“I think he is legitimately distraught that this is being stolen,” she said. “And it has been stolen.”
For generations, Americans have hated sore losers, whether in playground disputes, affairs of the heart, sports or politics. But Trump’s refusal to concede to President-elect Joe Biden and his insistence, without evidence, that the election was rigged against him has focused a spotlight on a rapidly shifting culture’s growing acceptance of losers who push back against the truth.
The refusal to acknowledge clear results — Biden won a higher percentage of the popular vote, 50.8 percent, than any challenger to a sitting president since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 — is not unique to Trump.
Republican candidates have not admitted defeat in Arizona, where Democratic challenger Mark Kelly beat Sen. Martha McSally (R); in Michigan, where Sen. Gary Peters (D) fought off a challenge from Republican John James; and in Maryland, where Republican House candidate Kimberly Klacik announced plans to “investigate” the Baltimore-area election that Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D) won with 72 percent of the vote.
A majority of Republican voters — 70 percent — say the election was unfair, according to a Politico/Morning Consult poll conducted last weekend; 90 percent of Democrats, meanwhile, said they believe the vote was free and fair.
There always have been people who refuse to admit defeat. But in a society that puts a growing premium on self-regard and empathy for long-excluded groups, sore losers can be redefined as unfairly maligned victims, according to psychologists and political scientists who study changing attitudes toward losing.
In sports, for example, “fans are now more likely to insist their team would have won if it wasn’t for some fraud, if it wasn’t for that one bad call,” said Jimmy Sanderson, a professor of sports management at Texas Tech University who has studied the psychology of losing.
New technology and social media have given fans and players a way to find others who share their grievances, and that has emboldened people to reject the fact of defeat, Sanderson said.
“When I grew up, you lost, you admitted it, you moved on,” he said. “Now, players are more willing to challenge league commissioners and fans refuse to admit a loss — even though they know it happened — because we don’t want to give the other side the satisfaction.”
The athletics analogy comes readily to some Trump supporters.
“It’s like your sports team loses,” said Christian Turner, a 28-year-old airline pilot and two-time Trump voter from Colorado Springs. Yes, Trump is being a sore loser, he said, but Trump’s defiant response echoes four years of Democratic resistance to his presidency.
Playing “the victim card” when you lose is just how politics works now, Turner said.
'The whistle has blown'
For many years, politicians feared being tagged as a sore loser. Richard M. Nixon graciously conceded the extremely close 1960 presidential race to John F. Kennedy because otherwise, he said, “charges of ‘sore loser’ would follow me through history and remove any possibility of a further political career.”
More recently, however, denying or sugarcoating a loss seems to exact less of a price in American society, on either side of the political divide. Although cultural conservatives often poke fun at the left for coddling losers — the common example is the Little League team that hands out trophies to every kid, no matter their performance — Republicans are more prone to reject election results, said Pippa Norris, a Harvard University political scientist who studies attacks on election integrity.
“The Republicans have been appealing to a contracting base,” Norris said. “So as Democrats try to expand the tent, Republicans attack the rules of the game. Most people don’t know much about how elections are run, so when they get messages from leaders they trust that the process is corrupt, they start to believe it.”
Harlan, who cares for her 96-year-old mother and rides horses with her grandchildren at her home in Cranberry, Pa., said she came to believe that Democrats would fix the election by watching Fox News and reading “things from the Internet and from friends.”
She is convinced that “Biden is in bed with China.” And she has become so fearful of Democratic rule that she plans to buy a pistol to protect herself from any defunding of the police.
Last month, researchers at six universities found that Trump’s tweets casting doubt on the legitimacy of the 2020 election had “pernicious effects among Trump’s supporters,” eroding their trust and making them believe that elections might be rigged.
Many Trump voters say it would seem out of character for the president to make a concession speech. As of Friday, bettors on PredictIt, an online prediction market, put the chance that Trump would concede anytime soon at just 9 percent.
Still, some Trump supporters believe he is hurting the country by making false claims about fraud. As a high school coach for 35 years in football-mad Beaver County, Pa., Sam LoFaso knows what losing feels like. And as an admirer of Trump’s presidency, LoFaso, 78, wants to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Still, the retired coach says it’s time for Trump to face reality: Biden beat him and “he’s fighting a losing battle,” he said. “I don’t know who’s giving him his information, but the country is in turmoil and he’s creating even more of it with what he’s doing.”
LoFaso, who gets his news exclusively from Fox, accepts Trump’s view that mail-in ballots are more susceptible to fraud than in-person voting. Nonetheless, LoFaso said Trump should realize that the courts will not overturn the election.
“If they did that, we’d have absolute anarchy,” he said.
Trump is “a very prideful man,” LoFaso said. “Is he a sore loser? Yes. It’s not in his DNA to lose. But I think, behind closed doors, the Republicans should tell him, for the betterment of the country, move on. The game isn’t over until the whistle blows. But the whistle has blown on him.”
Being 'a fighter'
For many Trump supporters, his image as an inveterate winner was a big part of the appeal. Giving up on the president who made them feel like winners seems like a betrayal.
Last week, nearly 80 percent of Americans, including about 6 in 10 Republicans, said in a Reuters/IPSOS poll that Biden had won. But Trump voters such as Elijah Pitts, 40, maintain that the president prevailed — “by a landslide.”
