For decades, Donald Trump obsessively crafted an image for himself as the ultimate success man, a real estate tycoon turned reality TV show star who parlayed an innate genius for business and media into a spectacular run for the presidency. The country, he explained, would win so much with him as president that they’d beg him to stop.
Offering himself up to the voters a second time, Trump lost.
Trump, naturally, doesn't see it that way. He has vowed court battles and recounts in several of those states. His campaign refused to concede once the call came in from the networks on Saturday. But the absent the miraculous, Trump will be America’s first one-term president in nearly three decades and will suffer the ignominy that comes with it.
The president’s efforts to secure a second term fell short amid the backdrop of a deadly pandemic, social and racial turmoil, and lingering economic devastation. The hopes he had placed on recapturing the magic of his shocking victory in 2016 dissipated as critical states turned to former Vice President Joe Biden, who will become the nation’s 46th president. When the final word came down that he would, indeed, lose his office, Trump was at one of his nearby country clubs, playing golf.
As a fitting capstone on a presidency defined by Trump’s perpetual sense of victimhood, he and his aides and allies have cast blame for his loss on a now-familiar roster of villains—the media, Big Tech, nefarious Democratic operatives, and government officials whom Trump spent months insisting would cheat him out of a second term that he plainly deserved.
Those grievances will manifest themselves in more official ways in the weeks to come. The Trump campaign filed lawsuits seeking to pause vote-counting in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Georgia, demanding the presence of election observers of both parties before more votes are tallied. And his campaign quickly moved to initiate a recount in Wisconsin, where Biden’s narrow victory, under state law, allows Trump to demand that the state’s vote tally be revisited.
But all of the posturing and last-ditch attempts to roll back Biden gains in states Trump carried in 2016 are unlikely to affect the final outcome—or to provide much solace to a president who invested so much of his hard-fought personal brand in winning a second White House term. The outgoing Republican president has long believed that history forever remembers one-term American presidents as “losers,” no matter what else they did, and has expressed his fear of becoming one of those “losers” to people close to him.
“A lot of it is about legacy for him and how he will be remembered. And if he loses, I don’t think he’ll take a defeat [at the hands of Joe] Biden, of all possible people, lightly,” one former senior Trump administration official said in June.
During the final months of the 2020 race, the president repeatedly told top advisers how “pathetic” or “unbelievable” it would be if he somehow lost to Biden, the Democratic nominee who Trump views as a doddering, wholly unworthy adversary, according to three people with knowledge of his private griping.
“Running against the worst candidate in the history of American politics puts pressure on me,” Trump mused at a campaign rally in October. “Could you imagine if I lose? My whole life—what am I going to do? I’m going to say, ‘I lost to the worst candidate in the history of politics!’ I’m not going to feel so good. Maybe I’ll have to leave the country, I don’t know.”
Trump’s defeat is not official. By law, states have weeks more to submit final tallies for the purposes of electoral vote apportionment. But by Wednesday, Biden had already begun assuming the posture of a president in waiting, launching a transition website and urging the public to come together in a televised address.
Trump and his aides and allies were nonetheless reluctant to concede defeat. His supporters too were determined, throughout the day on Wednesday, to defy the forecasts of virtually every credible political observer in the country. At one point during the day, Trump and his campaign simply declared that they had won the state of Pennsylvania, absent any projections by impartial observers or conclusive vote tallies from state officials.
Just before 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Doug Deason, a high-dollar Republican donor, sent The Daily Beast an unprompted text. “We are still in this!” he declared. Hours later, the state of Michigan was called for Trump’s opponent.
Although there is much that the president can still do with his time remaining in office, Trump’s loss nevertheless marks the beginning of the end of one of the darker chapters of American political history. In a way, observers have noted, it is remarkable that he even made the election close, considering the litany of controversies that surrounded him in office.
