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Making Failure Great Again
For all his talk about #Winning, Donald Trump thrives on losing.
USUALLY, IN POLITICS, nothing succeeds like success—and nothing fails like failure. So why hasn’t that happened with Donald Trump?
Starting in 2020, Donald Trump has taken a series of losses that ought to make him disappear into the memory hole of Republican politics. Not only did he lose the election, he lost all of his post-election lawsuits challenging the results. In the 2022 midterms, his biggest backers and the most vocal and important election deniers—the ones who would have been in charge of tipping the vote his way in 2024—were almost universally rejected, costing Republicans the big rebound they were expecting.
Lately, Trump’s losing streak has intensified. The Trump Organization was found guilty of felony tax fraud and fined $1.6 million, and one of its executives was sentenced to prison. Trump was indicted in New York for fraudulent misuse of campaign money to cover up an affair. Most recently, a jury found him liable for “sexual abuse” and for defamation. And there is almost certainly more to come.
But in the face of all of that, something strange happened: Trump’s standing with Republican voters improved. Early this year, Trump was facing a real challenge among the Republican base from Florida Governor Ron DeSantis—until the New York indictment. Rather than being the final nail in his coffin, the indictment consolidated Trump’s support. As with the base, so with the alleged leadership: After the sexual abuse verdict, a parade of senators lined up to dismiss the jury's conclusions and proclaim their support for Trump.
The more Trump loses, the more Republicans seem to love him. Why?
National Review’s Jim Geraghty, in a fit of wild optimism, hoped it would go the other way. Surveying the troubles of Trump and of a range of his supporters, he concluded:
Some people who already like figures such as Trump, Dobbs, Powell, Lindell, Jones, and Santos, will look at these cases and say, “Ah-ha! Further evidence that the sinister deep state and biased judges and juries are trying to crack down on those who dare tell the truth!”
Hopefully, some others will notice that these self-proclaimed truth-tellers keep running into juries of ordinary Americans who find them guilty of defamation and lies.
Well, that’s an admirable hope. But the evidence suggests that the predominant Republican reaction is the first: Every new loss by Trump has become further proof of his persecution by “the elites.”
We can point to a number of reasons for this reaction. There is the unwillingness of his nominal opponents to use any of his troubles against him—though they are clearly reacting to the Republican base, who they fear will turn against them if they dare criticize Trump. So what about the base voters themselves?
Part of the explanation could be a moral sunk-cost fallacy. Having put so much of their personal identity into supporting Trump—despite all the moral faults that were already apparent—Republican voters feel the need to protect that investment by excusing every new fault as it is exposed. If you made excuses for the “Access Hollywood” tape and said it was just harmless “locker room talk,” then there is some pressure to double down when a jury finds that Trump acted on those boasts. If you’ve talked yourself into the idea that it’s okay to excuse relatively small transgressions because Trump annoys the people you hate, then you will be led to accept ever larger and larger crimes.
But there may be something bigger going on. After all, the argument for Trump was that we were supposed to accept his faults because he is a fighter who will defeat our enemies and get things done for “our side.” Trump was supposed to fight dirty and win. Now he’s fighting dirty and losing. Yet judging from the evidence—particularly his recent CNN-sponsored rally—his audience loves him even more.
So maybe the Republican base loves him because of the losses he’s taking, not despite them.
From the outside, we judge Trump as if he were a normal politician and as if his voters were the normal Republicans of years gone by. But he’s not and they’re not—so the dynamics are the opposite of what we’re used to.
We have to understand that, for all his talk of winning, Trump thrives on losing.
And that’s because victimhood is the new moral currency on the right.
There is an old study that seeks to explain what each society sees as the central thing that confers status on its members and gives them a sense of personal meaning. In older societies, it was honor, then it was dignity, but now—the authors argued—the dominant source of status and meaning is victimhood.
This study gained attention as a critique of the cultural left—but of course, these trends don’t stop along neatly drawn partisan lines. After years of mocking victimhood culture on the left, the right has now thoroughly adopted it in their own variation.
In his now canceled (and soon-to-be-reborn) television show, Tucker Carlson didn’t just set out to mainstream white nationalist memes from 4chan. He trafficked in a comprehensive narrative of victimhood in which the biggest victims are middle-class white conservatives. An “anti-white mania” stalked the land as a plot by predatory “elites” to target ordinary Americans. Everything wrong with the world, every source of personal dissatisfaction, is the result a conspiracy emanating from Hollywood, Washington, Big Tech, or the “globalists.”
Hence the obsession conservatives have acquired with the idea that someone, somewhere might be looking down on them.
Observe, for example, the weird saga of the blue check mark on Twitter. For a long time, a favorite complaint on the populist right was that people who received Twitter’s blue checks for being “notable” were a kind of aristocratic elite who received special treatment and status (the value of which, believe me, was greatly exaggerated). That’s why, when Elon Musk took over Twitter, he was lauded as a hero for taking away the old blue checks and making them available to the masses, or at least to anyone willing to shell out $8 a month for subscription. But then the holders of these newly acquired blue checks bitterly complained that very few of the old “notable” types were willing to pay to keep them—therefore devaluing the blue check as a status symbol.
None of this makes sense as a rational response. It only makes sense as a panic over status, an obsession with the idea that you and people like you are victims being kept down and perpetually treated unfairly. (The irony that this panic is happening to a subset of some of the most well-off people living in one of the safest and freest societies in all of human history seems to be lost on the aggrieved.)
Once you realize that victimhood has become the dominant currency on the right, then you can see how Republicans look at Donald Trump and see someone who is the beau ideal of aggrieved victimhood. This is why all the narratives about how “the walls are closing in” on Trump never seem to come to anything. The “walls closing in” is not a problem for Trump; it’s his brand. The more Trump is embroiled in lawsuits, the more he is caught lying, the more seedy revelations emerge from his personal life—then the more he becomes the symbol of a right-wing persecution complex and the more Republicans rally around him.
You can also see why they respond when he tells them, “I am your retribution.”
The result for the right is that Donald Trump has become their Al Sharpton. He may not accomplish much, but he will annoy and outrage the people they blame for their problems while soaking up attention and cash in the process. And when he repeatedly fails, it will never be his fault, just more proof that the system is rigged against them and therefore that they need him as their champion more than ever.
But the old conservative critiques of victimhood culture had a point, because wallowing in a sense of victimhood has destructive effects. The person who becomes fixated on his victimhood puts the locus of control for his own life somewhere outside himself. In place of real victory, he seeks symbolic acts of retribution, whether it’s “sticking it to The Man” or the fantasy of “owning the libs.”
And they will do this rather than taking control of their own lives and taking responsibility for their own fates.