Few people, other than his die-hard supporters, seem to doubt that President Trump disparaged U.S. service members killed in combat as “losers.” The story was reported in The Atlantic by Jeffrey Goldberg (September 3, 2020) and confirmed by journalists from four news networks, including Fox. But as Democrats memorialized veterans as heroes, and Republicans scrambled to deflect attention from the president’s words, we need to ask: why is the loser put-down so appealing to Trump’s white middle and working-class base?
The answer: they revile losers and simultaneously fear becoming losers themselves.
Trump watchers know that “loser” is the president’s favorite term of derision. According to the Trump Twitter Archive, 328 of Trump’s tweets castigate “losers.” They are an eclectic lot. Some are the president’s critics, on the right and the left, while others are groups or entities who displease him to a greater or lesser degree. Among those Trump has called losers are Anthony Scaramucci, ISIS, the Manchester Bomber, George Will, and of course disabled people. Rosie O’Donnell and Cher also made the list, as did Graydon Carter, Karl Rove, Salon, and even the S&P 500.
For the president, winning is the highest virtue. It is a worldview that he learned early in life from his real estate tycoon father, according to niece Mary Trump’s best-selling memoir Too Much and Never Enough. Riding to office on promises to build a wall and “protect” Americans from immigrants, Trump vowed to make Americans winners again. As Mary tells it, although Trump ran for president out of a desire to enhance his celebrity and his brand, he pushed on to win, despite the odds, because he hates losing.
But this is not just about Trump’s personality or psyche: it is also ideological. His adulation of winners and aversion to losers could be ripped from the pages of Ayn Rand, the best-selling mid-twentieth century novelist and philosopher of free-market libertarianism. In the Randian worldview selfishness is a virtue, compassion is weakness, and capitalism is a deeply moral system that allows human freedom to flourish. Success is a sign of moral superiority, and requires a state of absolute indifference to others and their humanity. It is a world in which winners take all and suffer no guilt.
One of Trump’s ghostwriters, Tony Schwarz, has speculated that Trump has never read a book, but others do, and Rand is an icon on the libertarian right. It’s not difficult to see how those at the very top of the class hierarchy might identify with this philosophy: it makes their own success inherently virtuous.
But why do members of Trump’s rural and suburban, lower middle and working-class base also find it alluring? Clues can be found in the economic and cultural transformations set into motion by Ronald Reagan which put middle-class salaries and benefits increasingly out of reach for blue, pink and even many white collar workers. Describing the American middle classes at the tail end of the Reagan era, Barbara Ehrenreich described a “fear of falling” that came to shape the “inner life” of a good chunk of the middle class in the United States.
As the rich got richer, and most Americans’ share of the pie got smaller, people who had previously owned houses and sent their children to college tried to keep up, but they couldn’t. They felt more and more insecure. At the same time, the rhetoric of winners and losers, promoted in politics and popular culture, reshaped their notion of what was possible. Instead of demanding that those at the top share the wealth, many working Americans joined tax revolts, and aspired to become Kardashians and Trumps. While reality television shows were busily proclaiming that making a fortune was only a game show or a YouTube video away, the middle class’s fortunes shrunk even more. The good jobs of the past became harder to find; their kids’ futures seem more and more uncertain. After the economic crash, large sectors of the country saw their families’ fortunes fade.
Significantly, a rant against losers was the opening salvo of the Tea Party movement on February 19, 2009, barely four weeks after Barack Obama became president. “Losers” is what CNBC reporter Rick Santelli called homeowners who had obtained high-risk mortgages, instead of what they were: investors who had been tricked into dicey mortgages and were now facing foreclosure in the midst of an economic crash. By helping to bail them out, Santelli railed, the federal government planned to reward people who deserved to be punished.
It mattered little that banks had deceived these homeowners: in fact, that they could be deceived was more proof that these debtors were losers. As the surge of “deaths of despair” from drugs, alcohol and suicide, after 2008, the contempt for Americans in trouble morphed into something darker and more nihilistic. Enter Donald Trump, who played to middle class fears, turning punishment of the loser into a sadistic spectacle.
Sadism, the desire to punish others and make a spectacle of their suffering, has played a far larger role in our national drama in the last decade than anyone has accounted for. At its root, sadism is a striving “to master and control another individual,” according to psychoanalyst and cultural critic Erich Fromm, who escaped from Nazi Germany and spent the rest of his life trying to understand the appeal of authoritarianism. A sadistic leader seeks to make others “a helpless object of one’s will, to become his ruler,” wrote Fromm in 1957. Fromm describes the toxic mix of sadistic and masochistic impulses which animates individuals’ desire to submit to a leader’s power, and at the same time, join that leader in dominating others.
Fromm helps us understand that, by punishing those who they view as socially below them—immigrants, transgender people, and Americans of color– Trump’s increasingly insecure and economically fragile middle-class constituency believes that they can somehow avoid becoming losers themselves.
To win over those who are wavering in their support of Trump, Democrats must understand this dynamic. They must acknowledge the pain and insecurity many Americans feel today. They must begin to reverse decades of policies that have eroded the economic power of vast sectors of the country. They also must show that the Randian narrative of winners and losers is a lie, and script an alternative narrative that demonstrates how government can, and does, intervene to make life more fair.
Every candidate, from Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on down, must explain that it is not “losers” who are to blame– but those at the very top that Americans learned to idolize at the end of the twentieth century. And when they succeed, Trump will finally be forced to confront his worst nightmare: becoming a loser himself.
Arlene Stein is Distinguished Professor of sociology, Rutgers University and Director of the Institute for Research on Women.