US President Donald Trump and I share an odious attribute.
Late last year we were both flung from office by our respective electorates on virtually the same day. He lost the position of global omnipotence that is the US presidenvy. I lost the position of global irrelevance that is a local councillor at the City of Port Phillip. We were cocks of the walk but are now feather dusters.
Since his loss, Trump has behaved disgracefully, undermining his country’s democracy. What does the role of our losses play in our vocational afterlife? Does the magnitude of pain experienced by Trump’s electoral loss play any role in his awful, antidemocratic conduct?
In his public narrative Trump uses the loss/success dichotomy a lot. He has celebrated his own success, even when his business success was dependent on his daddy’s deep pockets to shield him from his many bankruptcies. On the other hand, one of his potent accusations is to label someone a “loser”. Mitt Romney, John McCain, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and, most disgracefully, American soldiers who died overseas in battle have all
earned this damning indictment. Now he and I are losers too.
I was a councillor and four-time mayor of the City of Port Phillip. This is the second time I have lost an election and so I am unfortunately conversant with the anguish of loss and the way it can mess with your head.
The first time, in 2008, I was killed off after a brutal campaign. A partisan film was made about how dreadful a decision of mine was. I was seriously damaged and my behaviour was affected accordingly.
I see echoes of Trump in myself 2008 self. I was bitter and surprised when I should have known what was inevitable. I was psychologically adrift, although not as unmoored as Trump appears to be. I took months to gather myself.
With this loss, I am more resilient and so can opine with some objectivity about the extent to which Trump’s appalling behaviour may be explained partially at least by the torment and ignominy of electoral loss.
Let’s look at some of the evidence.
The first time I lost, I was contacted by a friend who had been a minister in the Queensland government. Her ministry had been touched by a drinking scandal and even her cabinet position couldn’t save her seat at the next election. She was unceremoniously dumped.
After my demise she took me to lunch. She warned me that life would change irretrievably. Her example was her phone. It went as silent as a grave. Utterly unused to a phone not constantly ringing she assumed it was broken and rang the service provider to complain.
The phone was fine but she wasn’t. She left the state and returned to Victoria.
An officer with the parliamentary library has spoken to me of the invisible problem of parliamentarians after they lose their seats. They struggle with maintaining their mental health for at least six months. You see them haunting the parliamentary dining room years after their demise.
Former foreign affairs minister Gareth Evans coined the phrase “relevance deprivation syndrome” about being in opposition but it is now taken to refer also to electoral loss. It is much more than that for some. It amounts to the annihilation of the self. One’s identity is destroyed leading to anomie, pain and denial.
Trump’s extreme behaviour is not only pertinent to the conduct of short-term global political matters but also affects the man’s legacy.
For those with ambition, legacy is important, and dealing with loss is fundamental to how that legacy is viewed. There have been great concession speeches that paradoxically enhance legacy at a time when a career is ended or at least wounded.
There is an irony that politicians who have failed to cut through with the community do so with a dignified departure. John McCain in the US gave a brilliant concession as did Bill Shorten recently in Australia. Their legacy grew in stature as a result. Trump’s legacy is teetering on being ridiculous, demonic and treacherous.
It might seem ludicrous to compare the most powerful office in the world with my scarcely noticed non-election in the third tier of government in a small corner of a different hemisphere at the other end of the world.
But the Donald and I share one big attribute: we both lost something that gave us meaning. Our failures will have ramifications for us. He appeared so scared of loss that he prepared the ground by claiming electoral fraud months in advance of the election, damning his own democracy without compunction.
My view, for what it’s worth, is that Trump’s dangerous hijinks should be viewed through the prism of his loss. I don’t urge compassion but castigation. He is undermining the peaceful transition of power, the cornerstone of democracy. His pain is palpable and should be understood so we get a more rounded understanding of what is happening to this dangerously wounded bull.
Dick Gross AM was a councillor at Port Phillip for 17 years, four times mayor and former president of the Municipal Association of Victoria. He now lectures in climate change at the University of Melbourne and co-hosts The Accidental Writer on Studio E.