The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump can’t cope with losing. No wonder he hasn’t conceded yet.

The president is a prisoner of the fictional world he’s built for himself. But we don’t have to live in it anymore.

President Trump leaves the news briefing room Thursday after speaking to reporters at the White House. He hasn't admitted that he's lost the election. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Imagine that you are forever gasping for air because you can’t get enough oxygen. For Donald Trump, oxygen comes from winning, whatever it takes, including declaring victory in defeat. There are only two outcomes in life for Trump: You win or you lose, you dominate or you submit.

That’s what makes Trump’s refusal to accept the results of this year’s election, no matter how preposterous his case may be, so predictable. I spent hundreds of hours with him to write “The Art of the Deal” back in 1987, and I’ve observed him in public life since, especially as president. Other than winning the 2016 election, Trump has never done anything that surprised me. He is who he is and has always been. He will never admit defeat, because he can’t.

Trump is the prisoner of the fictional world he has created. He can’t step outside it to acknowledge the election results because if he did, he would be left with the emptiness that he has spent his life furiously trying to fill. “Don’t you dare feel sorry for me,” he insists from his bunker. “I am not a loser.”

I wrote ‘The Art of the Deal’ with Trump. His self-sabotage is rooted in his past.

Instead, Trump will continue to insist that he won, by a lot, until bad people took it away from him. Once Joe Biden is sworn in as president in January, Trump will race around making speeches to earn big fees and feel relevant, and above all, to keep up his doomed effort to prove his worthiness to himself. He will fight off his depression and grief with rage and blame.

It’s possible that Trump will run for president again in 2024, still falsely insisting that he was cheated. His singular skill is convincing people that what they are observing with their own eyes isn’t true. We’ve seen that vividly around his decades-long claims of success as a business executive despite his myriad failures and then, as president, in his insistence that we’re “rounding the corner” as coronavirus cases soar and his false proclamations of innocence as he was impeached.

Trump lied to me about his wealth to get onto the Forbes 400. Here are the tapes.

If Trump should finally be convicted of crimes he has committed and sent to prison, he will rail until his last breath that he was the victim of injustice. He can run, but he cannot hide, because wherever he goes, there he will be. His primary legacy is the virus that he spread so ruthlessly — call it the Trump virus — grounded in hatred and deceit, which infected nearly half of Americans.

The truth will never set Trump free; it’s too indicting. But it does have the potential to set the rest of us free. One of the primary lessons of the past four years, underscored most vividly during the pandemic, is the severe limits of self-interest in a deeply interdependent world. To advance what Trump perceived as his self-interest, he has been willing to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of lives, including those who most avidly support him. It is telling that Trump won a majority of votes in 93 percent of the 376 counties with the highest number of new coronavirus cases per capita.

Why Trump can’t change, no matter what the consequences are

Wearing a mask and socially distancing undeniably save lives, but since March, Trump has been more concerned with saving face. He wasn’t going to let the virus, or scientists — or anyone else, for that matter — tell him what to do. Trying to prove that he could dominate even a disease, he became the willing superspreader in chief.

Trump has used the presidency as a literal bully pulpit, stirring fear and anger in his base by appealing to their most primitive instincts, and encouraging them to do whatever they feel like doing, no matter the cost to others, or themselves. This is possible only because Trump lacks a conscience, and any capacity for care and empathy.

The opposite of the fear Trump spreads is love, and it begins with the capacity to embrace all of ourselves, the best and the worst of who we are, without assuming we are only one or the other. The worst things people have said about us, and that we’ve said about ourselves, are all true — but they’re not all that is true. We can’t change what we don’t notice, but the more we can acknowledge, the less we have to defend. Trump has nothing but disdain for weakness and vulnerability, his own and ours. What we need most in those moments — and what seems to come naturally to Biden — is comfort and compassion, including for ourselves.

For four years, along with millions of other Americans, I have marinated in the toxic emotions that Trump inspired and perpetuated: outrage and fear, helplessness and grief. They’re exhausting and debilitating. How much better would it be to live in a world in which we spend less energy defending ourselves against disaster and fighting with our fellow human beings — and more of our energy on learning, growing and adding value to others and to the common good?

I need to believe that the calamity Trump has visited on America, and the world, also provides an opportunity for transformation — and for a reckoning with ourselves. How do each of us take more personal responsibility and hold ourselves more accountable, including for social justice?

The antidote to not feeling good enough is being good enough. It’s not about standing down and standing by. It’s about standing up and stepping forward. Trump won’t learn, or move on, but we can. Let the healing begin.