Even a broken clock is right twice a day. Even Donald Trump occasionally hits the nail square-on.
On September 15, a man tried to blow up a Tube train at Parsons Green Station, West London. His homemade bomb (which was housed, with curious pathos, in a budget supermarket carrier bag) had failed to properly detonate, but still left 30 people injured and my home city reeling from the latest assault in a summer of atrocity.
As news of the incident spread, Trump clambered onto his bully pulpit on Twitter and chimed in with a sentiment we could all get behind.
He called the perpetrator a “loser.”
Trump, with accidental perspicacity, had latched onto a disease of our times, one that goes some way to explain not only the appeal of Islamist ideology to disaffected Muslim youth, but also Trump’s very own rise to the presidency. Because all around the world, we are witnessing the March of the Losers, and Donald Trump is their king.
Donald Trump, global celebrity and billionaire, with his tycoon swagger and supermodel wife, is the biggest fucking loser on God’s green earth. To New York society, he’s always been a caricature: the parvenu boor who drapes his house in gold and emblazons buildings with his capitalized name. A man without friends who yearns for the ratings that support the brittle delusion that he is adored. A man who doesn’t read, whose insecurities pour out of him unbidden, from the violence of his signature to the childlike assertion of his handshake.
When I think about Trump’s vandalistic rise to the White House, there is a moment, back when he was still a harmless parody of limp machismo, that’s burned into my mind. It was April 2011, around the time when Trump ramped up his engagement with U.S. politics by becoming a strident champion of the “birther movement,” casting doubt on Barack Obama’s country of origin.
At the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Obama used his customarily lighthearted keynote to rib Trump — who was present — about his role in fomenting this conspiracy theory that was gaining traction with America’s lunatic fringe. In a memorable coup de grâce, Obama declared it was time to put the speculation to rest by revealing his “birth video,” motioning to a giant screen, where the opening credits of The Lion King began to roll. And as the Swahili tenor rang out across the auditorium—“NAAAAAANTS INGONYAAAAAA” — it was as if the whole world of the slick and urbane were laughing at the cretin in their midst.
When the camera switched back to Trump, even under the dimmed lights, you could sense his ordinarily Fanta complexion burning red with rage.
How else should a man like Trump, with his titanic ego wrapped in the finest muslin, respond to such provocation? Quite simply, by attempting to destroy the gilded society to which he never managed to belong. Six years later, Trump kicked in the door to the Oval Office that his tormentor had just vacated. He had surfed a tidal wave of grievance and underdog disenchantment to the highest office in the land, his assault on American democracy the culmination of a long project to one day be able to turn to those who would mock him and say:
“Look who’s laughing now.”
To argue that many of Trump’s acolytes were drawn to him because they saw him as a standard-bearer for losers is not to dismiss their grievances out of hand. Many, or perhaps most, of those stubbornly cleaving to the Trump flag are just ordinary pissed-off Joes, susceptible to the exhortations of anyone offering simple, snake-oil scapegoats to explain away the complex origins of their precarity, their depression, their fury at the state of the world. But it is all too tempting to speculate that many of Trump’s most vociferous supporters — the ones who engage and propagandize, who hitch themselves to his toxic politics come what may — emit the whiff of loserdom. In Trump, they see themselves reflected: the outcast whose social approbation somehow doesn’t measure up to their self-regard.
All around the world, many of the foot soldiers of disruption, rebellion, and change fit into this trope — of the loser taking revenge on the world that spurned them.
It’s there in Julian Assange, once seen as a warrior for Truth, now just another risible provocateur happy to subordinate righteousness to his own narcissistic power game. It’s Nigel Farage, the blustering, beer-swilling little Englander incongruous among the multilingual technocrats of Brussels. It’s the ISIS proxies ploughing trucks into innocent bystanders, lured to its black banner out of wrath for the women they’ll never fuck and the adulthoods doomed never to fulfill the promise of their mother’s unflinching love.
