Weirdly, commentators seem unable to put their fingers on the precise source of Donald Trump’s appeal. His fans say they love him because he isn’t politically correct—he speaks his mind, they say, and damn the torpedoes. Some point to his business success—I’m really, really rich, Trump often boasts—although great wealth seems generally more likely to alienate candidates from voters. Others say it’s because Trump is a celebrity.
Actually, all of these are part of the puzzle, but the central piece is this: Trump parlayed his business background and his celebrity into the role he became known for during the decade-long run of The Apprentice. He’s a reality-TV judge, a member of the very tiny fraternity of men and women whom we have gifted the right to publicly identify and separate winners from losers. Put simply, Americans admire those who can pick a winner and identify a loser—and that’s why Donald Trump has been leading the polls as the Republican nominee for president.
Think of it like this: Every other presidential candidate, Republican and Democrat, from Hillary Clinton to Marco Rubio and Bernie Sanders to Carly Fiorina, are contestants on a reality TV show. They’re needy. They’re trying their darnedest to be liked by voters. Not Trump. He is the judge on a reality TV show. He keeps picking on poor Jeb Bush—“very low energy,” like a loser on America’s Got Talent—because that’s what reality-TV judges do. They celebrate champions and ostracize losers, just like the ancient Greeks did. In his famous speech to the Third Army, George Patton said: “Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser.” Trump’s slogan—“Make America Great Again”—is a more muted cry from the same place in the American psyche.
But what’s interesting now is that something has clearly changed: America keeps losing, or settling for a tie—and no one seems upset about it. America’s leaders and its elite classes are apparently no longer even interested in winning, which has become tantamount to committing a crime. Against whom? Why, the losers, of course. Winning is unfair to the losers, who are victimized and sinned-against, because the rules are wrong, or just unfair. Car-maker Kia’s new ad campaign mocking “participation culture”—in which no one wins or loses because it’s enough just to play the game—captures the same American anxiety about the American present. “Americans,” said Patton, “play to win all the time.” Not anymore.
As athletes know very well, it’s hard to break the habit of losing. We can’t “win” wars, say parts of our elite, because there are no “winners” in the horror of warfare, or else because the world is very different now than it was during World War II, which America clearly won, and Germany and Japan clearly lost. The world, they say, is much more complicated now than it was then—when FDR mobilized a nation; Eisenhower kept together an impossible coalition of a constitutional monarchy, a Communist empire, a country under Nazi occupation, and several other nations; and Washington won campaigns in the Atlantic and the Pacific.
It’s true that Ronald Reagan’s small victory in Grenada put a win in the American column after several decades of losses and ties. But withdrawing the Marines after the Beirut barracks bombing in 1983 without punishing those responsible (Hezbollah, Iran, and Syria) for killing Americans helped fuel the general impression that there is no price to be paid for taking the lives of Americans. Osama Bin Laden and the Islamic Republic of Iran were not wrong to interpret Reagan’s decision as an American acquiescence to terror.
After eight years in Iraq, and 14 years in Afghanistan, America’s two post-Sept. 11 wars in the Middle East have been insanely expensive, bloody, and wasteful, and it would be quite generous to call the results inconclusive. Yet, just as it’s not wrong to blame President Barack Obama for throwing away the Bush Administration’s muddled victories, like the surge of forces that quashed al-Qaida in Iraq, the current White House is not wrong to ask how long American troops should be expected to occupy foreign countries so that societies incommensurate with Western political culture can be gifted with Western-style democracies that they don’t seem to have much use for. Why should Americans pay for Afghanis to have a good police force, or to protect Iraqis from their own neighbors?
The U.S. public isn’t war-weary, as Obama complains—they’re just tired of American statesmen saying that expensive, brutal conflicts in faraway places are somehow necessary and at the same time insisting that it’s wrong—indeed, impossible—to expect a military solution, i.e., a decisive victory. So, why are we there? Why are we shedding American blood and spending hundreds of billions of hard-earned taxpayer dollars in other countries to earn, at best, a tie?
Yes, life is more complicated than just winning or losing—but not very much more complicated. Any society identifies itself by its objects of affection and contempt, and when its loves and hates are muddled there is trouble.
For, example, look at the Palestinian issue. America, as the Obama Administration believes and the Bush Administration did before it, must help create the conditions for the founding of a Palestinian state to ensure stability in the Middle East—a concept that increasingly seems like a bad joke. Yet the White House continues to send American taxpayer money to fund a corrupt Palestinian Authority regime bent on the eradication of Israel, the one regional ally that the United States has always been able to count as a friend—and a winner against all comers, including the clients of America’s Cold War Soviet adversary. Why is the United States backing a loser society that urges its children to knife their neighbors at the expense of a winner society that excels at inventing medicines and technologies that other people pay money for?
Then there was the administration’s “pivot to Asia,” meant to check a rising China, whose large-scale theft of industrial and military secrets and recent hack of the Office of Personnel Management have deeply undermined American national security. Why won’t American officials defend America against a country determined to weaken it?
The “reset” with Russia has also come up a big zero. The White House has no response to Vladimir Putin’s war with Ukraine, annexation of Crimea, and military escalation in Syria except to claim that the sum of Moscow’s aggression only proves the Russian premier’s “weakness.” How is it an American president who has spent so much time courting Hip-Hop stars is evidently unfamiliar with the concept of “players” and their opposite numbers, “playa-haters”? Putin, like Jay Z, is a player. The Obama White House is playa-hatin’.
And finally, there’s the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. According to the White House, the administration had to sign a nuclear deal with Iran that virtually guarantees a nuclear breakout within 15 years because, well, when a crappy America-hating Third-World theocracy decides to go nuclear there’s just no way on earth to prevent it from doing so, right? So, despite the fact that American taxpayers spend billions of dollars a year on the most advanced military and weapons systems in world history, a sclerotic regime that premises its messianic project on the return of a spiritual figure who has been in frosty occlusion for nearly a century will have the most destructive device man has ever made, just because it wants one. And America can’t do a thing about it. Why? Because we’re losers now, that’s why.
And the most obvious sign we’re obsessed with loser-dom is the fact that Trump has been leading the Republican field. Rude, ignorant, and self-obsessed, the man has only one note—Trump. Where other American leaders, like Lincoln, Kennedy, and Reagan, have inspired us to identify heroes and emulate them, in the end Trump has room for only one champion—Trump. He has no experience in leadership except for his bullying of B-list TV stars, sagging vamps, and decrepit athletes, all of whom were beholden to The Donald for letting them serve their term in American purgatory as reality-TV stars. Sure, he can distinguish winners from losers, but that is hardly a great gift. Any sane person can perform the same trick. Dogs, as Plato explains, are the most philosophical of animals simply because they can distinguish friends from enemies, i.e., the good from the bad. Yet the American elite of the last half-century has proved incapable of rising to the spiritual and emotional level of our four-legged friends. Like Trump, the overwhelming majority of the American political and cultural elite, our intellectual betters, our leaders, are losers.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).