Pitts, a Lansing, Mich., construction worker wearing a Trump 2020 knit hat as he walked his dogs one day last week, said too many Republicans have given up too soon, “quitting quickly and tucking their tail between their legs.”
This is not a question of sore losing — Trump is “absolutely not” a loser, Pitts said — but of being “a fighter.”
Pitts wants Trump to keep punching until every state’s results have been certified. He wants every vote proved legitimate, every piece of software checked.
“If they went through and counted and could legitimize every vote, and Trump lost, I would be okay,” he said. And then he would transfer his enthusiasm to Trump’s next race.
“I hope he runs in 2024,” Pitts said, adding that he’d also be happy if one of Trump’s children ran instead.
Losing is always hard, but psychologists say it can be especially painful when it affects a large group that imparts a sense of belonging. A study by French scientists found that “vicarious defeats experienced by fans when their favorite football team loses lead them to consume less healthy food.” The researchers tracked what American fans ate on Mondays after Sunday NFL games and found that in cities whose teams lost, fans consumed significantly more calories and more saturated fats. (Fans in winning cities ate less.)
“When you’re in a group that’s losing, you may not hear people outside the group telling you that you’re wrong,” said Morgan O’Rourke, editor in chief of Risk Management, an insurance industry magazine. “Especially now with social media, it’s almost expected that if you lose, you’re going to fight it. Social media gives everyone a forum to complain in; you’re not crying into the void anymore.”
In business, as in sports and politics, “the whole social contract of conceding when you lose is not what it once was,” O’Rourke said. Yet there’s still some stigma attached to being a sore loser. Denying defeat remains counterproductive, he said. “Every minute you’re fighting over what happened, you’re not preparing for the risks ahead.”
So far, most Republicans in Congress have been indulging Trump’s fraud allegations. Even some Republicans who won their own races are claiming the election was rigged.
“We win because of our ideas. We lose elections because they cheat us,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said last week on Fox News after fending off Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison.
That message is hitting home with some voters. Aiden Pung, a 20-year-old college student in Lansing, stopped by a pro-Trump rally at the state Capitol on Wednesday because he’s convinced that Trump is a victim of fraud. Pung has seen false allegations on right-wing websites that dead voters cast thousands of ballots. And he doubts Biden could have won Michigan honestly, given the huge protests against Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s efforts to curb the coronavirus.
“I don’t see how Michigan could vote blue after everything that’s happened to us,” Pung said. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”
If the courts reject Trump’s lawsuits, “then we’ll accept” Biden’s win, Pung said. “Of course I’ll be disappointed. . . . But America will always go on.”
In that event, Pung said he wants to believe that Trump would concede “to bring the nation closer together.” But even then, Trump would not be a loser, Pung said. He compared the president to William Wallace, the protagonist of the movie “Braveheart,” who is executed for fighting for Scottish independence yet remains a hero to his countrymen.
“I don’t think we’ll see [Trump] as a loser,” Pung said. “He definitely stood up for what he believed and he stood up for us.”
'Quit crying, snowflake'
Trump is the first president in modern history to refuse to acknowledge his defeat, but his allegations of chicanery are part of a pattern that has blossomed since the 2000 election, researchers say.
Ever since the 37-day battle over whether Democrat Al Gore or Republican George W. Bush had prevailed in Florida, public trust in the integrity of elections has plummeted, Norris said, with Democrats worried about gerrymandering and voter suppression and Republicans alleging that people who were ineligible to vote had cast ballots.
“Trump is both a consequence and a cause of this change in attitudes,” Norris said. “If Trump’s accusations are thrown out in the next couple of weeks, that’s not going to damage the republic. But the need for reform will remain.”
Although Republicans insist that Trump’s refusal to concede defeat “should not be alarming,” as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) put it, voters seem increasingly less confident in the country’s system of government.
Large majorities of Americans still embrace democracy. But the share of voters who want “a strong leader who does not have to bother with Congress and elections” grew from 25 percent in 1990 to 37 percent in 2017, according to the World Values Survey, which measured attitudes in 48 countries.
Last week, outside the Maricopa County Tabulation and Election Center in Phoenix, dozens of Trump supporters prayed for the president to win a second term. No way was he a sore loser, they said. He was a hero standing up to a rigged system — a winner, really.
Nick Tuley, a 20-year-old barista who lives in Buckeye, Ariz., jumped into his truck to join the protests as soon as he heard about them on social media. The crowd was “putting pressure on people inside,” making them less willing to interfere in the election, he said.
Tuley said he would accept a Biden victory if the courts find that he had “truly won fairly.” But he doesn’t think that will happen, because election officials let “tens of thousands of dead people” vote — an unfounded allegation.
The Phoenix rallies were magnets for believers in QAnon and other dark conspiracies about evildoing in government. Attendees argued that it’s the Democrats who have refused to concede, the Democrats who undermined Trump for four years.
Steven Carroll, 47, an audio engineer from Goodyear, Ariz., insisted that the election is not over, though he knows this makes him sound like a sore loser. “I get people all over my social media saying, ‘Oh, quit crying, snowflake.’ ”
Still, Carroll can pull up video after video on his cellphone purporting to show election workers committing fraud, which makes him think that “something went on.”
But “we’ll never know,” he said. “And that’s the saddest part about it. I don’t think we’re ever going to know.”
Spolar reported from Butler County, Pa.; Knowles reported from Phoenix. Kayla Ruble in Lansing, Mich., contributed to this report.