We haven’t had a lot of presidents who sought reelection and were defeated. Unless you count the likes of Lyndon Johnson (who began but quickly ended his bid) and Woodrow Wilson (who longed for the vindication of a third term without really pursuing it), from the start of the 20th century until now, there have only been three presidents denied a second term: Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush. Of these, only Hoover expressed any great bitterness over the circumstances of his defeat. But he did not contest it or seek to sabotage his successor, and the man once known as the Great Humanitarian went on to continue the career of distinguished public service that lifted him to the White House in the first place. Carter was, famously, a much better ex-president than president. And Poppy Bush found quiet redemption in the political careers of his sons.
Had Donald Trump discovered a way to accept his defeat at some point during the long months between Joe Biden’s victory on November 7 and a pro-Trump mob’s sack of the Capitol on January 6, he might have left office with his head held high, convinced of his administration’s accomplishments and the wickedness of his enemies, with all his options open and all his friends and allies showering him with praise. He would have been the odds-on favorite for a comeback nomination in 2024, if he wanted that, and might have become a sort of “shadow president,” as Lindsey Graham predicted — an abiding presence in public life perpetually offering an alternative to a Biden administration with a world of troubles to manage.
But the very narcissistic traits that made Trump a president like no other made a graceful exit — or even a temporary exile — impossible. The same self-focus that has rendered him incapable of empathy or absorbing inconvenient information left him unable to imagine a White House occupied by someone else. And so, in this fateful two-month interim, he has systematically and shortsightedly damaged everyone who has helped him, and every institution that has sustained him, over the past four years. He will leave office (on January 20 if not earlier) resembling no one so much as Richard Nixon, a self-isolated shell of a man full of self-pity and empty of the political skills for which he was once famous.
Trump’s determination to leave no friend unbetrayed was most evident in his behavior toward a Republican Party that was desperate to hang onto its Senate power base in two Georgia runoff elections. The obvious winning message was the need to curb any excesses the Democratic Party might entertain if it secured a governing trifecta. Instead the president insisted on shattering party unity with loud and unremitting attacks on Republican officials in Georgia who did not cooperate with his efforts to reverse the presidential-election results, forcing Senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue to make their own campaigns an adjunct to his postelection crusade. Like so many other Trump allies, Loeffler and Perdue were punished for their conspicuous loyalty to him, losing what had become a referendum on his conspiracy theories and grievances. Victimized as well were their fellow Senate Republicans, who saved Trump from removal via impeachment only to find themselves in the minority less than a year later.
A host of other Republican officials in battleground states Trump lost were forced to choose between their responsibilities and the demands the president and his lawyers made. They were joined in this uncomfortable dilemma by dozens of conservative judges, some appointed by Trump, who rejected specious efforts by his Keystone Cops legal team to halt certification of the election results and generally throw sand in the gears of normal postelection procedure.
But all the damage Trump visited on his allies in recent weeks pales in comparison to what he did on January 6 in a doomed effort to nullify his defeat via a revolt against congressional recognition of Biden’s electoral-vote majority. He put his most loyal subordinate, Mike Pence (a man who raised sycophancy to unprecedented levels), in an impossible position, ordering him to personally steal the election by rejecting state-certified Biden electors and then publicly accusing him of cowardice and betrayal when he resisted the mad demand. By telling credulous MAGA folk that Pence could get away with the gambit if only he wanted to, Trump made his ever-subordinate sidekick an object of enduring contempt from the people the veep needs for his own political future.
At the same time, the electoral-vote challenge split congressional Republicans as never before, and the divisions deepened after Trump’s speech at the Save America March — in which he expressed white-hot rage toward the — drove his fans to invade and vandalize the Capitol sanctuary. There was no more vivid demonstration of the shrunken hard-core line of defense Trump enjoys than Kelly Loeffler — who spent most of 2020 posing as the Trumpiest Republican of them all — refusing to validate the challenge to Georgia’s electoral-vote count brought by such House Republicans as QAnon-loving Marjorie Taylor Greene, who was a conspicuous presence at Trump’s final rally before the Senate runoffs. As for “Establishment” Republicans like soon-to-be Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a partner-in-crime to so many Trump outrages over the past four years, the presidential incitement to violence led to the most open defiance of him we’ve seen since the mogul conquered the GOP in the 2016 primaries.
In that one respect, Trump may have done his betrayed friends a favor even as he self-destructed, making it easier for the Republicans who had been impatiently waiting for him to leave the White House to go public with the misgivings they had surely held privately all along. As the wave of White House and administration resignations we are seeing indicates, even some of Trump’s most subservient toadies are now disclaiming responsibility for his latest bad conduct. Again like Nixon, by the time he leaves power, Trump loyalists in Washington may be reduced to a handful of pathetic and marginal figures, some of them hoping for last-minute pardons.
The $64,000 question, of course, is how many of his grassroots supporters Trump has now alienated. Did yesterday’s spectacle in Washington (which snap polls suggest a lot of Republicans didn’t see as problematic) make the scales fall from the eyes of Trump voters who have long defended or ignored his aberrant conduct? Did they, like many GOP members of Congress, realize that Trump had betrayed them as well by associating his and their cause with disreputable violence? Or did the riot in fact radicalize previously square citizens and bolster the ranks of the real lunatics — the QAnon believers, the white supremacists, the crypto-fascists?
The next two weeks could yet determine how small Donald Trump’s bubble remains as he grudgingly surrenders — or is forced to surrender — power. The great Christian novelist Charles Williams once described hell as a place where those who think only of themselves enjoy perfect isolation forever. Trump may ensure himself a hellish future if he cannot find it within himself to think of those he has damaged and grant them the favor of a quiet departure.