Politics & Policy

What the Perpetually Aggrieved Mean by ‘Winning’

Trump at a campaign rally in Everett, Wash., August 30, 2016. (Reuters photo: Carlo Allegri)
A vicious, reductive worldview

My mother was a poor sport.

High-school football, as played in West Texas, isn’t exactly what you would call gentlemanly, but there is a code of conduct. If you sack the quarterback, you offer him a hand up afterward. If a player on the opposing team gets injured, you take a knee, and you applaud if he leaves the field on his own two feet.

My mother was scandalized by this. She cheered injuries — of children, in this case — and believed that our coaches were doing us a disservice by teaching us to play the game like gentlemen rather than playing to injure. She was a partisan of the strategic intentional foul. The point, as she saw it, was to win, and she was — this is the universally shared belief of the type — absolutely sure that the other team was as unscrupulous as she’d have us be. She believed very strongly that Jesus had opinions regarding the outcome of high-school football games and bingo tournaments, but remained unfortunately foggy on that “do unto others” business.

The depth and intensity of my mother’s sense of persecution was comical: On those rare occasions when we went to a restaurant, she would complain that the staff put too much ice in her drink in an effort to skimp on the tea or Dr Pepper. “That’s how they get you,” she would say. That was her favorite phrase: “That’s how they get you.” On another trip to the same restaurant (Furr’s Cafeteria, if you know the area), she complained that the staff was cheating her out of her rightful portion of ice. Too much ice, too little ice, didn’t matter: “That’s how they get you.”

If you believe that the world is out to get you — that the world is in fact organized by powerful, shadowy forces as a conspiracy against your interests — then it follows, naturally, that you are justified in doing unto others before they do unto you. The world’s victims feel themselves entitled to do what they can against the goblins who torment them. In the case of my family, this meant being absolute hell on motels. Enraged that the $39 rate advertised on the sign turned out to be $56 after taxes (“That’s how they get you!”) my mother would loot motel rooms of everything that was not nailed down: soap and toiletries, of course, but also all the towels, washcloths, ashtrays, etc. Not the bed linens, though: We were Methodists. If you are wondering why they invented those weird little thief-proof motel hangers — because who steals hangers? — the answer is: people like us. Never mind the J. C. Penney installment plan, our house was furnished in a much thriftier fashion. She didn’t think of this as stealing; she thought of it as evening the score.

I couldn’t help but think about her when I heard from an enraged Trump supporter who was displeased with my characterization of Trump’s stance on immigration, i.e., that on this or any other issue he will say literally anything at any moment if he believes that it will advance his interests. The Trumpkin did not believe that I was wrong in that characterization, but that I am hypocritical: “What about you?” he demanded. “You don’t say whatever advances your interests?”

It is the creed of losers everywhere: No one has any principles, no one tries to do the right thing.

The implicit belief expressed by those sentences is the creed of losers everywhere: No one has any principles, no one tries to do the right thing, no one tries to uphold any standards of conduct — everyone is only in it to win, to get what he wants. It isn’t that the world does not provide some evidence supporting that view, but it also provides evidence for the contrary view.

Bill Clinton was, so far as I can tell, the first American president who was actively admired for his dishonesty. Democrats — and not only they — loved to bask in Slick Willie’s cleverness, to watch him get himself into jams and get himself out again, making his opponents look like fools. Of course he betrayed his family, his supporters, and the country that entrusted him with the highest office in the land — but he won! This is what is going on in the mind of Donald Trump when he praises Vladimir Putin: Sure, he’s a brute, but look at those poll numbers. That is why in the minds of his admirers, anything Trump does can be spun into gold. “Winning!”

They celebrate in Trump what progressives saw in Bill Clinton: a cudgel with which to bludgeon one’s enemies, real or perceived, though I expect that “winning” as its own justification is going to look a lot less persuasive to the Right come November. Principles, standards of personal conduct, moral codes, honor — from that point of view, these are only participation trophies for the insufficiently ruthless. That this attitude should prevail so strongly among the world’s losers — the aggrieved, those who lament, endlessly, that the deck is stacked against them and their kind — constitutes a kind of inverted Nietzschean ethic, not that this would ever occur to them.

My football team was not, as it turns out, very good at football. We did not do a lot of winning. (If memory serves, we didn’t do any at all.) In retrospect, I think that probably doesn’t matter very much, that we were there for another reason.

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