Trump is a historic loser: No other one-term president has refused to leave office

10 other sitting presidents have been spurned by the American people, but none have behaved as badly as Trump

By Matthew Rozsa
December 30, 2020 6:01PM (UTC)
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Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

It is obvious by now that President Donald Trump is a narcissist desperately afraid of being thought of as a "loser." This is why he has gone to such incredible lengths to deny the results of the 2020 election: A man who regularly used the epithet "loser" as a go-to insult long before taking office will now be remembered as one of only a handful of sitting presidents to seek another term and be rebuffed by the American people. 

Still, 77% of Republicans claim (whether sincerely or in bad faith) that President-elect Joe Biden didn't legitimately win. While America has had other one-term presidents, it has never had either a one-term president or a large group of that one-term president's supporters react with such cringe-inducing, democracy-defying petulance. Being defeated is embarrassing, to be sure, but nothing is more shameful than reacting to a defeat by throwing a giant temper tantrum and lying about the other side cheating.

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For that, Trump and those backing his ego-salving coup attempt are in a category of their own in American history —making them historic losers. Let's briefly look at how America's other one-term presidents have reacted to their electoral defeats.

Before Trump, America had ten one-term presidents: John Adams, John Q. Adams, Martin Van Buren, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, William H. Taft, Herbert Hoover, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush. The initial Adams is the most instructive of this group because he was the first president who had to give up power reluctantly. (His predecessor and America's first president, George Washington, famously did not seek a third term and was eager to relinquish power at the end of his second.) Adams was extremely bitter about losing to Thomas Jefferson in the 1800 election and, to prove that point, refused to attend his successor's inauguration. At the same time, Adams made it clear that democracy could only work if those in power bowed to the will of the people, regardless of their personal wishes. Jefferson later praised Adams' peaceful transfer of power as the "revolution of 1800" because it established that in America the government is controlled "by the rational and peaceable instrument of reform, the suffrage of the people."

This isn't to say that Adams didn't do what he could to figuratively kick Jefferson and his Democratic-Republican supporters in the shins, most notably by appointing a number of Federalists (his party) to judicial offices on his way out the door. (The most famous of the bunch was John Marshall, who Adams chose as chief justice of the Supreme Court.) Other one-term presidents have followed his example, trying to shore up their legacies and/or engaging in vindictive trickery while still accepting the voters' verdict. Like his father, John Q. Adams refused to attend the inauguration of his successor, Andrew Jackson.

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Martin Van Buren took solace in the fact that he actually won more votes during his reelection campaign in 1840 than when he had been first elected in 1836 (as in 2020, that advantage was offset by a massive increase in voter turnout, most of which benefited his opponent William H. Harrison) and immediately began planning another presidential run in 1844, although he ultimately failed in that effort.

In 1888 Grover Cleveland actually won the popular vote but still he lost his reelection campaign — the only sitting president to whom this has happened — and like Van Buren gracefully accepted his defeat and immediately began planning for the next campaign, which he actually won. (Cleveland's reelection in 1892 made him the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms.)

Some one-term presidents simply moved on with their lives. Benjamin Harrison's wife died of tuberculosis two weeks before Election Day 1892, and he was so devastated that he focused on finding a healthy way to grieve and develop a post-political career when he learned he hadn't been reelected. William H. Taft, by contrast, felt acutely humiliated by being the only sitting president to do worse than a third-party candidate — he received 23.2% of the popular vote, less than third-party candidate and former President Theodore Roosevelt, and only won the electoral votes of Utah and Vermont — but threw himself into a new job as a professor at Yale Law School and worked closely with his successor, President Woodrow Wilson, both during and after the transition. Indeed, Taft was so highly regarded as an ex-president that he was eventually appointed as chief justice to the Supreme Court, making him the only American to serve as both a president and a Supreme Court judge.

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Herbert Hoover is one of the less impressive names on this list. After losing in a landslide to Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1932 election because of the Great Depression, Hoover engaged in petty squabbles with Roosevelt's transition team over economic policy, as Hoover was convinced that Roosevelt was a lightweight and completely unqualified to steer America out of the crisis. The bitterness led to a number of petty swipes taken during and after Hoover's presidency, and Hoover regularly fought his successor's policies and accused him of being a tyrant, but never tried to defy the 1932 election results. 

Gerald Ford is a unique case because he was never elected either president or vice president; he reached the latter office because Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned due to a bribery scandal and the former after President Richard Nixon resigned due to the Watergate scandal. Despite coming shockingly close to winning a term in his own right in the 1976 election, Ford was graceful in defeat and worked so closely with incoming President Jimmy Carter that the successor took the unusual step of praising Ford in his inaugural address.

