Donald Trump experienced a great loss on Monday in Iowa. After months of talk about his plan to win—to enter a future in which there would be "so much winning" that we may get "bored with winning"—Trump was bested by his chief rival in the Republican field, Ted Cruz.
Accepting loss is a process, a journey.
“The reality is that you will grieve forever," writes Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in "On Grief and Grieving," a followup to her seminal work, "On Death and Dying." "You will not ‘get over’ the loss … you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again but you will never be the same."
Kübler-Ross' work offers a framework for learning to live with loss, which she calls the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These phases may overlap. People may cycle in and out of them or not experience them at all.
In order to contextualize Trump's process, we turned to Kübler-Ross and her "On Grief and Grieving" co-writer David Kessler, who elaborated on the stages of grief upon the release of their book.
Here we use Kessler's own reflections on that process to guide Trump back to the light.
"Acceptance is often confused with the notion of being 'all right' or 'OK' with what has happened," Kessler writes. "This is not the case. … This stage is about accepting … that this new reality is the permanent reality."
Trump's concession speech in Iowa, an uncharacteristically gracious moment in the campaign, suggests that Trump started to grieve his loss with a degree of acceptance:
I was told by everybody, ‘Do not go to Iowa. You couldn't finish even in the Top 10.’ I said, ‘But I have friends in Iowa; I know a lot of people in Iowa; I think they'll really like me. Let’s give it a shot.’ They said, 'Don't do it. I said, 'I have to do it.' And we finished second, and I want to tell you something: I'm just honored. I'm really honored. …
I want to congratulate Ted, and I want to congratulate all the incredible candidates, including Mike Huckabee, who's become a really good friend of mine. … Congratulations to everybody. Congratulations. I want to thank all of the folks that worked with us. We had a great team, and we will continue to have a great team, and we’re just so happy with the way everything worked out.
Alas, that acceptance was fleeting. From there, Trump began to dwell on what he could have done differently in Iowa. In other words, he started bargaining. "After a loss, bargaining may take the form of a temporary truce," according to Kessler. "We become lost in a maze of “If only … ” or “What if … ” statements."
“I think we could have used a better ground game, a term I wasn’t even familiar with,” Trump said on MSNBC Wednesday morning. “You know, when you hear ‘ground game,’ you say what the hell is that? Now I’m familiar with it. But, you know, I think in retrospect we should have had a better ground game. I would have funded a better ground game, but people told me our ground game was fine. And by most standards it was.”
Anger and denial
During a Wednesday morning tweet storm, Trump entered into anger.
Taken as a full statement, it read (sic, natch):
Ted Cruz didn't win Iowa, he stole it. That is why all of the polls were so wrong and why he got far more votes than anticipated. Bad! During primetime of the Iowa Caucus, Cruz put out a release that @RealBenCarson was quitting the race, and to caucus (or vote) for Cruz. Many people voted for Cruz over Carson because of this Cruz fraud. Also, Cruz sent out a VOTER VIOLATION certificate to thousands of voters. The Voter Violation certificate gave poor marks to the unsuspecting voter(grade of F) and told them to clear it up by voting for Cruz. Fraud.
And finally, Cruz strongly told thousands of caucusgoers (voters) that Trump was strongly in favor of ObamaCare and "choice - a total lie! Based on the fraud committed by Senator Ted Cruz during the Iowa Caucus, either a new election should take place or Cruz results nullified.
"Anger is strength and it can be an anchor, giving temporary structure to the nothingness of loss," Kessler says of this phase. "The anger becomes a bridge over the open sea, a connection from you to them. It is something to hold onto; and a connection made from the strength of anger feels better than nothing."
Trump, adrift in despair of this loss, grasped for meaning. He was angry at the void inside of him, but because that void merely stared back, he directed his anger at Cruz and the caucus process.
Trump's denial can be seen through his anger: "In this stage, the world becomes meaningless and overwhelming," Kessler writes. "Life makes no sense. We are in a state of shock and denial." The caucus process, in order to make sense, should have resulted in Trump winning. His loss, then, is a draining of meaning. He's left grasping for steady ground—an alternate reality in which he "wins" again.
As for Trump's denial—in this case, over the legitimacy of the outcome in Iowa—Kessler's writings suggest this, too, is an opportunity for redemption. "There is a grace in denial," according to Kessler. "It is nature’s way of letting in only as much as we can handle."
During the depressive phase, Kessler explains, "our attention moves squarely into the present. Empty feelings present themselves, and grief enters our lives on a deeper level, deeper than we ever imagined."
Trump's deepest self may, in fact, be in a state of depression, but he is not wearing that face publicly. Instead, we see the same bravado, the same bluster, as before.
But perhaps the veil slipped, if only for a moment, when last week Trump speculated about a loss in Iowa.
“Unless I win, I would consider this a big, fat, beautiful—and, by the way, a very expensive—waste of time,” Trump said. “If I don’t win, maybe bad things happen.”
Words like "good" and "bad" have no place in the grieving process. Grief just is. If Donald Trump expected "bad things" might happen if he lost in Iowa, then perhaps he owes it to himself to feel the full force of those "bad things." After all, when it comes to healing yourself after a terrible loss, there's no way out but through.