Donald Trump isn’t just losing a presidential race — in the waning days of this election, his admittedly tenuous grasp of reality is evaporating:
We are going to win the White House, gonna win it. It’s feeling like it already, isn’t it? We’re going to be nice and cool, nice and cool, stay on point, Donald, stay on point. No side tracks Donald, nice and easy, nice — cause I’ve been watching Hillary the last few days. She’s totally unhinged. We don’t want any of that. She has become unhinged.
There are winners and losers, and Trump is a loser.
This is the immutable truth this man is facing. Like a cornered rat, Trump is overwhelmed by the pulsing, protean sense that he is finished — that he is facing a disaster, which must somehow be transcended, and fast. Trump has given little indication he cares that he may have cost his party the Senate, or wasted hundreds of millions of dollars of his donors’ money, or humiliated his wife and children in public for months. What he does care about is explaining his incipient destruction away sufficiently, so as to allow his ego to survive intact.
Trump has thus spent the better part of his general election campaign preparing a narrative in which he loses through no fault of his own — through an election rigged by Hillary, the media, and whoever else crosses his sights. To do otherwise would risk inviting the shame and humiliation that constitutes an existential threat for him.
It’s ironic, the weapons destroying him now. It was Trump’s childlike ignorance of the rules of the game that allowed him to so viciously dispatch every single Republican foe in the primaries — a strange and dark perspicacity that reduced the GOP message down to its core. Dispensing with the niceties of his rivals, Trump spoke bluntly — invoking fear, loss, and decay, again and again, with a wide-ranging cast of scapegoats bearing responsibility.
That this stripped-down message almost seemed fascist at times was not lost on those Republicans who claimed Trump was an anomaly. It was easier than confronting what Trump really is: a mutinous general in their own ranks, commanding those lowly grunts the GOP had so long taken for granted, using their own tactics in a doomed rearguard assault. This same dumb, unyielding force that tore through the Republican grandstand like a buzz saw, scattering pieces of Jeb Bush among the cheering spectators, turned in midair sometime in July and began cutting Trump to ribbons — completely unsuitable as it was to the demands of a general election pitch.
And so here we are. Trump likes campaigning for president so much that he ensured he could never actually win. A few billion dollars in earned media later, the man has his rotten publicity, along with a raft of coverage of every way he is a deficient human nightmare: Trump the violent sexist, Trump the enemy of labor; Trump the underworld quisling, Trump the charity fraudster. All are true, of course, yet as Trump reels towards the perdition of Election Day, it is one of Trump’s more overlooked pretensions which seems most relevant.
Trump’s obsessive focus on winning, and his staggering inability to do so on life’s terms, is hardly without precedent. In his striving toward the presidency, Trump might recall his lifelong failure to achieve one openly professed dream: that of becoming a professional sports mogul, respected for his acumen and wreathed with laurels. Trump’s sports fantasy has proven an unrequited love — in practice, a thoroughgoing failure stretching across decades and contended within many different arenas, but always ending with recriminations and self-justification.
What might seem the irrelevant desire of a spoiled plutocrat is no mere flight of fancy. Trump’s vicious view of life is all-American: “I win, you lose” competition. And as we know now, enough voters admired that to put the man within spitting distance of the White House.
Trump’s story is America’s story. He is the real Jay Gatsby.
Trump is fond of bragging that he was a star athlete in his younger days — a baseball ace, who claims he was scouted by both the Philadelphia Phillies and the Boston Red Sox. Whether it’s true or not, there are worse childhood feats Trump boasts of, such as the time he physically attacked his music teacher. The anecdotes are perhaps not unrelated. Trump’s ideal vision of sports, as he discusses it, is of a gloriously violent proving ground, in which the victors do not merely prevail — they destroy.
There is a frighteningly stark bifurcation that seems essential to Trump’s psychic survival: anyone he admires is a “total winner,” while anyone he despises is a “total loser.” Winner, loser, winner, loser — he uses these words unceasingly. He goes out of his way to associate himself with the “winners” without consideration of any other standard. Trump is the only known New Yorker ever heard of to profess to be both a Yankees and Mets fan. Insufferable bandwagon artist that he is, the football team he’d most like to own is the Dallas Cowboys.
