In the Manichean world of Donald Trump, there is one epithet more pathetic than any other: loser. He has used the term when describing fellow Republicans Mitt Romney and John McCain, critics such as Cher, his friend Roger Stone, and even American fallen heroes who died fighting for their country in France in 1918. Now he joins their ranks. He will forever carry around his neck the yoke of the one-term president, a burden shouldered in the last 40 years by just two other men – George HW Bush and Jimmy Carter.
To make his humiliation complete, Trump lost to someone he denigrated as “the worst candidate in the history of presidential politics”. But in the end, after a nail-biting vote count, Joe Biden proved himself to be a more worthy opponent than that albeit by a thin margin than polls predicted.
In 2016 Trump was a curiosity – the outsider who promised to take Washington by storm, the real estate magnate who said he would drain the swamp, the self-proclaimed billionaire who wouldn’t reveal his tax returns but would be the champion of “forgotten Americans”.
Four years later, that unconventional mishmash of qualities had to some degree unraveled. He could no longer claim the mantle of the outsider – he was the incumbent of the most powerful office on Earth; the swamp looked more toxic than ever; and the forgotten Americans were hurting as never before while Trump himself was paying a paltry $750 a year in federal income taxes.
Then there was the coronavirus. From the outset of the pandemic, Trump made it his business to strike a contrarian posture. Rather than heed the warning of his own scientific advisers, he bragged falsely that the disease would miraculously “disappear”, even though he was later exposed by Bob Woodward to have known early on that the virus was “deadly stuff”.
Rather than fire up the full might of the most powerful government on the planet in a comprehensive federal response to the contagion, Trump sat back and let states compete among themselves for scarce resources. He then politicised the crisis, turning masks into a partisan love-hate symbol and emboldening far-right protests against Democratic lockdowns.
A similar provocative approach to governance characterized Trump’s handling of the other great upheaval to strike America in 2020 – the wave of Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality sparked by the brutal killing of George Floyd. An event that called for healing words and unifying deeds from the president was met by Trump’s virulent attacks on “antifa” and the anarchy supposedly unleashed by crime-loving Democratic governors.
It will take political scientists time to digest how Trump’s starkly counterintuitive strategies played with millions of Americans. The perceived wisdom was that his refusal to engage the federal government in a robust attempt to contain the coronavirus could only hurt him. But among his base, especially of white non-college-educated voters, it appears to have intensified, for many, their adoration of him.
By election day, more than 230,000 Americans had lost their lives to Covid-19. Yet when those who voted for Trump were asked in exit polls whether they thought the virus was a cause for concern, a staggeringly low 5% said it was – they had drunk his Kool-Aid.
Similarly, Trump’s unexpectedly competitive showing in the election suggests that many Americans didn’t find his aggressive – and some would say racist – posturing a dealbreaker. Meanwhile, for millions of others, the American carnage happened on his watch, provoked in no small part by his divisive leadership.
Amid the mounting turmoil, Trump sought to project himself as a strong man, the American equivalent of Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil or Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines who he called his friends. But the pattern repeated: photo ops such as Trump holding a Bible at St John’s church which required a peaceful crowd outside the White House to be cleared using teargas threw red meat to Trump’s base but also alienated voters whose support he needed to woo.
As political strategists pore over the election results, among the demographic groups they are likely to focus on are African American and other minority voters. In 2016 Hillary Clinton failed to excite support among black and Latino communities, including in key swing states like Wisconsin, and that cost her dearly.
By 2020, Trump had all but ensured an overwhelming turnout for Biden of these sections of the electorate with his constant flow of racist dog whistles and courting of the extreme right. Here too, though, the picture that emerges from election night is complex.
While in general minority voters came out heavily for the Democratic candidate, Trump succeeded in making inroads with Cuban Americans in Miami-Dade – a key to his winning Florida – and Latino voters in Ohio and Georgia. His promise of a “platinum plan” to boost black businesses also appeared to have won him support of black celebrities such as Ice Cube and Lil Wayne, and perhaps leverage with some African American voters who turned to him in greater numbers than 2016 in some states.
All of these strategies helped to propel Trump’s bid for re-election to a level that for a second time astounded many seasoned analysts, and pollsters. The downside was that they distracted from the one area of public policy where his ratings showed promise: the economy.
Over much of his presidency, Trump had put a soaring stock exchange and misleading comments on job creation – alongside the appointment of conservative judges – front and center of his claimed accomplishments. Even as late as May he commanded a huge advantage over Biden on the economy.
But Trump proved incapable of keeping to the economic message. Impeachment at the start of the year sucked much of the oxygen out of the Oval Office, and from there it was almost straight into the pandemic and its shattering economic impact.
By election day his lead over Biden on the economy had been reduced to just a couple of percentage points.
As Biden is hailed as the nation’s next chief, Trump has already begun to try to disrupt the peaceful transition of power that has been a hallmark of American democracy since its founding. That is hardly surprising – even when he won the 2016 election he was so upset about losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton while prevailing in the electoral college that he concocted an entire conspiracy theory to explain away the dichotomy.
This time his resistance to the electoral facts is even more malicious. On election night he falsely claimed that he had won the race at a televised event from the East Room of the White House, insisting untruthfully that the election was being stolen from him. The following day, Trump and his cronies insisted he had won Pennsylvania, despite millions of votes still needing counting.
Squeal as loudly as he might, though, he is unlikely to be able to prevent the inevitable: the arrival of the removal vans at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on 20 January next year. It would be hard to overstate the bitter poignancy of the images that will be beamed around the world that day, of a man who has devoted his life to creating the myth of his own invincibility, finally and definitively being exposed as a loser.
And then? One thing is certain: Trump will not enjoy the ignominy of losing. “Losing is never easy. Not for me, it’s not,” he told his campaign staff on election day in a rare moment of vulnerability.
At least Trump, who has shown the world over the past four years that he thrives on chaos and disorder, can expect plenty more of both those challenges when he returns to normal life – if taking up residence at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida can be construed as normal. There are plenty of vultures circling, including the entities who lent him $421m against his personal guarantee and may now want the money back.
Legal birds of prey are also closing in, with several criminal investigations and civil lawsuits mounting up against him. The Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus Vance, is conducting multiple inquiries into the Trump Organization relating to possible financial fraud and to the hush money that was paid in 2016 to Stormy Daniels, the adult film actor who claimed she had an affair with Trump.
There are also several civil suits ongoing, including the defamation case brought by the Atlantic writer E Jean Carroll who alleges she was raped by Trump in a New York department store in the 1990s.
Do not expend too much sympathy for Trump over his debt worries and legal jeopardies. He is all but assured a multimillion-dollar book deal, and can be expected to exploit to the full the image of the rightwing martyr and the endless money-minting potential that the status of former president brings.
Nor is this likely to be the last we hear of him. His ability to confound the pollsters for a second time, the burning veneration he instilled in millions of Americans, the indelible and ominous stamp that he has imprinted on the politics of the nation – all indicate that this is not the end of Donald Trump and his bitter revolution.