The guiding principle of Donald Trump’s presidency so far has nothing to do with ideology, or making America great again. It’s about payback.
Trump was on course to be a standard-issue sore loser before he surprised even himself with an unlikely victory in November. Since then, he’s redefined the concept of being a sore winner. There’s been nothing gracious about his rise to power, nothing suggesting Trump has the slightest desire to smooth over the fissures of a fraught election and govern on behalf of the entire country he is supposed to represent. Rather, he gives the impression of wanting to settle scores, motivated by one key desire: “I’ll show you.”
You like the arts? Suck it, egghead, we’re gutting the NEA. You want clean drinking water? Eff you, hippie, we’re rolling back environmental regulations and appointing a climate-change denier to the EPA, and you can forget about that Paris Accord. You value a pluralistic society? Joke is on you, snowflake: the nation’s new chief law enforcement officer is too racist to have been appointed a federal judge.
Trump doesn’t have friends as such, but people who know him say he wants more than anything to be liked. The grim flipside is the way he holds grudges and spews vitriol at anyone he thinks has slighted him: the news media, Saturday Night Live, federal judges, foreign leaders, Nordstrom, Meryl Streep—no one is off limits. Though Trump won the presidency, he’s unable to just accept the win and move on. Instead, he’s obsessing over irrelevant details in a way that erodes what little credibility he had in the first place with a sizable portion of the electorate. He doesn’t look presidential by continuing to insist that illegal immigrants cost him the popular vote, ranting on the phone to foreign leaders, describing any information portaying him in a bad light as “fake news,” or venting his displeasure online like a petulant toddler denied a box of raisins. He looks unhinged.
“You’ve got to remember, the bully is the most sensitive person in the room, the narcissist is the most sensitive person in the room. When their feelings get hurt, instead of crying about it, they lash out,” says Ramani Durvasula, a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at California State University Los Angeles. “The sense that your win has been tainted, that it wasn’t really your win, can result in a rageful reaction.”
Not only does Trump’s behavior reinforce the idea he’s thin-skinned, petty and vengeful, it’s a distraction, even—and maybe especially—for Trump himself. His worldview seems formed by what he sees on TV, which is a reactive and reckless way to run the country. If he didn’t spend so much time essentially live-tweeting cable news, he might have had a chance to read the executive order Stephen Bannon drafted putting himself on the National Security Council. Or the briefing books that would make it unnecessary to watch cable news. Or the Constitution, a subject on which he’s shaky.
Trump’s peevishness has also set a tone for his advisors, who act as though his victory frees them from the strictures of truth or decency. After introducing America to the idea of “alternative facts,” Kellyanne Conway made up a fictional terrorist attack, repeated it in three different interviews and then taunted Chelsea Clinton when Clinton joined a chorus online calling her out on it. Sean Spicer has shown such mastery of doublethink while conducting press briefings that he might as well be flacking for the Ministry of Truth in 1984. In between rushing out executive orders with no legal review or agency input, Bannon suggested the news media “keep its mouth shut.”
“It’s very childish to see that happening among adults, and it always comes back to, ‘No matter what you say, you’re still the loser.’ It’s that one-upmanship,” says Frank J. Sileo, a licensed psychologist in Ridgewood, New Jersey, and author of the 2013 award-winning children’s book Sally Sore Loser: A Story about Winning and Losing. The spillover isn’t limited to the executive branch. “This has set a very negative tone for kids, for bullying and kids who are bullied,” Sileo says. “When the president of the United States is acting accordingly, that’s having a rippling effect into my office, and into my colleagues’ offices.”
What the president and his minions don’t seem to understand is that while the office of the presidency commands respect, the occupant starts from zero. It’s not the Super Bowl—winning an election doesn’t make you a champion. It means you’ve won the privilege of earning respect from the people you’ve been elected to serve. Lying to them and selecting aides and cabinet officials who have displayed open contempt for them is a pretty clear indication of how little respect Trump has for the public and, by extension, the presidency.
The irony is that for all his efforts to project strength and decisiveness, Trump’s sore-winner ethos most likely stems from insecurity. “The big daddy of narcissism is nothing but insecurity,” says Durvasula, author of the 2013 book Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Narcissistic Relationship. “If you’re comfortable with yourself, there’s no need to lash out at anyone.”
For all the darkness and chaos accompanying Trump, there are ways to counteract bullies and narcissists. “Grace,” Durvasula says. “It means you’ve got to dig into a well so deep you didn’t even know you had it. And it can feel gross for a minute, but you’ve got to remember that the sore winner is the one who looks like an absolute clown. You have to be able to look them in the eye and offer them a firm handshake and say, ‘Congratulations on the win.’”
Part of the sore-winner phenomenon, she says, is the increasing sense that empathy and grace are signs of weakness in an outcome-based culture riven by inequality, where winning is everything. Resisting Trump, then, should include holding tight to those values—in addition to learning how to out-maneuver his authoritarian tendencies and sidestep the steady stream of bullshit pouring from the West Wing.
“With kids, I always address it as losing friends and losing people in your life, because people aren’t going to want to play with you if you don’t play nice,” Sileo says. “I think people eventually get tired of the rhetoric, of the conceitedness. You can only use it for a limited amount of time, and then it’s like, OK, what’s next?”