For the first time in a life that has been free of consequences for his failures, Trump has been held to account on the world’s largest stage.
For a half a century, time and again, Trump was able to fail and yet persuade the world that he hadn’t. He shirked personal bankruptcy by shunting to others the financial wreckage in his wake, fogged over defeats by insisting they were not, developed over time an armor of seeming untouchability, benefiting from people failing to act who could have held him to account — lenders, regulators, prosecutors and political power brokers. In this election, however, hundreds of millions of voters have done what all of them did not, making Joe Biden the next president and saddling Trump with a decision not as decisive as some pundits had predicted but nonetheless a loss.
Beyond the electoral math, the 45th president was rendered a one-term president because of the well-chronicled collection of his most core characteristics. What fueled Trump’s appeal during his improbable 2016 campaign turned steadily more untenable over the course of his four-year term. Normally, a president with a thriving economy builds up a reservoir of public approval and support — but Trump never did. His unappeasable need for affirmation, adoration and attention inhibited him from adding to his base of ardent supporters; it also led to the constant churn and uncertainty of his White House, as he dismissed those in the administration willing to push back and promoted the yes-men who were content to “let Trump be Trump.” His abiding conviction in the utility of division and chaos led to a whirl of staff turnover and a cascade of head-spinning feuds and inflammatory tweets that unnerved and exhausted a larger and larger share of the population as well as a share of his Washington allies. And his obsession with blind positivity, with image over reality, with the flouting of fact — his congenital unwillingness to share any credit or take any blame, his practically pathological commitment to putting up a tough front — all of it prevented him from demonstrating sufficient empathy to acknowledge the sweeping pain of the coronavirus pandemic that overshadowed his final year in office. In the end, the problem for Trump was “his Richter scale narcissism,” in the words of biographer Tim O’Brien. “If the only person you care about is yourself,” he said, “you can’t do things for other people.”
“Everything revolved around his own ego,” Brendan Buck, a former top aide to Republican speakers of the House John Boehner and Paul Ryan, told me. “The narcissism wasn’t necessarily used to advance some overarching goal or agenda or to change the world in any particular way. It was the end in and of itself — to just get the attention.”
“You can’t run the presidency by id and instinct, and that’s what he’s done,” longtime Democratic strategist Bob Shrum said.
“His narcissism prevented him from ever pivoting to broaden his appeal beyond his base,” said Republican consultant Rob Stutzman. “He simply chose over and over and over,” added Michael Steel, a former Boehner aide who worked for Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign, “not to reach out, not to expand his coalition, but simply to double and triple and quintuple down on that same low-40s percentage of the American populace that thinks he can do no wrong.”
For Trump himself, the consequences to come loom large — politically, legally, financially, historically, personally. Even so, and even with this outcome, Trump stands as one of the more influential presidents in modern history. In addition to exacerbating the country’s polarization, hastening the decline of discourse and legitimizing disreputable, illiberal elements of America’s patchwork electorate, he steered to the right for years the judiciary up to and including the Supreme Court, rolled back environmental regulations as the dire effects of climate change became more and more clear and alienated democratic global allies while currying favor with some of the planet’s most menacing despots.
Going forward, too, his loss almost certainly will not strip him of so much of what he most fundamentally covets — more than enough adherents who grant him the energy and the sway that sustain him, his penchant for mischief and a platform to make it matter, and the built-in clout, of course, of any former president. Though he is and always will be seen by many as a disgrace, Trump, distractible but irrepressible, transactional and vengeful, ever a formidable mix of entitled and aggrieved, nonetheless is set to vacate the White House as a disruptive social, cultural and political force.
For now, though, he is a loser — a figure whose departure from by far the most important public stage of his life will make him the one thing he never could bear.
To those who know him and have watched him over the years, Trump’s comeuppance at the hands of voters, narrow as it was, had an almost mythological feel. What built him up is what brought him down. What made him win, or at least claim victory, again and again, is what made him lose. He never moderated. He never modulated. He was who he was, and so he is who he is — in the judgment of the bulk of the voters of America, a failed president.
“It’s the opposite of the hero’s journey,” said Tony Schwartz, the co-author of “The Art of the Deal.” Defeated by a decisive crisis — unlike the classic protagonist, though, going home unchanged.
Much more than wealth or fame, what Donald Trump’s always wanted is attention.
He had as parents an unaffectionate father and an emotionally absent mother. Fred Trump worked “nine days a week,” he once said, and when around was dour, strict and stern. Mary Trump could be distant even before she suffered near fatal complications that resulted from the birth of her youngest child and left her persistently unwell. Their big house in Jamaica Estates, Queens, visitors said, was “stiff,” “staid” and “cold.” The Trump kids, in the recollection of a neighbor, “never got a hug or a kiss.”
And the second son was “a brat” from the start, according to his oldest sister — a desk-crashing, spitball-spewing, pigtail-pulling, detention-getting “surly” “little shit,” said his teachers in grade school. He was shipped off to New York Military Academy when he was 13. He was admittedly “aggressive” and “rebellious”and “a ball-breaker” who “talked back” to his parents and “people in general.”
