When Donald Trump loses, he lashes out, assigns blame and does whatever it takes to make a defeat look like a win. When that isn’t plausible, he pronounces the system rigged — victory wasn’t possible because someone put in the fix.
In a roller-coaster career in which glittering buildings and a flamboyant lifestyle have been tempered by bankruptcies and failed ventures, Trump has consistently fought — often successfully — to recast each defeat as proof of his strategic savvy. He has reacted to failure by exploding in anger and recrimination, then moving on to very different ventures, though always in arenas where he can vie for public admiration.
Trump calls defeats “blips.” Losing the race for the most powerful job on the planet is no one’s idea of a blip, and if that happens, Trump is highly unlikely to slip away and accept life as a historical footnote, as Michael Dukakis did; to live out his golden years as a respected elder statesman, as Bob Dole has done; or to consider some other form of government service, as John Kerry did.
Psychologists who study how sports fans shield themselves from the pain of their favorite team’s defeats use the term “CORFing” — “cutting off reflected failure” — to describe a defense mechanism by which fans separate themselves from loss by reframing their relationship to the team. “We lost” becomes “they lost.”
Trump, in essence, disavows himself when he loses, shifting the focus to people and forces beyond himself. In the final month of the campaign — even as he has contended that he will win — Trump has repeatedly said that a loss would be the fault of leaders of his party, the news media, pollsters, career politicians and federal investigators. At his final debate with Hillary Clinton, Trump refused to say he would accept the result of the election as legitimate. For more than a week after that, he added almost daily to the list of institutions he said were rigged against him: special interests, Clinton donors, big media companies, “global financial powers.” (That line of rhetoric grew less heated this past week, after FBI Director James B. Comey focused the nation’s attention back on Clinton’s emails, and Trump even suggested that things might not be as rigged as he’d said.)
Losing politicians rarely distance themselves from defeat this way. Traditionally, if they want to maintain their credibility so they can try again in another election, they eat crow, accept the wisdom of the voters and show a modicum of grace toward their victorious opponents. Trump’s approach is one psychologists say they see more often in sports, where defeated athletes sometimes immediately guarantee that they will demolish whomever just beat them, or in business, where executives with an unusually inflated sense of self-worth tend to blame failures on others.
Losing to Clinton on Tuesday would be Trump’s most public and devastating failure. How does a man whose image is based on being the ultimate winner cope with losing? His behavior in defeat has stayed remarkably consistent throughout his career: Either he didn’t really lose, or it was someone else’s fault. In other words, he acts like it didn’t happen.
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Trump is not given to deep analysis of his motives or behavior. But in a series of interviews this year, he did say, with some pride, that he hasn’t changed much since early childhood, when his father, a real estate developer, drilled into his son the directive that he needed to be “a killer,” that there was little in life worse than being “a nothing” and that, whatever he took on, Donald had to be sure to win. Trump’s classmates, neighbors, teachers and friends from New York in the 1950s are united in their recollections of a kid who had a powerful aversion to defeat — and a tendency to blast others when he lost. In sixth grade in Queens, his neighbor Jeff Bier said he loaned young Donald his favorite bat during a baseball game at school, but when Trump failed to get a hit, he smashed Bier’s bat on the pavement, cracking the wood. Trump did not apologize, Bier said.
At New York Military Academy, the boarding school where Trump spent much of his adolescence, his baseball coach and mentor, Theodore Dobias, saw Trump as a kid who “would do anything to win . . . [he] just wanted to be first, in everything, and he wanted people to know he was first.”
Losing, Trump has stated throughout his public life, is degrading, pathetic, unacceptable. “Man is the most vicious of all animals,” he once told a writer, “and life is a series of battles ending in victory or defeat. You just can’t let people make a sucker out of you.” He mocked his vanquished GOP primary rivals as “losers” all spring, and it’s his favorite pejorative for people who criticize him.
Earlier this year, asked whether he feared the idea of losing and finding that no one was paying attention to him anymore, Trump told The Washington Post that failure represents a loss of control: “I’m not afraid of it, but I hate the concept of it. . . . I hate the fact that it’s a total unknown. . . . If there is a fear at all, it is a fear of the unknown.”
Trump, who often frames life as a grand competition, deeply believes that “no one remembers who came in second,” as he tweeted in 2013. When he hit a barrage of failures in his casinos, hotels and public company in the 1990s, he was shaken. “It crushed my ego, my pride,” he wrote in “The Art of the Comeback” in 1997. “I hated having to go to the bankers with my hat in my hand.”
That admission is a rarity; most of the time, Trump refuses to concede that anything is amiss.
Sometimes, he argues that he lost because he wasn’t really trying to win. In the most recent phase of his career before politics, Trump attached his name to products ranging from steaks and bottled water to mortgages and a university. When some of those ventures went under, Trump said he had only lent them his name and bore no responsibility for any mismanagement. “The mortgage business is not a business I particularly liked or wanted to be part of in a very big way,” he said after Trump Mortgage closed in 2007, leaving some bills unpaid.
On other occasions, he argues that a failure was not really a failure. In 1990, Bruce Nobles, president of the short-lived Trump Shuttle, told his boss that women were avoiding the airline because of the owner’s behavior toward women. “They don’t like what they’re reading about you in the paper,” Nobles told Trump. According to Nobles, the owner laughed and replied, “Yeah, but the guys love it.” (Bankers forced the sale of the airline in 1992; Trump blamed a weak economy.)