Trump’s sycophancy towards athletes like Tom Brady and Derek Jeter is pathetic, but consistent. In the same way he jaws about his rapport with “killers” like Carl Icahn and Roy Cohn, and marvels at how cool he was doing business with the Mafia, Trump draws the winners towards him — as if, by osmosis, their magic will rub off on him.
That lunatic basketball Svengali Bobby Knight has been one of Trump’s most prominent campaign surrogates seems like a good indication of Trump’s total lack of taste. But taste misses the point. Winning for Trump necessitates there be a loser; one is defined by the other, and the two are inseparable.
In the same way it delighted Trump to demolish the historic Bonwit Teller building, constructing his own vacant gold tower in its place, it is not enough to win — others must feel they have lost. This zero-sum thinking masks a terrible, wounded sense of self, in which one’s worth is tied to the degradation of others. And it is here Trump’s destiny converges with that of America.
It is a common sneer that Trump is “a poor person’s idea of a rich person.” It is true enough, in John Steinbeck’s nation of “temporarily embarrassed millionaires,” that Trump inhabits a particularly odd role: he is a loser among billionaires, whose true constituency is not the winners he sucks up to, but rather, the vast sea of misbegotten American nobodies who look up to him. Trump’s hubris, and his greatest exposure to psychic risk, derives from his continual insistence on playing a part to which he clearly does not measure up.
Business genius? Four bankruptcies, following a decade-long property shopping spree, financed with easy bank credit. Many Wall Street banks won’t take his calls now. Irresistible playboy? Serial sex attacker, who likes pinning scared women against the walls of the hundredth room of his empty mansion. Maybe he’s impotent. Tough guy? He talked a big game about debating Bernie during the primaries, until Sanders called his bluff with relish — prompting Trump to turn tail, once again.
And yet, he continues. Trump, man of leisure — sportsman — is yet another guise he’s labored under, embarrassing himself over and over again. Some of his feints into the world of jock-sniffing might have been merely the publicity stunts he constantly deploys to stay in the public eye, as when rumors of him purchasing the Buffalo Bills or the New York Mets circulated. Some are vicious and dull, as with Trump’s dalliance with Atlantic City boxing, and, later, Dana White’s MMA outfit. Still others are cartoonish, as with Trump’s pro wrestling heel manager turns.
Of those real sports ventures in which he sank significant costs, however, Trump could not extract any such decent attention. While all publicity is good publicity to Trump — a lesson taught by his ghoulish mentor, Roy Cohn — ironically, his real sports investments have been too ego-enhancing to be entirely cynical. Trump’s ownership of the New Jersey Generals, a franchise in the ill-fated United States Football League, seemed like a dry run for his presidential race — a press-soaked lark by a fool who had no business being in the captain’s chair, ending in disaster.
Even more comical have been Trump’s attempts at imparting a touch of class to the proceedings. Little-known is the Tour de Trump, a bizarre undertaking that brought together such figures as “a Saudi arms dealer, a Dutch brothel and the prince of New Age Pop Piano” to finance a prestige cycling race in the Catskills; it went belly-up after two years. Trump’s infamous country club venture in coastal Scotland, made possible through false promises of jobs and economic prosperity, has succeeded only in earning the fierce hatred of the entire nation of his mother’s birth. He got his stupid golf course, alright, destroying pristine sand dunes otherwise untouched for the past few millennia, upturning the vibrant, steely ecosystem of the Scottish Lowlands, for reasons that eventually didn’t even seem clear to Trump. But it was Michael Forbes, the irascible farmer who refused to sell his land to Trump, in what became a protracted legal battle, who earned Scotland’s love and admiration. Not Trump.
Trump biographer Michael D’Antonio has an illuminating anecdote:
What’s really remarkable about Donald is I don’t know if he understands values other than winning and wealth. So you go into a meeting with him and say, “I’m writing this book and I’m interested in it being a good study of you.” He’ll say, “Well, if you want it to be a bestseller, it’ll be very positive about me.” And my reply would be, “My first concern is not that it be a bestseller. My first concern is that it be a good book.”