As a young avaricious adult, he picked as his most essential mentor Roy Cohn, the vile and besmirched former aide of red-baiting Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Cohn, one of the 20th century’s foremost fixers and rogues, by the ’70s “had lived down his past and come into a new, preeminent present,” in the estimation of his biographer, widespread celebrity serving as “its own exculpation.” Fame for Cohn was more than a shield. It was power. “His motto,” his secretary once told me, “was any publicity is good publicity.”
Trump kept, too, more on than off, as his most indispensable political adviser Roger Stone, a Cohn protégé, a self-styled agent provocateur whose “rules” read like the playbook of a shameless cynic. Always attack. Never defend. Nothing’s on the level. The most powerful human motivator is not hope and love but hate. Better to be infamous than anonymous. Stone has always been interested not in government but in politics. Politics as a tool to divide — not unite. Politics as “performance art” — because the only thing worse than “being wrong” is “being boring.”
These lessons in tow — the chosen heir and beneficiary of the money and political connections of his “strong, strict” father, with whom he had a relationship he described as “almost businesslike” — Trump spent the ’80s making his name a brand, first in New York, then in New Jersey, then seemingly everywhere else. In the ’90s, he survived the specter of financial and reputational ruin, not by avoiding the onslaught of bad press but by embracing it. And the ether of his knownness is what allowed him to be reintroduced a decade later within the misnomer of the medium of “reality” TV as a decisive big business boss on “The Apprentice.”
“He made more money playing a fictional version of himself than he made beinghimself,” Trump biographer Michael D’Antonio told me. “Make-believe was where he made bank.”
He carried these credos, of course, into presidential politics. Stoking racist, nativist, isolationist, conspiratorial and anti-intellectual fervor, he hatched in 2015 a chaotic, can’t-look-away cocktail of a campaign, manifestly unencumbered by any sense of propriety or precedent. He won because he ran in a change cycle, on the heels of a two-termer from the opposite party. He won because he ran against a woman, and a woman who’d been twisted into a caricature by decades of effective attacks. More than anything, though, he won because of the attention-getting extremes — the fights and the feuds, the fun-making and the name-calling, an outrage machine amped up to overdrive.
His presidency was the same. The persistent backdrop a dramatic uptick in angst, unrest and alarm, Trump’s tenure instigated the most stringent stress test for this democracy since the Civil War. But from the Oval Office and Air Force One, on Twitter and on Fox News, plonked at the podium at his telltale rallies, he hardly ever stopped. His list of enemies always was more carefully tended to than any set of policy priorities. His shambolic administration, the onrush of all-hours alerts, the Mueller report, the grift and the graft and the lies, impeachment — throughout, and no matter what, Trump if nothing else commanded more nonstop mindshare than any prior commander in chief.
“Donald Trump has used his office, has abused his office, in such a way that every morning and every afternoon and every evening news about that abuse is saturating our daily lives. And the American people are just sick of it,” former administration staffer Miles (no longer “Anonymous”) Taylor told me. “More than anything,” he said, “I think that’s why voters decided to kick this guy out of office.”
“He was banking, literally and figuratively, on our lack of attention span — that he would flood us with stories, distractions, counternarratives, this person, that person, chaos, disruption, conflict, outrageous thing after outrageous thing after outrageous thing, accusations — that we couldn’t take it all in,” said Gwenda Blair, another Trump biographer. “But I think what he wasn’t banking on is Trump fatigue.”
“Trump is the outrage president,” said Jen Mercieca, a Texas A&M professor and the author of a book about his rhetoric. “He uses outrage bait all day long to get his supporters engaged — to activate them — to keep our attention. And he says things that are so outrageous that his opposition has to respond to them. And he’s controlled the public sphere through outrage for the last five years and kept all of our attention. But it’s exhausting to give your attention to the president of the United States for five years. And people are tired of outrage and of beingoutraged. And they just wanted to go back to normal. They don’t want to wake up first thing in the morning and wonder what their president did or what their president said.”
For Trump, it wasn’t enough, because it’s never enough. But for enough of everybody else, it had become too much. The first season of “The Apprentice” was the most watched season of “The Apprentice,” the appetite for the antics dimming from there. Viewers turned him off.
Voters voted him out.
“Trump,” Mercieca said, “was too greedy with our attention.”
And yet it might have taken a once-in-a-century public health calamity to take Trump down.
He was indignant that the pandemic destroyed his preferred message for reelection by crippling the economy. Having downplayed it, he couldn’t admit that mistake — so he doubled down on the downplaying. He couldn’t let go of his more favorable headlines to attempt to handle the spread of sickness for what it was.
“He got hoisted on his own petard,” Alan Marcus, a former Trump publicist, told me. “He kept saying, ’I’m a winner, I’m a great deal-maker, I’m a this, I’m a that.’ And now he had not only the chance to prove it — he had the need to prove it. And he couldn’t do it.”