It’s the Charlottesville marchers with their pitiful flags and tiki torches. “I hear stories of strict religious parents, sexual misadventures, a feeling of drifting in a world which has not offered them a clear way to be heroes,” wrote Laurie Penny earlier this year, describing her time with the “Lost Boys” of Milo Yiannapoulos’ teenage alt-right coterie. “A desperate longing for something to belong to, for adventure and friends and enemies to fight.” These aren’t the shock troops of white supremacy, but rather a phalanx of insecure children, their nihilism a malignant outgrowth of their social alienation.
The politicized loser is an instinctively right-wing animal, one whose sense of victimhood compels them toward reaction and a vindictive assault on some nebulous “other.” The left has its disruptors, too, of course. Yet while they seek to tear down the center to rebuild something for the sake of society at large, the right-wing loser seeks only the elevation of his own people to a position of preeminence over others.
In extolling his tribe, the loser compensates for his own mediocrity; in propounding his libertarianism, he expiates his failures. “I would flourish,” he insists, “if only I was left alone.”
Note: You seldom, if ever, hear right-wing agitators offer an alternative prescription to salvage the society they claim to lament. Instead, they just pour scorn on the world as it is. The idea of what might come after matters less than the bald act of sabotage.
The resulting causes are often insane, the losers’ foes exaggerated or manufactured altogether. Their rallying points are a ridiculous pick-n-mix of paranoia and exaggerated victimhood. They are men’s rights activists, anti-feminists, religious fanatics. They are conspiracy theorists battling to awaken the blinkered masses to the millenarian specter of “white genocide.” Penny writes of the alt-right that “they are wedded to a political analysis that might as well be written in fuzzy felt.”
In considering how the losers became the change agents of modern Western politics, it’s hard to avoid pointing an accusatory finger at cyberspace. It’s no mystery why the outcasts convene on social media. By making potential publishers out of anyone and everyone and providing audiences for the same, the internet has lent legitimacy for perspectives once considered outlandish, bigoted, or downright mad. Are you a tinfoil paranoiac convinced that the earth is ruled by lizard people from Neptune? There’s a Reddit for that. Do you suspect that the swarthy races are conspiring to overthrow white hegemony? Here are your people, peddling bullshit on 4chan.
The web has fundamentally altered the way we engage with politics, reducing discourse to vitriolic pantomime. It’s a virtual universe of trolls, cranks, and playground jibes, where a talent for casuistry and comic-book nerdery empowers a loser to win rhetorical victories against tenured professors. What easier way to wreak vengeance on the world than to sit at home in your pants spitting venom at “libtards” from behind the anonymity of your smirking frog avatar?
Meanwhile, the fetishization of celebrity that the internet has enabled and accelerated now clobbers us round the heads with the unattainable lifestyles of the rich and famous. While the loser engages in the everyday drudgery of a job he hates, looking on helpless as society changes in ways he doesn’t condone, the winners are taunting him with another Instagram of tanned washboard stomachs and deep-blue skies.
To feel like a loser has never been so easy, nor has it ever been less conscionable. The loser’s quest for scapegoats has seldom been so urgent.
But the truth is that the potency of the motivated loser is nothing new at all.
In the 1950s and ’60s, when the political philosopher Hannah Arendt was studying the personalities of the people who oiled the Nazi machine, she discovered that many of them shared a particular neurosis. She found that numerous case studies, in talking about their pasts and their path toward extremism, admitted to having fallen victim to a crushing alienation. Arendt called this forlorn prototype the “mass man.”
The mass man’s sense of futility, with its volatile admixtures of gullibility, cynicism, and rage, rendered him ripe for conscription by a mad blame-monger who — short, shrieking, sexless, failed artist himself — possessed a preternatural knack for weaponizing victimhood.
It is no great leap to imagine that those faceless lackeys whose crimes would shock our collective soul — the men who pushed the button to release the cyanide, who oversaw the trucks tipping piles of emaciated flesh into mass graves — were the kids who had a miserable time at school and fared little better in adulthood.
The victim had become the abuser. That’s how this shit works. Always has.
Ultimately, these people will lose. They are losers, after all. However, for as long as society proffers rigid ideas of success and failure, the potential energy of the mass man will be there, itching for a cause, waiting for someone to come and soothe their existential pain.