In his personal life, too, Trump has often said that what looks like a defeat is actually a win. As his first marriage broke up, wife Ivana Trump sued him. While his lawyers worked overtime on deals with Ivana and the Trumps’ creditors to avoid personal bankruptcy, Donald Trump temporarily slipped out of public view. He fell more than $900 million into debt amid six corporate bankruptcies in the 1990s and had to give creditors authority over his spending. But he spun the agreement as a moral victory: Even though he was put on a monthly allowance, he convinced the bankers that his properties were worth more with him involved than they would be if they were stripped of the Trump name.
When he can’t plausibly portray defeats as wins, Trump often reacts by lashing out at rivals or his own executives. In 1990, the grand opening of the Taj Mahal, his third and most ambitious casino in Atlantic City, was dampened when state regulators shut down the casino’s slot machines over an accounting discrepancy. Trump went ballistic, ordering John O’Donnell, then president of Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino, to “fire all these assholes,” meaning his top executives, O’Donnell later recalled. The Taj Mahal went bankrupt in 1991. Trump conceded later that “I did take my eye off the ball” in the period leading up to this and the other bankruptcies. But in the immediate crisis, his instinct, several of his executives from that era said, was to deny personal responsibility and blame those around him.
When the bankers who held the notes on his casinos and other parts of his empire were deciding whether to kick Trump out of those ventures entirely, they summoned him to a meeting where he would sign over control of his house, boat and other holdings. As he signed, he gave each banker and lawyer a copy of his new book, “Surviving at the Top.”
In his business life, Trump’s tendency to act against those he blames for his failures is often motivated not so much by the promise of recovering money as by the desire for revenge. After author Timothy O’Brien reported in his 2005 book, “TrumpNation,” that Trump was not “remotely close to being a billionaire,” Trump sued him for $5 billion. The suit had little chance of succeeding — the bar for public figures in a libel suit is extremely high. But Trump told The Post that a win in court was never his goal: “I did it to make his life miserable, which I’m happy about.” Trump lost the suit and an appeal.
Over and over, moments that looked like defeat have become something else in Trump’s telling. In 1975, after the federal government sued Trump and his father, alleging that their real estate company systematically mistreated blacks and other minorities who wanted to rent apartments from them, the Trumps settled the case, signing a consent order that barred them from discriminating. Trump contended in an interview years later that the Justice Department suit “wasn’t a case against us. There were many, many landlords that were sued under that case.” The suit was filed solely against the Trumps and their company.
In 1980, Trump suffered his first public relations debacle as a developer when he tore down a beloved Art Deco landmark in Manhattan, the Bonwit Teller shop on Fifth Avenue, to make way for his Trump Tower. He told reporters then and for years to come that the ensuing uproar was a win: It was free publicity for his new building, he said, and it helped him sell apartments.
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At his darkest moments, such as when Trump simultaneously faced a financial mess and a very public battle over his divorce, some close business associates wondered how he managed to come to work each morning. But Trump showed no signs of distress, according to one of his executives: The mogul “showed up every morning at 8 a.m. . . . tie tied, suit pressed, focused and moving forward.”
This year, he has criticized his own managers for setbacks in his presidential campaign. When he lost the Iowa caucuses in February, he pointed at his staff: “My team, you know, the people that I had, were not adept, were not good.”
And when there is no one to blame for a defeat but himself, Trump has a history of arguing that victory was impossible because the playing field was not level. In high school, when his study partner got a better grade on a chemistry test, Trump questioned whether his classmate had cheated. Later in life, when his reality TV show lost out on an Emmy in 2013, Trump tweeted that “I should have many Emmys for The Apprentice if the process were fair.”
Even when there is no question that things have gone south, Trump has managed to find ways to profit from loss — a pattern that has fed speculation that he might spin an Election Day defeat into a Trump TV venture. (Trump has denied any such intention.)
In 2004, when trading in stock of his public company, Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts, was halted and the firm prepared for bankruptcy, Trump granted himself a $2 million annual salary and a minority share in the Miss Universe pageant. The company went under, and its bondholders had to forgive $544 million in debt, but Trump’s net worth increased.
He’s already boasted about turning bad news from this campaign into a boost to his bottom line. Last year, after Trump attacked Mexican immigrants for supposedly “bringing crime” and being “rapists,” NBC dumped him from his long-running show, “The Apprentice”; ESPN withdrew a tournament from a Trump golf course; and NASCAR scratched plans for a banquet at Trump’s Doral resort in Florida. In a statement, Trump pronounced himself delighted: “I will keep [NASCAR’s] very substantial deposit and rent the ballroom to someone else that night — in other words, two fees instead of one! . . . In the case of ESPN . . . likewise, they lost a large deposit. I will now let people use the course on that day. . . . Again, I get two fees instead of one.”
Almost a year ago, when the presidency seemed a long shot, a reporter asked how Trump would take it if he lost. “I’d respect the electorate,” he told GQ. “. . . That’s part of the process.” If he lost, he said, “I’ll probably go back to doing what I’ve been doing . . . creating jobs, building projects — beautiful projects, iconic projects.”
Indeed, Trump spent parts of two days in the campaign’s penultimate week promoting his hotels in Florida and the District. He denied that taking time off from campaigning was any concession that his path to victory had narrowed dangerously.
But Trump would never concede such a thing. It says so right on his family coat of arms. In 2008, when he was planning his golf course and club near Aberdeen, Scotland, Trump unveiled a family symbol featuring a lion, a knight’s helmet and a Latin phrase, “Numquam Concedere.” Translation: “Never concede.”