It is never about affections, or, as D’Antonio points out, love — a subject Trump does not understand, and an absence he is constantly struggling to fill. When Trump talks wistfully of playing with toys at his hustling father’s feet — the same father who’d someday casually wish his son dead — while hearing him cut other businesspeople to ribbons over the phone, he is clearly not hearing the sadness in what he is saying. In his vicious attacks on anyone who dares defy him, Trump only exposes his own hollowness — the knowledge that he cannot be the man he professes to be.
Trump even evinces a fleeting awareness of his own emptiness, at times. Trump’s musings to documentarian Errol Morris about the unhappy loneliness of the protagonist of his favorite movie, Citizen Kane, dance on a knife-edge: will he realize the truth in what he is saying? Even stranger was Trump’s admission to his biographer D’Antonio of how one famous song impacted him:
During his final interview with Mr. D’Antonio, as their relationship had warmed and deepened, Mr. Trump turned philosophical. He recalled a favorite song, performed by Peggy Lee, “Is That All There Is?” — a poignant ballad about unfulfilled dreams and dissatisfaction with life.
MR TRUMP: It’s a great song because I’ve had these tremendous successes and then I’m off to the next one. Because, it’s like, “Oh, is that all there is?” That’s a great song actually, that’s a very interesting song, especially sung by her, because she had such a troubled life.
But he quickly retreats from the moment, declining Mr. D’Antonio’s invitation to further explain how the song makes him feel about himself, saying he might not like what he discovers.
Merely rejecting Trump is not enough.
The Trump phenomenon is the convergence of the disturbed pathology of one very sick man with a roiling America, one in which Trump’s grandiosity is no anomaly, but a terminal stage symptom.
Donald Trump may not be anyone’s idea of what a Massachusetts Bay Colony pilgrim looks like, but in his unquenchable thirst for accumulation, his animating spirits are not so different from those of our founding fathers. In the same way an entire code can be cracked by exploiting the odd, lone transmission error, Trump’s loud, vulgar, mistake of an existence exposes some truths about America normally ignored. Trump is a particularly diseased victim of a common malady, and, pig-ignorant but determined, he found enough of his fellow sufferers to pose a real threat.
America is the only country on earth — with the possible exception of Great Britain, that other nation of shopkeepers — in which a reality show based around the terror of being humiliated and fired by a petty tyrant would be watched by anyone. In France — that punching bag, and the country America loves to call cowardly — employees regularly attack their bosses when threatened, a pluckiness entirely alien to the would-be tough guys of the American right. For all their bluster, The Apprentice works because Americans crave the approval and success withheld in normal life, grudgingly given to one contestant. A slice gets cut from the billionaire’s pie.
The losers who believe this fairy tale might happen for them — or, failing that, that Trump might at least even the score — are scary when massed. But even in their numbers, they are already dying, receding. It’s because they had taken to bed to die that Trump gained their affinity to begin with.
They will be dangerous, scared, and paranoid after Trump loses on Tuesday; there may be violence committed by his acolytes. But Trump’s proto-fascist front is right on a sole count: America isn’t that great for a lot of people who live in it. It is the “winners” — that vast panoply of elite crooks and hacks who needn’t concern themselves with the little people — whose arrogance and greed rotted out America from the inside, tilling the soil for the calamities we now face.
Trump should be a wake-up call — a frightening enough harbinger that the American dream is a dead end, leading only to failure, frustration, and thoughts of revenge. It won’t be; the demon will be exorcised. The crisis will continue, and the most pressing needs of an unequal and tortured society will not be addressed. The most basic and sensible of policies, such as those espoused by Bernie Sanders, will be strangled in DC — a market captured town, anyway. Hillary Clinton will be president, and business will carry on as normal.
Let no one say they didn’t know of what we are capable. The fleeting chance of an alternative is the only thing worth struggling for.