Donald Trump has routinely declared his presidency the most amazing in U.S. history. And now, having at last found the limit of malpractice that could be endured — and with his multiplying enemies seemingly determined to help Trump exit with a bang and not a whimper — he seems certain to surpass all his estimable predecessors in at least one way.
Trump will undoubtedly go down, way down, as the sorest political loser in the long and storied history of American sore losers.
This is no small distinction. Nearly a century ago, in 1926, famed bare-fisted Baltimore Sun columnist H.L. Mencken noted that the long-suffering subjects of monarchies and despotisms have always enjoyed one advantage over citizens of democracies.
"Unsuccessful aspirants" for the thrones of empires, Mencken wrote, are typically beheaded or at least "exiled to Paris." But American political competition, he lamented, "fills the land with disappointed and embittered [office seekers] savagely gnawing their fingernails." Defeated presidential hopefuls and ousted incumbents go on to spend years, even decades, "exhibiting their ghastly wounds and bellowing for justice."
These days, America seems to need regular reminders that little is entirely new in its current political miseries and malfunctions. The "public nuisance" produced by political "soreheads" was severe enough 96 years ago that Mencken made a modest proposal:
"Let us have a Constitutional amendment providing that every unsuccessful aspirant for the Presidency, on the day his triumphant rival is inaugurated, shall be hauled to the top of the Washington Monument and there shot, poisoned, stabbed, strangled and dissembowled and his carcass thrown into the Potomac."
Nobody listened — fortunately (I guess).
The history of American also-rans began early, and hopefully. John Adams, America's second president, became the first to be defeated in a re-election bid. But he got over his bitterness and rekindled his friendship with Thomas Jefferson, who had ousted Adams, which yielded a brilliant correspondence that continued for decades.
But the other man Jefferson defeated in 1800 — Aaron Burr — was a different sort. An early constitutional glitch had allowed the conniving Burr, Jefferson's running mate, to try to snatch away the presidency itself. He failed, became vice president, and was dropped from the ticket four years later as he descended into vengeful chaos.
Burr shot and killed Broadway's favorite Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton, in an 1804 duel (ending one talented sorehead's career with a bang, it must be admitted), then led a shadowy paramilitary expedition that inspired Jefferson to have Burr tried (unsuccessfully) for treason.
Trump, it's said (often fretfully) may be plotting an effort to reclaim the White House in a 2024 comeback. That kind of return in triumph happened once, in 1892, when former President Grover Cleveland turned the table on incumbent Benjamin Harrison, who had ousted Cleveland in 1888.
A good many other presidents (from Ronald Reagan to, well, Joe Biden) won the White House after painfully coming up short in earlier attempts.
One of them was Andrew Jackson, a pugnacious populist and something of a hotheaded role model for Trump. Jackson never forgave a "corrupt bargain" he believed had stolen his victory against John Quincy Adams in 1824 and he ousted his rival four years later after an exceptionally vicious rematch featuring charges that Jackson was a murderer and Adams a pimp.
Two more of Jackson's innumerable enemies — Henry Clay, famed for crafting compromises of the slavery dispute, and John C. Calhoun, famed for inflaming that dispute — were both frustrated more than once in seeking the White House. On leaving the presidency, Jackson said his own biggest frustration was having been unable to hang either one of them.
Contrary to some impressions given since Nov. 3, Trump has had plenty of company as a sitting U.S. president ousted in a re-election bid. In 33 elections in which an incumbent chief executive sought an additional term, voters said no 11 times — fully one-third of the occasions. They said no to Jackson's political heir, Martin Van Buren, who went on to twice attempt comebacks as a third-party candidate.
The late 19th and early 20th centuries brought perhaps the golden age of the sorehead. Besides Cleveland's grudge match, there was James G. Blaine — the "continental liar from the state of Maine" — who was a fixture in Congress and on the presidential campaign trail for 30 years, running three times.
There was Theodore Roosevelt, a great president in many ways who came to regret a term limit he imposed on himself, then sabotaged the GOP with a third-party rebellion in a futile comeback attempt, and spent his final years in "reckless bellowing," Mencken wrote, as "the most violent of the war hawks" before World War I.
And there was William Jennings Bryan, another three-time loser whose diverse moralizing crusades led him to promote Prohibition, to resign in protest as secretary of state over American entry into World War I and to prosecute the famous Tennessee "Monkey Trial" to outlaw the teaching of evolution.
Bryan became "a walking boil" in Mencken's view, "willing to slaughter civilization itself … to get a poultice for his wounds."
In more modern times, before Trump, the most inflamed political sorehead also pulled off the most impressive political comeback. After losing the 1960 presidential race to John Kennedy, and a 1962 run for California governor, Richard Nixon promised that his foes "wouldn't have Nixon to kick around anymore." But he broke that promise, winning the White House at last in 1968 only to resign in disgrace six years later over the Watergate scandal, largely fueled by his unending political resentments and paranoia.
Yet with Nixon as a significant exception, the modern era had for decades tended to produce an improved caliber of presidential loser: beaten politicians from both parties who departed quietly, with a measure of dignity and often went on to perform valuable service.
One thinks of Adlai Stevenson, Barry Goldwater, Minnesota's own Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, John McCain and George H.W. Bush, among others.
Twice beaten Hillary Clinton has sounded some sour notes, but she served the Obama administration loyally after her first defeat in 2008, and honorably accepted her second loss in 2016.
At all events, Trump, even before leaving office, has a set a new historic standard for damaging malice. His future role in American public life seems unlikely to be constructive.
One imagines some of this is being contemplated by Republicans in the U.S. Senate. Even as they lose their majority control, GOP senators will soon be curiously empowered to limit Trump's political future.
He'll be removed from office without their help, but if enough Republicans were to join Democrats in convicting Trump in his strange, upcoming, post-presidency impeachment trial, he could, with an additional vote, be barred from seeking election again.
Mencken's "proposal" was not serious. But the question he raised remains:
"Is there no way of escape," he asked, from political sore losers' "grotesque and indecent wars of revenge"?
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.