We might be in for something unique in American history: the first winner of a presidential election who is unable to shake the feeling that he’s a loser.
“THE LOSER ONE!” With this illiterate phrase, posted on Twitter on the night of the 2012 presidential election — at a moment when he mistakenly thought Barack Obama had received fewer votes than Mitt Romney but had won reelection through the Electoral College — Donald Trump revealed a few things that we need to recognize right now.
First, that this is a man who is easily confused or misled by the news he consumes from television or the internet. What Trump was referring to in his tweet, posted shortly after the polls closed on the West Coast, was the fact that Obama had been declared the winner by the news networks as soon as he was projected to secure a majority of the electoral votes by winning Ohio.
At that moment, before almost any votes had been counted in California, Trump was baffled and outraged by the numbers he saw on the screen, which showed that Romney was then nearly a million votes ahead of Obama in the national popular vote count.
“He lost the popular vote by a lot and won the election,” Trump wrote at the start of a Twitter tirade against “the phoney [sic] electoral college,” he would later delete.
Not long after Trump’s Twitter eruption began, Obama pulled ahead in the popular-vote metric too, and he would go on to win a majority of the popular vote, defeating Romney by nearly five million votes, 51.1 percent to 47.2 percent.
Beyond impetuousness, an inability to proof-read, and a shaky grasp of how elections work, what Trump’s tweet from four years ago reveals most clearly is that he thinks one word describes a presidential candidate who gets fewer votes than his rival: loser.
With that in mind, it is not hard to understand Trump’s increasingly desperate attempts to spin his legally insignificant but politically embarrassing status as a president-elect who got 2.5 million fewer votes than his opponent, Hillary Clinton.
The fact that Trump managed to get just 46.2 percent of the vote, securing a smaller share than Clinton (48.1 percent), as well as Romney — whom he had mocked for losing to Obama — clearly disturbs him, since he continues to bring it up, and make excuses.
Having previously suggested that he would certainly have won the popular vote if he had only campaigned more in New York and California — two states where he was soundly defeated — Trump over the weekend shared an internet conspiracy theory that has been soundly debunked. It holds that millions of undocumented immigrants voted for Clinton.
In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 27, 2016
Readers following this sad saga will be aware that Trump was apparently relying on a false claim first made on Twitter by a former Republican Party official who refuses to share any evidence, which was then promoted by Alex Jones, a fringe conspiracy theorist who also says that the children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 were actors working for the government and that the United States staged the September 11 attacks.
(It is worth noting, too, that Trump’s claim that he won an Electoral College “landslide” is also false. As Nate Silver reported, Trump’s Electoral College margin — secured by a total of 101,052 votes across three states — in fact ranks just 44th out of 54 presidential election victories.)
The manifest craziness of the president-elect making the false claim that the election he won was riddled with fraud — but only to the benefit of his opponent — is stunning in itself, but Trump’s obsession with his status as the runner-up in the popularity section of the contest does have potential importance.
First of all, as Jonathan Chait argued in New York magazine, becoming president with 46.2 percent of the vote does cut against Trump’s claims to have a popular mandate to carry out the policies he campaigned on. (Not to mention items on Paul Ryan’s wish list, like privatizing Medicare, he did not.)
Then too, the rationale for Trump’s candidacy was his repeated claim that he represented “the silent majority” of Americans. In the closing stages of the campaign, he even scolded a reporter by name for failing to agree with him that the size and enthusiasm of the crowds at his rallies was an indication that he was clearly more popular than Clinton.
Now that almost all of the votes have been counted, however, it is clear that Trump’s supporters are instead a far-from-silent minority — albeit one that has chosen the president and given control of both houses of Congress to his party.
The fact that Trump’s share of the vote was less than losing candidates like Romney and John Kerry, who took 48.5 percent of the vote in 2004 — not to mention both Al Gore, with 48.4 percent, and George W. Bush, with 47.9 percent, in 2000 — will not prevent him from being sworn in on January 20, but it does complicate pronouncements about him representing the democratic will of the American people. (Since Trump was fond of comparing his campaign to the winning vote for a British exit from the European Union in June, it is worth noting that he did not even manage to equal the 48 percent secured by the losing Remain camp there.)
In “Notes on Democracy,” H.L. Mencken wrote about the threat to the Republic posed from time to time by defeated presidential candidates who “have suffered crushing defeats, and are full of rage and bitterness.”
“This majestic victim not infrequently seeks surcease by a sort of running amok,” Mencken observed of losers like Aaron Burr, John C. Calhoun and William Jennings Bryan. “That is to say, he turns what remains of his influence with the mob into a weapon against the nation as a whole, and becomes a chronic maker of trouble.”
Given how clearly it upsets Trump to be this measurably unpopular, we just might be in for something unique in American history: The first winner of a presidential election to take office while trying to shake the feeling that he’s a loser.
Update: Later on Monday, after Jeff Zeleny reported on CNN that “the President-elect is suggesting, with zero evidence to back his claim, that he won the popular vote and he’s the victim of widespread electoral fraud,” Trump retweeted several followers who strangely attacked the reporter for not proving that Trump’s baseless claim was baseless.
After Zeleny replied that he had been looking for any evidence that might support Trump’s wild claim, the President-elect suggested that the reporter’s accurate reporting was a sign that the network supported Clinton despite what he called “her loss in a landslide.”
It remains unclear what Trump thinks the word “landslide” means, but his narrow victory in the Electoral College — which could have been reversed by just 101,053 more votes for Clinton spread across three states — coupled with losing the national popular vote by an unprecedented margin of more than 2.5 million votes, does not meet anyone else’s definition.
Last Updated: 11:49 p.m.