As leader of the free world, Trump punished Puerto Rico as it was recovering from a hurricane and still counting its dead because he thought political leaders on the island were mean to him. He engaged in conduct that would likely have landed him on trial for obstruction of justice were he not the president of the United States. He and his administration orchestrated a policy of detaining immigrant children and separating them from their family, a particularly grotesque stain on a record defined by outright nativism, fear, and dehumanization. He tried to ban Muslims from entering the country and—when that didn’t work—softened the legal language to make it work in the courts. He brought the country to the brink of war with Iran and threatened to perpetrate cataclysmic war crimes, then backpedaled to try to cosplay peacemaker on TV. He threatened to exterminate North Koreans, then entered into a friendly flirtation with their totalitarian leader. He got impeached for weaponizing the U.S. foreign policy apparatus against a political adversary. Hundreds of thousands of Americans perished on his watch during his dithering, politicized response to a global pandemic. He presided over an economic implosion that came terrifyingly close to rivaling the Great Depression. His response to anti-racism protest movements and rioting across the country this year was to call for “retribution” against his ideological foes. He gave comfort and encouragement to fascists and white supremacists who were kind enough to chant his name. He ramped up the civilian casualties in our overseas drone wars. He actively encouraged and granted clemency to the most vile kinds of American war crimes in foreign lands. He repeatedly called for the criminalization of free expression and dissent that he didn’t like. He and his party did everything they could to cast doubt on the counting of legally cast votes. He flirted with nuking the American tradition of a peaceful, orderly transition of power. He was credibly accused of multiple previously unknown instances of sexual abuse or rape by different women, and he had the official, explicit position of the federal government be made that all the women were simply lying. He endeavored to tear away millions of citizens’ health coverage and endlessly lied about trying to do that and having a plan ready to go if it happened. His business empire, largely revealed to be built on sand, eagerly lapped up revenues derived solely from his position of executive power. He sought flattery and personal friendship of dictators and autocrats, and gleefully greenlighted massacres on their behalf when he simply did not have to. He fanned the flames of numerous dangerous conspiracy theories and exploited one of them to badger a former pal in the media, even as a victim’s family begged him to stop. He helmed an administration so rife with incompetence and corruption that various high-ranking officials were forced to depart for alleged acts of malfeasance. He endorsed extrajudicial killing on American soil. Every time a prominent ally was accused of violence against women or girls, he’d find ways to back them to the hilt. He turned his White House into a messaging and policy extension of some of the most cynical voices in all of conservative media. He recklessly got himself, his guests, and numerous members of his inner sanctum infected with the coronavirus, then tried to play it off as a victory for his immune system.
Any one of these moments would have been the defining chapter of so many other administrations that came before his. For Trump, it was just another day. And the sheer volume of conduct that would have been considered unthinkable in any prior administration actually served to insulate the president. In the Trump era, there were few lingering scandals; before long, each was supplanted by the next, and the national and media attention reset.
That it played out the way it did may have said more about the rest of the body politic than Trump himself. With few exceptions, elected Republicans not only sanctioned the president’s conduct but were complicit in it. For Democrats, the past four years exposed the serious limitations that exist within the current system of checks and balances. For the legion of Trump fans, it was nothing short of inspirational. According to two sources who’ve heard him say this, Trump has recently joked that he could run again in 2024, if he’s voted out in 2020—if only to see liberal and media heads explode over another Trump run.
“Any day that we can have President Trump as our president is a blessing. So if that would happen, yes, I would fully support any opportunity for him to serve the American people for as many terms as possible,” said Mike Lindell, CEO and hypeman for MyPillow and a Trump friend who’s campaigned for the president.
The country that Biden will inherit in January promises to be overflowing with massive problems in need of fixing, top among them a pandemic that has shown signs of potentially exponential growth. On Wednesday, at least, the former vice president’s team allowed itself a chance to live in the current moment.
There was immediate jubilation and a sense of deep vindication across Team Biden—especially for those who had been on the losing end just four long years ago.
In December 2016, Hillary Clinton aide Rob Flaherty wrote an Instagram post, showing a shot of the ceiling of the Javits Center in New York City, where the former secretary of state had planned to hold a massive celebration that never happened. After Clinton’s crushing loss, he wrote he took that photo in November 2016 so he’d remember the feeling of collective failure and despair at the reality of President-elect Trump. He wrote that he couldn’t “wait to kick that motherfuckers ass in 2020.”
Four years on, Flaherty, who now serves as Biden’s digital director, and the rest of the campaign got their wish.
As for Trump’s next chapter, there remains little doubt that he will continue to be a force in American politics and a figurehead of the Republican Party for years to come. In five short years, he completely remade the GOP, casting aside the last vestiges of Reaganism and transforming it into a populist nationalist political force more closely resembling the right-wing parties of Europe than the small-c conservative movement of the second half of the 20th century.
The Republican base remains fiercely loyal to, even reverent for, the man who supplanted fiscal conservatism with election-year handouts and promises to enshrine entitlement programs, and who captured the full obsequiousness of a party ostensibly committed to morality in public life in spite of his divorces, affairs, hush-money payments, and musings on his own history of sexual assault.
Maybe Trump’s next step will be a news organization, a possible venture that his son-in-law, Jared Kushner has reportedly explored. Maybe it will be another run for the White House in 2024. But there’s little doubt that, like it or not, Trump will be sticking around.