Trump and the Myth of Defeat

Myths play an important role for humans by explaining the unknown and the inexplicable.


Many, if not all, societies have a foundation or creation myth. The subject of most of these is cosmogony (the origin of the cosmos), especially important before the development of modern science and its explorations of the universe and the origins of life. In parts of ancient Mesopotamia, the epic Enuma Elish, or The Seven Tablets of Creation, explained the progression from initial anarchy to creation of a stable government. The Sumerian/Babylonian poem The Epic of Gilgamesh explored the meaning of life. The biblical book of Genesis has two origin myths, the six days of creation and the fashioning of Adam from dust. 

She-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus

The ancient Romans had two creation myths: The well-known story of the twins Romulus and Remus, who were suckled by the she-wolf and eventually founded Rome, and the story told by Vergil in his great epic, The Aeneid, in which Aeneas and his fellow Trojans flee Troy after its sacking by the Greeks and eventually make their way to Italy to build the city of Rome. America has several foundation myths, from the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock to the struggle against the British Empire in the Revolutionary War, culminating in the creation of the Republic in Philadelphia in 1787. All of these American myths are based in fact, but they have developed an heroic glow in the years since that obscures the messier historic reality.

The stab-in-the-back, complete with a caricatured Jew

Sometimes, though, myths are rooted in a complex web of lies that give a false description of history. These myths help societies come to grips with perceived failures and defeats, but sometimes they also prescribe a dangerous future path. One such example is the “stab-in-the-back” explanation for Germany’s defeat in World War I. According to this conspiratorial theory, the German Army was not defeated in the field, but was stabbed in the back by weak politicians at home and left-wing revolutionary violence in Berlin and elsewhere in the German Empire. Adolf Hitler, and other anti-Semites, added Jews to the mix of those who betrayed Germany. The combination of Jews as the catalyst for the “stab-in-the back” with Jews as both the promulgators of revolution and the engine of international capitalism (whoever said conspiracy theories were governed by logic?) ineluctably led to the Holocaust. 

The “stab-in-the-back” myth helped Germans understand their defeat in the so-called Great War, and it became an aspect in the rise of Nazism. In the United States today, Republicans are giving voice to a dangerous myth to explain the defeat of President Donald Trump. No one knows how this myth will play out, but it explains for millions of Americans what they cannot fathom otherwise: The failure of Trump to win reelection.

Like the German “stab-in-the-back” myth, the claim that Trump lost to Joe Biden because the election was “rigged” has no basis in fact. Trump laid the groundwork for this explanation months before the first votes even were cast, with his constant drumbeat of claims that mail-in ballots were rife with fraud. Trump conditioned his supporters to expect the worst in the election, providing them with a ready-made reason for a predicted and predictable outcome.

Trump supporters, rallying in Washington, claim Trump won the election

Now, Trump refuses to concede, claiming he won the election while spreading disinformation that few on his side ever bother to check. He recently tweeted, “In Detroit, there are FAR MORE VOTES THAN PEOPLE.” That sentence is palpably false: Detroit has just over 500,000 registered voters, 250,000 of whom voted on Election Day. The city of Detroit has 667,000 residents. Anyone with a computer or a smartphone can discover these facts easily (as I did), but I suspect most Trumpistas will not bother and simply will accept and regurgitate Trump’s deliberate lies.

I do not know what Trump’s goal is spreading such easily debunked lies, except that lying is what he does. I am not sure Trump has any concrete plans past the next temper tantrum. But, he is engaging in a dangerous gambit that undermines American democracy. He and his allies are convincing the president’s most enthusiastic supporters that Biden is not lawfully president-elect, while keeping alive the possibility Trump will run again in 2024.

A recent poll shows that 52 percent of Republicans believe Trump “rightfully won” the election. According to another poll, 70 percent of Republicans do not believe the 2020 election was free and fair. More than 73-million Americans voted for Trump, so a potentially susceptible, enormous population exists for the growth of a myth to explain Trump’s defeat as potent as the myth that led to Nazi Germany.

At the very least, the shameful questioning of the electoral process will undermine Biden’s presidency. Biden won an election that was not even close, either in the popular vote or the Electoral College. But, his prize is tarnished, perhaps forever. Trump and his sycophants are raising the specter that the former vice president is an “illegitimate” president, just as their racist “birther” conspiracy suggested Barack Obama was ineligible to serve as president.

Hillary Clinton conceding the day after the 2016 election

This is corrosive to democracy, for the hallmark of the success of the American experiment in republican government is the peaceful transfer of power from one administration to the next. The process begins with the defeated candidate’s concession. Nominees for the presidency, up to now, have been gracious winners and losers. Hillary Clinton conceded the 2016 election less than a day after the polls closed. Obama called Trump before sunrise to congratulate him and invite him to the White House for a consultation. Al Gore conceded the contested 2000 election — which was close and which he might have won had not the Supreme Court intervened — just after the court issued its ruling. 

Trump is an old man; we have little information about his health. He may or may not have set his sights on 2024, but one thing is clear: His attack on the electoral process is an attack on American democracy. In weakening faith in electoral integrity, Trump is giving birth to a destructive myth that millions of Americans likely will accept as the explanation for his defeat. Even if Trump does not run again, another right-wing nationalist — a Tucker Carlson, say — could seize on the myth to launch a potent campaign for the presidency. 

Such is the power of myth. Just ask the Germans.

Posted November 20, 2020

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