The Night Donald Trump Became A Loser

Trump's campaign message, like his discount luxury brand, depends on a glittering sheen of success. How will the candidate — and his fans — cope with a bruising loss in Iowa?

WEST DES MOINES, Iowa — Shortly after CNN officially declared him a loser, Donald Trump lumbered onto a stage at the Sheraton hotel, peered out over the half-empty ballroom of spectators, and did his very best impression of a gracious runner-up.

"Thank you very much. I love you people. I love you people. Thank you. Unbelievable. I have to start by saying, I simply love the people of Iowa. Unbelievable."

He continued like this for several minutes, thanking his supporters, congratulating his opponents, and sounding nothing at all like the chest-thumping, trouble-making alpha male who has been a campaign sensation for months. When he finished his remarks, one reporter in the room, speaking on behalf of the nation's news media, concluded, "I don't like magnanimous Trump."

He wasn't alone.

Much like the loyal consumers who read Trump's books, and wear Trump cufflinks, and grill Trump-branded steaks on their barbecues, the voters who have gravitated toward the Trump campaign in 2016 are generally captivated by his self-styled image as a winner. This is why he can hardly utter three sentences in public without working in a reference to his superior poll numbers. It is why one of the most consistent applause lines in his stump speech is, "We need victories in this country. We don't have victories anymore."

Success is always a self-perpetuating force in presidential campaigns — hence the endless pundit chatter about "momentum" — but for Trump, it is closer to the central rationale of his candidacy. And on Monday night, when the glittering sheen of invincibility was abruptly removed, many of his fans inside the Sheraton ballroom were left puzzled and slightly disoriented.

“No one remembers who came in second.” - Walter Hagen

David Wehmas, from the nearby town of Ankeny, said he had been mesmerized by Trump ever since reading his 2007 book, Think Big and Kick Ass. Buying into the bluster about the billionaire's supremacy in the race, Wehmas had enthusiastically caucused for him Monday. But now, through the prism of Trump's surprise defeat, he viewed the candidate's incessant polling talk as somewhat pathetic and beside the point.

"Every time he gives a speech, he starts out talking about his polls. It's like, OK — but what else?" Wehmas said, adding that he won't be crushed if another candidate wins the nomination. "I actually like Jeb Bush. I do ancestry research, and I found out he's, like, a 10th cousin of mine."

Will Smith, a big rig driver from Missouri who wandered into the event after dropping off a load of lumber nearby, said he's a Trump supporter because the candidate "presents solutions and doesn't just bitch about problems. ... He gets stuff done."

Smith and his friend Daniel Prince both said they had expected Trump to win in Iowa — but given the outcome of the caucuses, they hoped he would take a practical businessman's approach to the race going forward, and refrain from damaging his GOP opponents.

"Trump isn't like other politicians in the past. He might want to win, but he's not gonna tear into another [Republican] if it will help Hillary Clinton," Smith predicted.

"It's all business," Prince chimed in. "It's all about just finding the best person for the job."

Of course, Trump has been fairly clear about his belief that he is the best person for the job. And while some of his selfie-snapping fans at the Sheraton might have left Monday night disenchanted by their candidate's sudden show of vulnerability, Trump will have plenty of chances to revive their awe in him. The latest polls show him with a wide lead in New Hampshire, a state that requires less grassroots organization to succeed.

The real question now facing the Republican candidates packing up and moving out to the Granite State this week isn't about how Trump's Iowa loss will affect his own candidacy — it's whether Trump the Loser will react by trying to burn their campaigns to the ground.

There is some precedent for this, after all. Last year, when Trump saw his vaunted lead in the polls evaporate with the rise of Ben Carson, it looked to many like he might be sliding off the rails. Bitterly indignant, Trump delivered a borderline-unhinged, 90-minute rant in which he called Iowans "stupid" for believing Carson, and compared his opponent's adolescent anger issues to the incurable pathologies of child molesters. (In perhaps the most cutting masterstroke of the Carson campaign, he responded to Trump lashing out by urging people to "pray for him.")

Trump eventually regained control of the race — and himself — after the attack in San Bernadino shifted the national discussion to terrorism, and gave him a new edge over Carson. But now Trump finds himself battling not just campaign rivals, but a label he has spent his entire life fiercely resisting, even as he hurls it at his most disdained enemies: loser. There's no telling how far he might go to win that fight.

Rallying supporters last week during his final sprint through Iowa, Trump said, "Unless I win, I would consider this a big, fat, beautiful — and, by the way, a very expensive — waste of time."

He added, "If I don't win, maybe bad things happen."

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