Trump Wanted to Beat Hillary — But Did He Really Want to Be President?

Donald Trump prepares to deliver his victory speech in New York City on November 9, 2016.

There is one image from election night that I haven’t been able to scratch from my memory. As Donald Trump made his way across that stage in Manhattan’s Hilton Midtown hotel — his first appearance as the President-Elect of the United States — he looked surprisingly lethargic.

He flashed his signature two thumbs-up at a crowd of bouncing red hats, squinted, and mouthed the words “thank you” before making his way to the podium.

Flashback to happier times: When Barack Obama was re-elected in 2012, he walked off stage and into a blizzard of confetti to Bruce Springsteen’s flag-waving anthem “We Take Care of Our Own.” Donald Trump’s song of choice? You Can’t Always Get What You Want.

The music selection was perhaps the most fitting part of the improbable spectacle that was the 2016 election. For the fifth time in our nation’s history, the electorate did not get the candidate they wanted — over 2.5 million more voters (and counting) opted to live in Clinton’s America than Trump’s. But with a healthy 306 electoral votes, Donald Trump secured his spot as the 45th President of the United States.

Did the man who picked up politics just over a year ago really want to be the leader of the free world? His supporters would say, without hesitation, yes. Trump has said from the start that he simply wants to make America great again, and his willingness to amuse crowds at two or sometimes even three rallies a day certainly demonstrates some level of commitment. His stunned look on that stage could have been due to a number of different reasons. After all, it was well after 2 a.m. by the time the election was finally called.

But there were signs well before November 8 that The Donald didn’t think he was going to pull this thing off. And by all accounts, it wasn’t a thought that concerned him too much.

Trump began making plans for his post-candidate life as early as summer 2015, just months after he took that now-historic escalator ride to the lobby of Trump Tower. According to an aide to Chris Christie, Trump told Christie early on that he didn’t expect to make it past October, 2015 and would endorse the New Jersey Governor once his campaign flatlined. Christie ultimately became one of Trump’s most vexatious lap dogs — he was relieved of his duties as head of the transition team just three days after the election.

In April of 2016, Trump told a crowd of supporters in Maryland that if he lost, “I don’t think you’re ever going to see me again, folks. I think I’ll go to Turnberry and play golf or something.” You can’t blame him for that one — a lot of Americans could probably use a nice golf trip to Scotland right about now.

And in August, just three months before the election, Trump called into CNBC’s morning show to remind everyone that if he fell short, “I go back to a very good way of life.”

Beyond Trump’s own words, his campaign strategy reflected that of a candidate unperturbed by his sinking poll numbers. While the Clinton campaign spent months pouring money into ad buys and ground operations in battleground states (albeit the wrong ones), the Trump campaign didn’t even start television advertising until mid-August.

He refused to listen to his closest advisors when it came to preparing for the debates and, as a result, his bizarre performances allowed his opponent to pull off an impressive debate hat trick. According to CNN and USA Today / Gallup polls, Hillary Clinton won the three debates by 35 points, 23 points and 13 points, respectively.

But there is another memorable image from this campaign. As the third and final debate came to an end and Hillary took her victory lap across the stage, Donald Trump clenched his teeth and ripped a piece of paper from his notebook before quickly collecting himself for the camera. His facial expression spoke volumes. Moments earlier, Clinton had boldly referred to him as a puppet and almost effortlessly coaxed him into calling her a “nasty woman.”

After a disastrous October for the Trump campaign, the third debate likely resuscitated his desire to beat Clinton, and to beat her bigly.

The bigly part might have been wishful thinking, but he did beat her. And Trump’s behavior during his first month as President-Elect only reinforces the theory that he doesn’t understand — or care to understand — what his obligations to the American people now are.

In the four short weeks since the election, Trump has settled a $25 million fraud case, disregarded years of diplomatic protocol and irked the Chinese, tweeted his interest in revoking first amendment rights for U.S. citizens, and brazenly appointed a white nationalist as his chief strategist.

The President-Elect is currently midway through his “thank you” tour, essentially a cosmetic expansion of a brutal campaign that ended weeks ago. But Trump’s personality requires constant affirmation that people still love him. To his supporters, the tour is a testament to his passion. To most, it’s a suiting demonstration of his egotistical style.

Donald Trump’s remarkable unpreparedness for the office he will soon hold is not just disappointing — it’s dangerous. It likely won’t take long for many of his supporters to realize they were duped. But for those of us who openly opposed the greatest con in American history, the countdown to January 20 is an unnerving experience. Mitt Romney issued his own warning call about Donald Trump back in March: “He’s playing the American public for suckers: He gets a free ride to the White House and all we get is a lousy hat.”

Romney was right about the first part. But when Donald Trump squinted and glared out into the audience that November morning, he saw a sea of people who weren’t ready to let him lose. Even if losing is exactly what he wanted to do.