Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto.
Who among us has not felt the inclination, when things are bad, to blame it on “a global power structure,” a conspiratorial league of omnipotent elitists, including Alec Baldwin? Usually, we then wake up and realize that the truth is less wild and a lot more boring: We are just losing at something.
Donald Trump has made it clear for some time that he cannot lose next month’s U.S. presidential election. As his campaign increasingly resembles a flaming airplane crash, his protests that the game is rigged get louder and more desperate. “He either denies that he failed or he argues that he was cheated,” Ryan Lizza wrote recently in The New Yorker. “Trump is either victorious or victimized, but never a loser.”
In the same magazine, satirist Andy Borowitz offered an imaginary news item with this headline: “Trump Warns Hillary May Rig Election by Getting More Votes.”
This isn’t a mere psychological quirk, it is a fundamental ethical defect that sets a bad example for children and idiots everywhere. The consequences for politics are significant: Mr. Trump’s comments and actions have already undermined the Republican Party, the integrity of the U.S. electoral process and the idea of democracy. His promise to jail Hillary Clinton if he wins has made even staunch conservatives compare him to a raving tinpot tyrant of a banana republic.
Worse, though, his attitude mocks the idea of human endeavour itself. “You can’t win if you don’t play,” the lottery ads say. You also can’t lose. The essence of engagement is that both possibilities must be live ones. Otherwise there are no stakes and no legitimate outcomes. It means nothing to win if you did not at the same time, and by the same logic, risk losing.
The reason people love sports is precisely that winners and losers will be made undeniably clear. The Toronto Blue Jays’ Jose Bautista can legitimately beef about an umpire’s brutal call, but he can’t – and wouldn’t – dispute the result of the entire game on that basis. Sports teach us how to be losers under controlled, meaningless conditions. You can’t claim you didn’t lose if you did.
In fact, baseball is a game so fraught with failure that it becomes a graceful, stop-action essay in the concept. An outstanding hitter fails six times out of 10. Errors in the field are recorded forever. You can pitch 12 perfect innings and still lose: Witness the strange case of Harvey Haddix; or recall Armando Galarraga’s heartbreaking 2010 near-perfect game, where umpire Jim Joyce admitted he blew the crucial basehit call in the ninth. The Blue Jays, struggling at the plate as they battled for the American League crown, were leaving men on base almost every inning, failing to score. Such difficulties result from artificial, game-made constraints; when we leave the park, the lessons stay with us.
Being a loser doesn’t mean being a good loser, that coded insult for someone who doesn’t try hard enough. But neither does it mean being a sore loser, which is a condition just a few steps away from Trump Towers. Hate losing, avoid cycles of self-defeat, but accept loss as the price of being in the game.
Mr. Trump arouses appalled fascination because he is the pure creepy-clown avatar, the ultimate example of world-swallowing competitive attitude. In a bizarro twist, he has no concept of zero, like an ancient Greek mathematician. The resulting two-step paradox goes something like this: Everything, no matter how nuanced or complex in fact, must be reduced to a winner-take-all contest; and just as I never apologize, I never lose.
If the latter trait destroys the idea of honest effort, the former impoverishes life. Baseball again: We enter the field of play accepting that the game is zero-sum, and we will be here – or the players will – until the matter is decided, no matter how long it takes or how many innings. A player can turn a year older during a single game (as happened to Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira last year). Winners, and losers.
But comprehensive zero-sum thinking makes us all less virtuous and more unhappy. Being a loser offers another deep moral lesson: All games matter, but not everything that matters is a game.
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