Politics

The Slow-Motion Humiliation of an Empty Demagogue

The president’s sadism ends in his own agony.

Trump in profile speaking from a lectern with his hand on a piece of paper on the lectern
President Donald Trump speaks at the White House on Thursday. Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Donald Trump is a sadist. In 2016, after winning his party’s presidential nomination, he bragged for months about all the Republican candidates he had beaten. As president-elect, he toured the country, boasting about the emotional pain he had inflicted on Democrats and others who had stood in his way. Throughout his presidency, he gloated that just by occupying the White House, he was infuriating his critics. And this year on the campaign trail, he reveled in recounting the anguish of his opponents on election night 2016.

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Now Trump’s reign of cruelty is ending where it began: in defeat, disbelief, and agony. But this time, the agony is his.

Every president-elect before Trump made at least a token effort to unite the country. The victor would reach out to heal the wounds of those who had lost. But Trump never tried. In December 2016, he went on a bizarre victory tour, staging rallies to celebrate his defeat of the 54 percent of Americans who had voted against him. He savaged Hillary Clinton and her supporters, calling the election a “slaughter.” He recalled every detail of election night, especially the TV reporters who, in Trump’s retelling, were “devastated” and “throwing up.”

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As president, Trump constantly pitted red America against blue America. He scorned “Democrat-run” cities and states, targeting them for tax increases as he cut taxes for his wealthy supporters. He treated his impeachment not as a rebuke but as a triumph over his enemies. He tried to expunge, out of pure spite, every program and policy enacted by President Barack Obama. As COVID-19 killed tens of thousands of Americans, Trump blamed Democratic governors and threatened to withhold aid from them. He gloated that he was sitting in the White House, and his enemies weren’t.

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In this year’s campaign, Trump tried to humiliate his opponents once more. He called former Vice President Joe Biden a “dummy” and a “corpse.” In front of white crowds, he mocked Obama’s middle name (“Hussein”) and the first name of Sen. Kamala Harris (“If you don’t pronounce her name exactly right, she gets very angry”). He told audiences how much he enjoyed watching the National Guard invade cities after George Floyd’s death (“That was a beautiful sight. … They walked down that street with pepper spray and tear gas, and it was pow, pow”) and how disappointed he was when these invasions were averted. He threatened to punish states whose governors displeased him. He demanded that the Department of Justice prosecute his political enemies. He said Clinton, Biden, and other Democrats should be “locked up.”

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But Trump’s favorite riff was reliving the night of the 2016 election. It was “the greatest night in the history of television,” he told a crowd in Wisconsin three weeks ago. “We had so much fun, the tears that were flowing. … Remember the tears?” On Oct. 25, at a rally in New Hampshire, he claimed that as one state after another fell into his column that night—Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania—TV reporters had wept on air. “They’re crying, they’re crying,” he exulted, recalling the scene. “It was beautiful. … You saw these very unbiased anchors with the tears coming down.” In every retelling, Trump boasted that his tally that night, 306 electoral votes, had traumatized the opposition. “We’re going to have an even more amazing evening” on Nov. 3, he promised.

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For a few hours on Tuesday night, it looked that way. Then states began to count the millions of ballots mailed in by people who’d had enough of Trump. By Wednesday morning, he was in shock. “They are finding Biden votes all over the place,” he protested. First he issued a preposterous monarchic decree that “we have claimed” Michigan, Georgia, and Pennsylvania. Then he demanded that election workers “STOP THE COUNT!” On Thursday, he went to the White House podium and ranted, “I won Pennsylvania by a lot. … In Georgia, I won by a lot. … We were way up in Michigan, won the state.” By Friday, he was pleading, “I had such a big lead in all of these states late into election night, only to see the leads miraculously disappear. … Perhaps these leads will return as our legal proceedings move forward!”

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What we’re watching now, as the ballots pile up against Trump, and as he vows to fight on in the courts, is the slow-motion humiliation of an empty demagogue. The man who mocked Sen. John McCain’s heroism and called former Sen. Jeff Flake “stupid” is trailing in their state, Arizona, thanks to 100,000 Republicans who, at the urging of Flake and of McCain’s widow, voted for Biden. And the rebuke is personal: Republicans held the Senate and won lots of races down the ballot, often beating the president’s margins. Now, as his party slinks away from him, Trump faces the prospect of surrendering the White House to the man he belittled, in every speech, as “the worst candidate in the history of presidential politics.” It’s such a shame.

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