campaign is filing will just pile up more losses. Trump must know it, too, as his tone during Thursday’s remarks showed. The president seemed exhausted and deflated, reading flatly from prepared remarks and then slumping away from the lectern without taking questions. The thin bravado of Wednesday had dissolved entirely.

He is a loser because, ultimately, he is just not that good at politics. An air of invincibility gathered around Trump as he plowed through the 2016 Republican field, reputed to be one of the strongest ever, and then came from behind to beat the heavy favorite, Hillary Clinton, in the general election. But there were warning signs all along. Trump barely managed to close out the primary, and he nearly had to fight for the nomination at the Republican National Convention. He beat Clinton handily in the Electoral College but trailed her by nearly 3 million votes in the popular vote. In many places, he ran behind Republican candidates for House and Senate.

Trump never stopped talking about that election. He kept holding the rallies he loves so much, traveling to his first less than a month after his inauguration. He kept talking about 2016, even after his party was whipped in the midterms. Even in the closing weeks of the 2020 campaign, he and his allies were talking about Clinton’s emails, reliving past glories. He didn’t recognize that most of the country had moved on.

The president had strong fundamentals on his side, despite the coronavirus pandemic. Most incumbent presidents win reelection, and voters rated the economy well, despite the damage wrought by a disastrous mishandling of the pandemic. But he made many easily avoidable mistakes. In the final days of the campaign, Republicans cringed as he ranted about Fox News polls instead of boasting about the confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, a fitting close for an easily distracted campaigner. According to The New York Times, he limited trips to Arizona because he didn’t like spending nights away from his own bed; the state appears to be among those that flipped from supporting him in 2016 to Biden in 2020, though the margin there remains very close.

Despite all this, Trump was able to win millions more voters than in 2016, defying pollsters. Nevertheless, he once again lost the popular vote—by a larger margin than in 2016, and one that will only grow as states complete their counts. He also once again ran behind many Republican candidates down the ballot. Thursday on Fox News, an especially dazed-looking McCarthy suggested that the fact that GOP candidates in the House won while Trump lost was evidence of fraud. This is dangerous and nonsensical—why would Democrats steal only the presidency and not the House?—but moreover, it underscores Trump’s shortcomings as a candidate. The president opted to make the election a referendum on his performance, and the voters responded. He has no one to blame but himself.

Trump has tasted loss before. His business career was a series of ups and downs, punctuated by corporate bankruptcies. (Once out of office, he faces yet another daunting financial reckoning.) He was always able to spin those missteps, and rode a Potemkin reputation for success to the White House. He is now more famous than ever, and more popular, but as the election shows, he is also far more unpopular, too. Trump’s declarations of fraud will harm the nation for years to come, but his aura as a winner will also never recover from this dramatic, public loss.