For as long as there have been people, there have been losers
How to lose well? It is a question that has taxed humans since time immemorial, from the Ancients over 2,000 years ago to those involved in today’s unedifying brouhaha in Washington.
For most of the world’s history, contests for political power have tended to be a zero-sum game, frequently fatal for the loser. Victory for one protagonist has generally required the defeat of another. And while victories – whether on a football field, battlefield or by the ballot box – are synonymous with glory, defeats are mostly ignoble affairs.
The first-century Greek philosopher Plutarch tells us how steely Spartan mothers used to wave their sons off to battle with the ominous warning: “Come back with your shield, or on it,” meaning victory or death. Living as a loser wasn’t so much dishonourable as completely unthinkable.
Losing may be distasteful, in politics as in other walks of life, but it is an important force for stability. Acknowledging and coming to terms with loss enables an entire country, as well as the loser, to move on. It is difficult to have a stable transition when a losing candidate for office refuses to accept defeat.
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US President Donald Trump does not have to look too far back to find a spirit-lifting example of how a one-term president, having been humiliatingly fired by the American public, grew greater in defeat. On January 20, 1993, President George HW Bush sat down in the White House to write a letter to Bill Clinton, the man who had just wiped the floor with him in the presidential election. It was a model of decency and grace.
“I wish you great happiness here,” Mr Bush wrote. “You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well. Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you. Good luck — George.” Does anyone think Mr Trump will be able to write something similar to President-elect Biden?
On the other side of the Atlantic, British Prime Minister John Major was trounced by Tony Blair in the 1997 election. He knew his time was up and took it on the chin. “When the curtain falls, it’s time to leave the stage,” he said.
In the Middle East and North Africa, leaders have not always spotted the curtain falling in time. Both Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya paid for this failure with their lives. Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali got out in the nick of time. In Syria, President Bashar Al Assad remains in power but it is a blood-soaked, pyrrhic victory, achieved only through the immiseration and defeat of the entire country.
If war is politics by other means, as the Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz taught us, then 21st-century western politicians should be grateful that these days, politics is non-lethal war by other means. It wasn’t always this painless. In 1649, the English king Charles I, a ruler who revelled in the divine right of kings, was tried and executed by Parliament. Appalled by this revolutionary reversal of the natural order, his final speech on the scaffold was nevertheless a model of composure and grace in defeat.
“I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible Crown; where no disturbance can be, no disturbance in the World,” he said before the axe fell. Sic transit gloria mundi, the account of his execution ended. Thus passes worldly glory.
American politics may be a bruising business but at least it’s not a matter of life and death. President Trump – he keeps the title for life, remember – can certainly take some solace from Thucydides. As the Greek historian wrote almost 2,500 years ago in his History of the Peloponnesian War: “In a democracy, someone who fails to get elected to office can always console himself with the thought that there was something not quite fair about it”. Acceptance is a necessary first step towards this consolation.
In order to lose well, it is equally important to master one’s ego and not be controlled by it. In the epic Roman poem Pharsalia, the poet Lucan explained the civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great from 49-45BC partly as an excess of unchecked male ego. Neither man could back down. “Caesar [could not] tolerate a superior, nor Pompey an equal.” The republic paid dearly with the resulting chaos and instability. Suetonius made a similar point in his Life of Caesar, which is again relevant to Mr Trump’s white-knuckled hold on power. Caesar, considering that “it would be more difficult to force him from first place to second than from second to last, resisted with all his power”.
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Losing and failure are hardly unique to political life. The business world also offers some enlightening lessons in how to deal with them. Failure here tends to be regarded as an indispensable step on the path to success. It famously took Thomas Edison 1,000 attempts to invent his prototype light bulb. Asked by a reporter how he felt about failing 1,000 times, Edison shot back: “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.” Over in Silicon Valley, failure and bankruptcy are rightly seen as essential components of the Darwinian life cycle for business, spurring innovation, rebuilding and success.
Losing really shouldn’t be too difficult to deal with. It’s part of everyday life and most of us are taught from an early age to get used to it. If we don’t always lose gracefully, we know that we should. Before they step out onto the world’s most famous tennis court, the greatest players on earth are reminded of the need to behave properly and rise to the occasion, whatever the result. Inscribed above the entrance to Wimbledon’s Centre Court are words from Rudyard Kipling’s poem If: “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two imposters just the same…”
Losing really shouldn’t be too difficult to deal with. It’s part of everyday life and most of us are taught from an early age to get used to it
No one has done this better in recent years than perennial champion Roger Federer, who last year lost to Novak Djokovic in five sets in perhaps the greatest Wimbledon final of all time. Federer is a greater champion not just for his winning record but for his magnanimity in defeat. As the Novak Djokovic Foundation reminds us: “The feeling of losing and moving on are particular skills children need to develop in order to deal with negative experiences in life when they become older.”
Mr Trump’s favourite insult is to call someone a loser. “I hate to lose, and if anybody gets used to losing they are going to be a loser… I still hate to lose. And that will never change.” The simple truth is that Trump is now a loser. In the two months that remain of his one-term presidency, however, he still has time to salvage some good, for his own legacy, for the Republican Party and, more importantly, for the US. He now needs to learn the art of the fail.
The president once said: “Sometimes by losing a battle you find a new way to win the war.” To adapt a line from German officers to British paratroopers taken prisoner at the Battle of Arnhem in 1944: For you, Mr Trump, the war is over. It is time to accept it.
Justin Marozzi is the author of Islamic Empires: Fifteen Cities that Define a Civilization, published in paperback on 6 August.
Updated: November 16, 2020 11:13 AM