Trump's sore winners make even worse losers: Why his loss is inflaming an already delusional base

Trump and his fans have had a chip on their shoulder since they won in 2016. His loss will turn it into a boulder

By Sophia A. McClennen

Contributing Writer

Published November 11, 2020 12:00PM (EST)

A bus with an image of U.S. President Donald Trump sits next to the crowd during a campaign rally at Richard B. Russell Airport on November 01, 2020 in Rome, Georgia. With two days to go until election day, Donald Trump is campaigning in Michigan, Iowa, North Carolina, Georgia and Florida. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
A bus with an image of U.S. President Donald Trump sits next to the crowd during a campaign rally at Richard B. Russell Airport on November 01, 2020 in Rome, Georgia. With two days to go until election day, Donald Trump is campaigning in Michigan, Iowa, North Carolina, Georgia and Florida. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Shortly after the 2016 election, a funny thing happened. Rather than celebrate the victory of their candidate, Trump supporters took on the position of aggrieved victims. When they should have been happy, they were angry. When they should have been confident, they were insecure. When their votes showed that they had power, they felt marginalized. And, even though they won, they felt that the process had been unfair. 

Their mood was vengeful and their attitude was combative. And that was when they won.

Now that their candidate has lost fair and square, we need to brace ourselves for their predictably vicious response.

As Salon's Amanda Marcotte has pointed out, even if Trump had won, we knew we would need to be prepared for the inevitable crybaby response of his supporters. As she puts it, the key word to describe Trump's base is "bitter": 

Turn on Fox News any random night, and it's a full blown whine-fest about how alleged "elites" are trying to control them and ruin their lives. The fact that their party controls most state governments, the White House, the Senate and the federal courts never factors in. The narrative is one of perpetual victimhood.

If you feel like you are a perpetual loser, even when you are winning, then things will only get worse when you actually do lose.

And let's face it. Trump didn't just lose; he flamed out. For a man who has consistently avoided being held accountable for his failures, this loss will sting hard. Trump lost to epic proportions. As Eve Fairbanks writes for the Washington Post, Trump did far worse than anyone expected, and that's considering his poor poll numbers before Election Day. Given his status as an incumbent, Trump's "reelection campaign was a historic failure." 

The failure registers even more so for the fact that in Trump's universe he simply always wins. As he once put it, "I win, I win, I always win. In the end I always win, whether it's in golf, whether it's in tennis, whether it's in life, I just always win. I tell people I always win, because I do."

But here's the thing. Even with all the winning, Trump has been obsessed with the notion that he has been treated unfairly. "No politician in history — and I say this with great surety — has been treated worse or more unfairly." This was Trump in a 2018 commencement address to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, yet again using a moment when he should have been paying attention to others to narcissistically talk about himself.

And that's one of the uncanny hypocrisies of the sore winner. Because actually the sore winner is always already a loser. You can't be a victim and a winner. You can't claim that you have been mistreated, discriminated against and maligned if you always get everything your way.

Or can you?

If you think back on the days immediately following the 2016 election, what stands out is the overwhelming sense of anger and the ongoing desire for retribution over a system in which Trump had always, only been — according to himself — successful. 

And lest we think that this sort of contradiction was uniquely Trumpian, recall that his supporters have long followed suit. The same people who whine that they are being forced to give up their guns only manage to stockpile more. The same people who hysterically claim that the Black Lives Matter movement is racist have only become more openly white supremacist. The same people who moan about biased media have only picked up even more media power.

The same people who claim that the liberal left is a bunch of sniffling snowflakes never seem to be able to stop whining themselves. Their identities are locked into an endless screeching over the various ways that they believe the system is rigged against them at the same time that they continue to reap successes from that very same system.

We've spent so much time parsing the faulty logic, delusional rhetoric and twisted thinking of Trump and his supporters that it is now no longer news to claim that what he and his base think makes absolutely no sense. 

So now that the sore winners are losers, you might wonder if that will somehow shift things — if the sore winners will change in the face of their losses. 

The quick answer is no. There is no reason whatsoever to think that anything about the right-wing identity of the privileged victim is going to change other than to become more agitated and more aggressive. Going back as far as the presidency of Richard Nixon, the right has been casting itself as a victim of U.S. society. What's more, this idea that they are strong, powerful, morally superior, highly patriotic, successful victims is only likely to take on greater urgency during a Biden-Harris administration.

The problem that we have to confront is the fact that this "successful loser" mentality actually does win, and that despite Trump's humiliating loss, the GOP overall did pretty well in the 2020 election. At the core of this mindset is a sense of justified outrage. It is centered on a deep conviction that the right is the aggrieved party and deserves to be angry about it. It is equally centered around a sense of confidence that their views are right and their ideas are not just better, but the very best.

The fundamental hypocrisy of the winning victim might be mind-melting, but you have to admit it sells well. It offers its proponents a chance to take absolutely no responsibility for themselves while also occupying a position of self-righteous superiority. You get to take no blame, bully and harass, spew hate-filled bile and still cry about how everything is unfair and everyone is out to get you.

Much will be said in the days to follow about how to reach across the aisle and build a unified nation. We will watch the left twist itself up in its characteristic capitulating fashion, finding ways to actually blame a divided nation on the left's own failings to engage in dialogue. 

But that's the wrong model. This is not a scenario where we envision two equal parties that need mediation to move forward. This, instead, is a case of a nationwide right-wing temper tantrum. And just in the same way we learn to treat a misbehaving child, the only way to handle these sore losers is to ignore them.

As the famous pediatrician Dr. Spock once taught us, just because children get angry doesn't mean we should give them free rein to express themselves. And angry children should not be allowed to bully or intimidate. Our response to them should not be to back down or to give up. "Occasional fits of anger are normal," Spock explained, "but if a child is frequently or easily enraged, she may be sending a signal for help."  Maybe it's time for us to help Trump supporters grow up by giving them all a time-out.

By Sophia A. McClennen

Sophia A. McClennen is Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University. She writes on the intersections between culture, politics, and society. Her latest book is "Trump Was a Joke: How Satire Made Sense of a President Who Didn't."

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