“It could have been avoided,” former Trump Organization Executive Vice President Barbara Res said, referring to the extent of what the pandemic wrought, “but not by him. He could never have avoided it. Because it would take admitting he’s wrong. It would take asking people for help. He can’t do that — ‘Tell me the numbers, tell me what could happen if X happened’ — he never did that. And he can’t do that. Because he thinks he knows.”
“And you have to string together days, weeks and months in order to get your arms around this,” former Trump casino executive Jack O’Donnell explained. “And his lack of patience, his lack of discipline — it doesn’t allow him to do that.”
The scourge would have been a singular challenge for any president. Trump’s response, though, was pointedly misguided and mangled by his own pathological worries about the appearance of weakness. With few exceptions, Trump minimized the threat of the virus all along, disregarding the early warnings of advisers; telling the public it would be “just fine”; likening the pathogen to the flu when in fact he knew it was “deadly stuff”; insisting it was “dying out” and “fading away” and that it would “like a miracle” “disappear”; presiding over faltering testing, contact tracing and procurement of protective equipment; shifting the onus of the task as well as blame for failures to states and their governors and China; undercutting the credibility of public health agencies and officials; rarely wearing a mask to model helpful behavior and defying other best practices to keep himself and others safe; staging crowded rallies after the onset of the outbreak and beginning them again well before it had subsided; agitating for schools, churches, bars and other entities to “open up”; pushing treatments and medicines not recommended or approved and at one point floating the notion of a potential remedy of an injection of household disinfectant. Even as Covid-19 wreaked unremitting havoc on the nation he was elected to lead, infecting millions of Americans, killing hundreds of thousands, staggering the economy and upending nearly all aspects of life, the lifelong devotee of Norman Vincent Pealeand the tenet of the “power of positive thinking” gave himself A-plus grades.
“I don’t take responsibility at all,” he said in March in response to the mounting criticism of his response. “I couldn’t have done it any better,” he said in April. “We have met the moment,” he said in May, “and we have prevailed.”
He said the country was “rounding the corner” the week he and dozens of others around him in the White House took tests that showed they themselves were ill.
“The coronavirus pandemic laid bare all of the president’s worst qualities,” Taylor said.
“An utter lack of empathy,” Steel said. “An inability to focus for a sustained period of time on detailed questions of governance.”
“He was,” said Buck, “a remarkably fortunate president for three years to avoid the serious type of crisis that a president has to confront several times throughout a term. And when the one real big crisis came, he was fully unprepared and unfit.”
“Eventually, every president faces a presidential-level test of leadership, whether it’s 9/11 or the decision to go after bin Laden or the Oklahoma City bombing or whatever,” Steel added. “The pandemic is Donald Trump’s presidential-level test. And he has failed.”
“No Covid, he would have been reelected,” said veteran Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf. With Covid? “He’s the mortuary president. He’s created one great big funeral. He killed the economy and people at the same time.”
“The emergence of the pandemic could have presented him the opportunity to get reelected,” Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist who worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, told me, “had he handled it in a very different way — in a way that would be inconsistent with who he is.”
Instead, Trump turned his own brief convalescence into the latest spate of episodes of his warped ongoing show. And in the closing days of the campaign, as case counts around the country skyrocketed to record levels, Trump only ramped up his rampant unreality, jetting from one packed-in, mostly maskless rally to the next, state after state after state, causing Covid spikes and deaths, spewing baseless conspiracy theories, making dubious promises about an imminent vaccine, telling his backers “it’s going away,” “it’s going away,” “it’s going away,” as the chanting crowds clamored for the unceremonious ouster of the nation’s leading expert on infectious diseases.
“Ted Kennedy once told me a story that I think applies to Trump,” said longtime Democratic strategist Shrum. “It was the summer of ’63, and he was sitting with his brother on the Truman balcony at the White House, and JFK remarked, ‘If you ever get to be president, you always have to have two or three or four people around who are allowed to tell you when you’re being a dumb SOB — and you have to reward them, not punish them.’” Trump? “I think he has none of that. It’s a disastrous trait in a president. Because you will make terrible decisions if you think you are the only one who’s right all the time.”
“Many of us hoped that Donald Trump would be a president who could evolve and grow into the job, and that’s happened to a lot of people who held the office — Barack Obama, George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush. They all talked about how the responsibilities of the office sobered them,” Taylor said. “We hoped that would happen to Donald Trump. I mean, no one thought he was a paragon of virtue, nor would he become one, but maybe he would moderate a bit. And that didn’t happen. Because I think, fundamentally, at the end of the day, what we all discovered through hard experience is he truly is a narcissistic man. And he doesn’t just lead his personal life through that narcissism. He governs in a narcissistic manner. And I think that’s what it really came down to.”
“For all that he has done in his life, he’s never been responsible for anything that mattered, and so the consequences of his failures had never taken him down,” Ferguson said. “Until now.”