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Carter, by contrast, was less than thrilled when he lost in an unexpected landslide to Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election, especially since Reagan was a far right-wing candidate whose views were anathema to the center-left Carter. Yet Carter still worked with his successor, even successfully negotiating the release of 52 Americans who were being held hostage in Iran during the transition between their two administrations despite knowing Reagan would receive credit for their release. 

George H. W. Bush, for his part, anticipated that he would lose to Bill Clinton in the 1992 election, given his poor polls and the underwhelming economy. His deep disappointment did not stop him from gracefully working with his successor, however, and Clinton repaid the favor by striking Iraq after learning that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had plotted to assassinate the former president. Bush and Clinton eventually became very close friends.

Now compare all of this — the good, the bad and the ugly — with Trump's behavior.

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Since 2016, Trump has insisted that if he runs in an election and does not win, it is because the other side cheated. He did this during his 2016 bid for the Republican presidential nomination when he lost the Iowa caucuses to Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and, later, repeatedly claimed that if he lost to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton it would be because the election was "rigged" and that he would only accept the results "if I win."  After Trump defeated Clinton in the electoral college (coincidentally by the same margin, 306 to 232, by which he lost to Biden in 2020), he obsessed over the fact that he lost the popular vote and falsely claimed that he had actually won it, creating a voter fraud commission to prove his claim that eventually had to be disbanded because no such evidence existed.

And that was just about the 2016 election. Because he knew that Democrats were more likely than Republicans to vote by mail due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Trump tried to preemptively discredit mail-in votes with false claims that they were prone to fraud; these were rejected in court, but that did not stop Trump from trying to cripple the Post Office so that "they can't have universal mail-in voting." As in 2016, Trump also repeatedly said that the only way he could lose is if the Democrats stole the election, telling Fox News' Chris Wallace that he would not promise to accept the 2020 election results if they went against him, admitting that he is not a "good loser" and claiming that "mail-in voting is going to rig the election." This paved the way for him to prematurely claim victory on Election Night because in-person votes were generally counted first and made it look like he had a lead, and then falsely claim that there were "vote dumps" as mail-in ballots were counted and eventually showed that he had lost.

Since then Trump has resorted to gish galloping, or the practice of overwhelming someone with bad arguments in the hope that it will confuse third parties into not seeing that you're lying and exhaust your opponents by forcing them to debunk all of them. Yet despite repeatedly claiming in public that he was the victim of voter fraud, he never actually alleged voter fraud in more than two-thirds of the 60 cases he brought to court (most likely because deliberately lying to a judge is a crime). More importantly, he lost 59 of the 60 cases he has brought related to the election, winning only in a small procedural case about how much extra time first-time voters in Pennsylvania could get to confirm their identifications in order for their mail-in votes to be counted. Many of the judges who ruled against Trump were Republicans; some were appointed by Trump himself. Trump's own attorney general, William Barr, admitted after investigating that there was no evidence that Biden stole the election. (Trump fired Barr for this, not surprisingly.) The Supreme Court itself ruled unanimously that Trump's fraud claims had no merit, a decision that included the three judges Trump appointed to that bench. Republican legislative leaders in key swing states have resisted Trump's pressure campaign to overturn the election results for the simple reason that it would be illegal for them to do so.

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Now Trump is left acting like James Buchanan, the president who was so bitter about Abraham Lincoln winning the 1860 election that he allowed the Civil War to break out rather than work with someone whose political philosophy differed from his own. Yet even Buchanan never contemplated actively stopping Lincoln from serving, or installing himself as a dictator, simply because he did not like the man's views. Trump initially stalled allowed Biden to begin transitioning into the White House, despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic taking thousands upon thousands of lives, and has allegedly considered imposing martial law so he can stay in power. As of the time of this writing, he continues to insist that he won the 2020 election and is continuing to try to find a way to stay in power.

This is what makes Trump one of American history's biggest losers. Of the 44 men who have served as president, exactly one-quarter of them were spurned by the voters, but Trump alone within that group has threatened to destroy democracy itself in order to stay in power. Compared to the other ten one termers, Trump comes across as a spoiled brat, a petulant child, a would-be dictator motivated not by principle or necessity but a lifelong habit of crying like a baby if he doesn't get what he wants.

If he actually was a child, this would merely be pathetic. Because he is threatening democracy itself, however, Trump has sunk below pathetic and crashed through the floor into the realm of being a forever loser. Anyone who supports him in his effort is, by extension, a forever loser too.


Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer for Salon. He holds an MA in History from Rutgers University-Newark and is ABD in his PhD program in History at Lehigh University. His work has appeared in Mic, Quartz and MSNBC.

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