When you lose something precious, something valuable — the big prize — you don’t have to get stuck with the “loser” label forever. Life and politics are full of examples of broken hearts and smashed dreams, and also examples of those who managed to rewrite their legacies in meaningful ways that benefited themselves and society.
Donald Trump has proved that he is not the kind of person given to reflection or remorse and would seem the last character capable of earning redemption. He slinked out of the White House on Wednesday, burdened with grievances, two impeachments and “what-ifs,” beating an early retreat before Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were sworn in. But it’s not too late for him to learn something he has not so far in his 74 years.
Though he predicted four years ago that an America without his leadership would crumble, it was Trump who brought a vision of “American carnage” to life. The lasting image is of his supporters storming the U.S. Capitol, attacking democracy itself, and of a COVID-19 death toll passing 400,000, Americans mourned not by him but by Biden and Harris on inauguration eve with a solemn and soulful service the country needed.
But Trump’s Wikipedia entry doesn’t have to start with the word “disaster,” not if he looks away from his red-carpet exit to pay attention, even with his notoriously short attention span, to how others have conducted themselves when confronted with power and influence slipping through their fingers.
The person Trump often mocked for choking “like a dog” in his defeat by President Barack Obama in 2012 now has the upper hand as the leader of the Senate’s “I told you so” caucus. Though he still may get hounded at airports or on planes by rowdy louts, Utah Sen. Mitt Romney stands as the only Republican to vote to convict on one article at Trump’s first impeachment.
That, and his simple acknowledgment in November that Biden won, almost makes the memory of his sought-after endorsement by citizen Trump in 2012 and his early attempt to gain a spot in the Trump Cabinet fade. Now that Romney’s presidential hopes are in the rear-view mirror, he clearly sees burnishing his legacy on the road ahead. And, perhaps, he simply believes in the Constitution.
Al Gore certainly has built a legacy that is so much more than being the candidate on the losing end of the 2000 presidential election decided by the state of Florida and a Supreme Court decision that is still argued over.
After Gore, as vice president, presided over the tallying of the electoral count that declared George W. Bush the new president, brushing off the objections of some allies, no one would have blamed him for going off the grid forever. But anyone who had listened to his eloquent speech of concession, urging the country to move forward, would have known that was not to be his last act.
Gore turned to his passion: climate change, the environment and the effects of global warming. The film “An Inconvenient Truth” turned his wonky slideshow into a riveting documentary that spread his ideas to millions and won two Academy Awards in the process. He was honored, along with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, with the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize “for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change."
That Nobel honor was also awarded to former President Jimmy Carter in 2002 for “for his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development.”
After a crushing landslide loss to the Ronald Reagan juggernaut in 1980, Carter returned to Georgia, but his global influence continued as he traveled the world to spread the gospel of democracy, monitor elections and play key roles in diplomatic negotiations.
The work of the Carter Center in Atlanta, founded to advance human rights and alleviate human suffering, is credited with important global health achievements, including assisting in the near elimination of Guinea worm disease, a painful and debilitating scourge that once plagued millions.
Remember how many folks wanted to dismiss another Georgian, Stacey Abrams, as a “loser” after her 2018 defeat for governor against Brian Kemp, an election he also conveniently oversaw as Georgia’s secretary of state? When Abrams dared say she was more than qualified to be picked as Biden’s running mate, many called her everything but “uppity” for daring to put her hat in the ring.
Nobody’s snickering now. We were reminded of how Abrams lives rent-free in Trump’s head when he used her name as a taunt in attempting to force Georgia officials to change the presidential results — by finding or tossing votes — in those infamous phone calls that may come back to legally haunt him.
After Abrams came some 55,000 votes shy of becoming the nation’s first Black female governor, she continued to organize and strategize, seeking to expand the franchise to all Georgians. She had already launched the New Georgia Project, now ably run by Nsé Ufot, after the Supreme Court gutted key provisions of the Voting Rights Act. After her defeat, she founded Fair Fight to counter voter suppression efforts and mobilize voter participation.
That involvement by Abrams and so many other grassroots organizers, many of them African American women, helped deliver the former Confederate state of Georgia to Biden and sent two Democratic senators to Washington.
Now other states and the Democratic Party want to clone her.
Turning a page
Like Carter and so many of the country’s leaders, Biden has relied on his faith to see him through unimaginable losses, both political and personal. Expect to hear quotes from Scriptures and hymns in the next four years.
Many in an exhausted and ailing country and around the world soaked in Biden’s declaration in his inauguration speech that “democracy has prevailed.” With the help of all Americans, the new president promised to write “the next great chapter” in the American story, one of “hope, not fear.”
Trump has set the bar for acceptable behavior so low he would not have to do much for people to give him a little bit of credit for helping write a new chapter, perhaps by joining others in that exclusive club of former presidents who find more in common when they are no longer rivals and can do so much good.
Though Trump has reportedly floated the idea of a third party, dragging QAnon cultists, dead-enders, white supremacists and others raging against America along with him, even he has to know — and his dispirited farewell gave a hint — that’s a losers’ game. Heck, even Mitch McConnell knows it.
But one glaring and important lesson, lived out in examples that are plain to see, would be the hardest for the Trump everybody knows to absorb — winning doesn’t always have to be about “you.”
Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.