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Who’s the Ugly Loser Now?

Donald Trump can't accept defeat gracefully. That will hurt him at the polls.

Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

For a brief moment on Monday night, as he took the stage in Iowa to acknowledge that he came in second in the state caucuses, Donald Trump was surprisingly gracious. He was clearly unhappy with the results but seemed to accept them with equanimity and didn’t blame anyone else for his failure or call into question the legitimacy of the democratic process. 

That moment of magnanimity did not last very long. By Tuesday morning, he started sending off a series of bitter, petulant tweets that made clear that he could not accept his loss and was looking for a scapegoat to kill. The crescendo of whining reached a peak Wednesday morning when he argued that winning candidate Ted Cruz had stolen the victory. In a series of tweets, he came across as an embittered loser, which endangers the brand he has worked so hard to create.

It could be argued that Trump’s sour grapes gambit is a smart move to recapture the media spotlight, and to rally his dispirited supporters by showing that he has a fighting heart—that he remains a pugilist who is willing to do whatever it takes to win. Accusations that the winner is a cheater are not unknown in the world of pro wrestling, a shaping force in Trump’s aggressive persona. And it could be that some of Trump’s fan base will take his lead and double-down.

Trump might also be muddying the waters of the Iowa election to shore up his support in New Hampshire, where he has a strong lead. Accusations that Cruz cheated are a way to staunch any flow of voters deserting Trump for Cruz and Rubio. Moreover, by bringing Carson into the fold as a fellow aggrieved victim, Trump gives another set of voters who might move to Cruz a reason to hate him. 

Trump benefits from the fact that his complaint against Cruz has an element of truth to it, even though overstated with Trumpian hyperbole. The Cruz campaign did send out a mailer made to look like a government document in order to coerce voters, which was unethical and fraudulent. His campaign staff also told caucusgoers that Carson was dropping out of the race. It’s doubtful whether these tactics explains the margin of victory, given Cruz’s overwhelming superiority in ground game (a political concept that Trump himself admits he’s only recently heard about). 

But Trump’s Twitter whine is more likely to hurt him. It prevents him from moving on from Iowa and keeps his loss in the news. Moreover, being a sore loser hurts one of Trump’s main arguments: that he’s tough, and a winner. Trump is supposed to be a shrewd guy who knows how to make his way among the killers of the world. But now he’s admitted that he was snookered (if not schlonged) by a weasel like Ted Cruz.

There is a way for tough guys to lose and make a comeback, which is by recasting themselves as heroic underdogs who are fighting against the odds, like Rocky Balboa. On the one hand, it should be easy for Trump to present himself as an underdog: As he rightly points out, he’s a political rookie and doesn’t have the large outside funding available to the other top-tier candidates. So it is remarkable he came in second, beating out experienced pols like Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and Chris Christie. And considering that Trump had no real ground game, the fact that he was only 4 percent behind Cruz is remarkable. So the post-Iowa pitch Trump could make is clear: I’m a rookie who came close to winning in Iowa, I learn from my mistakes, and I’m going to win in New Hampshire.

But to cast himself as an underdog goes against every grain of Trump’s persona. Last month, Vox’s David Robert argued Trump’s pose as a winner is brittle, and doesn’t allow him to handle defeat well:

He can’t modulate, can’t do humility, can’t abide the thought of anyone above him. All his claims, all his stories, all his insults are yuge, the best you’ll find anywhere.

The same belligerence that looked like strength when Trump was on top will look defensive and bitter when he’s not. And the more doubtful or skeptical voters and the media become, the more Trump will escalate, the more his chest will puff. He doesn’t know any other strategy. He’ll enter a negative spiral as self-reinforcing as his rise has been.

At the time, I was skeptical of this analysis, thinking that Trump could remake himself as a defeated but spirited boxer. But given Trump’s Twitter meltdown this week, Roberts’s analysis holds up well. Trapped in his mask as a winner, Trump can’t adopt the best guise to make a comeback.