They laughed at him. They taunted him. They snubbed him and sneered at him. And then, in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, he won.
Taking the stage at the New York Hilton ballroom just before 3:00 a.m., President-elect Donald Trump squinted reverently out on a sea of suit coats and red caps, the very model of grace in victory. "For those who have chosen not to support me in the past, of which there were a few people," he said, "I'm reaching out to you for your guidance and your help, so that we can work together and unify our great country."
But the brief moment of magnanimity belied the more personal — and visceral — triumph Trump was celebrating that night: the ultimate humiliation of his haters.
Indeed, from the madcap launch of his improbable presidential bid to the mad-dash sprint in his final days, Trump's campaign was a vehicle powered by personal grievance — a score-settling crusade against the politicos who'd shunned him, the business rivals who'd dismissed him, and the media elite who'd mocked him. A Queens-born billionaire who had long burned with resentment for the Manhattanites who treated him like a nouveau-riche rube, Trump was able to marshall millions this year in his scorched-earth revenge march toward the White House. When it was over, the totality of his payback was undeniable: His doubters were disgraced, his loyalists were vindicated, and Trump himself had won access to the the most exclusive club in American history.
But what if all that isn't enough?
"The interesting psychodrama that I think rattles around inside Donald's head is that he ultimately despises the establishment, yet desperately wants to be courted and approved by it," said Trump biographer Timothy O'Brien. And no singular moment of validation — not even winning the presidency — will sate his bottomless need for retribution against critics and enemies.
"He's just that insecure," said O'Brien. "And that's never going to change."
From the very beginning of Trump's campaign, the stated strategy was to win over aggrieved voters by railing against the key institutions of American life. In a series of early internal memos obtained by BuzzFeed News, the rationale for Trump's candidacy was laid out in blunt terms: "The voters are in an angry mood and they completely distrust politicians, congress, the media, and other institutions." Trump was viewed as "incorruptible because of his personal wealth," and therefore the only candidate willing to "take on the entire system."
"It is very important that Trump continue to say that the system is broken, that the system is rigged against the citizens," an adviser wrote in one 2015 memo. In another, an aide succinctly summed up Trump's message as "us vs. them."
In a quaint bit of early advice for the trash-talking candidate, a consultant suggested in a memo, "Instead of attacking any individual opponent, I recommend that you attack them as a class — 'career politicians.'" Instead, of course, Trump spent the next year lashing out at his rivals by name, often in the most bitterly personal and incendiary terms possible.
When Sen. Lindsey Graham called him a "jackass," for example, Trump responded by reading out the senator's personal cell phone number at a campaign rally. When Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren needled him on Twitter, Trump took to calling her "Pocahontas" — a reference to her family's claim of Native American ancestry — and egged on his gleeful crowds as they responded with insulting war chants. The opponents that most got under Trump's skin were branded with taunting nicknames: "Low-energy Jeb" Bush, "Liddle Marco" Rubio, "Lyin' Ted" Cruz, "Crazy Megyn" Kelly.
Shortly after entering the race, Trump faced a firestorm of criticism after attacking Sen. John McCain's record as a prisoner of war. "He's not a war hero," Trump said. "He's a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren't captured." Pundits pounced, Republicans piled on, and Trump refused to apologize. But even as he oozed pure bravado on the campaign trail, he privately obsessed over how the dig was playing with the insiders on cable news. According to Sam Nunberg, a former Trump adviser who was later fired, the candidate called him one day in the predawn hours, fretting about whether he should make amends with McCain. Trump had woken early to watch TV coverage of the controversy, and was increasingly anxious about the dire pundit chatter. Nunberg advised him to stay defiant — and when the dust had settled, Trump's supporters remained.
It was a pattern that persisted throughout the election, as Trump channeled his own strange form of status anxiety and class warfare into a world-stunning political movement. The enemies he compulsively railed against — from politicians, to journalists, to financial titans — were the same people that Trump's base felt most victimized by. As long as he kept his sights trained on those targets, even the most petty insults flung from the stump became boons to candidacy.
Of course, Trump wasn't always so calculating in the way he meted out retribution. He liked to say that he was a "counterpuncher" — that he only lashed out when he was attacked. But he seemed to make no distinction between a primary opponent on a debate stage and a private citizen who opposed his candidacy. When a Muslim Gold Star Family spoke out at the Democratic National Convention against Trump's treatment of their faith, he spent days feuding with them. And when a former Miss Universe contestant appeared in a Clinton ad chronicling Trump's demeaning treatment of her, he responded by doubling down on his complaints about her weight. There was no political calculus driving these episodes — in both cases, they sent his poll numbers spiraling — but Trump felt he had been treated unfairly, and he couldn't help but hit back.
In the end, Trump's most satisfying victory might be his humiliation of a media establishment that thoroughly underestimated him at every turn. While Republicans have complained of press bias for decades, Trump treated journalists like enemy insurgents to be distrusted and destroyed. At his rallies, he kept reporters confined to gated pens in the back, and led his crowds in a ritual booing of the "dishonest media." Often, he arrived at the podium infuriated by a cable news segment he had just watched on his plane, and kicked off his remarks with barbed criticism of the coverage.
Some in the political media responded to these attacks with a certain measure of glee. When the conservative National Review published a special issue titled "Against Trump" shortly before the Iowa caucuses, the candidate spent a week assailing the magazine from the stump as a "failing publication that has lots its way." Editor Rich Lowry was said Trump's eruption came as no surprise. "He does this thing with people where he'll attack you really harshly and say you're stupid or a loser, and then if you say anything favorable about him, he'll praise you to the hilt." Lowry recalled sitting in his living room one night shortly after the issue came out, excitedly monitoring coverage of the fallout on Twitter and TV. "Like any journalist, when you target someone and he or she takes real umbrage, you're happy."
Of course, it was Trump who ultimately got the last laugh, and the day after the election, the National Review — the self-proclaimed guardian of the conservative movement — was forced to run an editorial congratulating a politically promiscuous president-elect with authoritarian flirtations. "We hope he now proves us doubters wrong," the editors wrote.
While the tone of Trump's victory speech was conciliatory, the mood at his election night party was decidedly not. VIP supporters in suits and high heels broke out in chants of "LOCK HER UP!" as they watched the returns come in on Fox News. High-level surrogates who had spent the past year being ridiculed for their support of Trump — from Rudy Giuliani to Jerry Falwell Jr. — roamed the electric ballroom holding boastful, told-you-so press gaggles. Minutes before the candidate took the stage, Sean Spicer, the chief strategist for the Republican National Committee and one of Trump's most rabid defenders, approached me and demand that my colleagues and I "eat crow."
Their inclination to gloat was, perhaps, understandable. But within 24 hours — as tens of thousand of anti-Trump protesters began pouring into city streets across a raggedly divided country — a more urgent question came to the surface: How will the president-elect respond?
On Thursday night, he answered with a tweet: "Just had a very open and successful presidential election. Now professional protesters, incited by the media, are protesting. Very unfair!"