The American Cult of "Winning" Is a National Disease

Politics Features Donald Trump
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The American Cult of "Winning" Is a National Disease

Trump talks constantly about winners, and Hillary is giving student debt forgiveness to entrepreneurs. They believe in this special class, inherent winners, but these people don’t exist. This notion is dangerous to our society. Winning is great, but nobody’s born a winner or a loser. Winning, like losing, is something you do, not something you are. By focusing on winners, our contenders reveal a societal problem we shouldn’t overlook. We don’t understand very well what winning and losing are, and focusing on the wrong end of the game — winning — would, ironically, be our biggest loss.


Back in June, Hillary put forward a plan that, to use the words of The Guardian’s Wong and Yadron, “would treat entrepreneurs and startup workers more favorably than other student debtors.” They write:

In a move aimed at “breaking down barriers and leveling the playing field for entrepreneurs and innovators who are launching their own startups”, Clinton proposed allowing startup founders to defer student debt payment for up to three years. The deferrals would also be available to a new company’s first 10 to 20 employees.

Ben Norton wrote in Salon, “Entrepreneurs employ people; business owners have people who work under them. Clinton’s policy will help ease the student loans of these workers’ bosses, while employees are crushed under the enormous weight of their student debt.”

This is awkward enough. Now consider the Orangeman’s thirsty fixation on the quality of victory. Separating the following lines from their larger context within Trump’s speeches has, I hope, not robbed them of their poetry and majesty:

“My life has been about winning. My life has not been about losing.”

“We’re gonna win, win, win and we’re not stopping.”

“We will have so much winning if I get elected that you may get bored with winning.”

“The Post doesn’t get that I’m good at winning.”

“What separates the winners from the losers is how a person reacts to each new twist of fate.”

Such is the view in Winner World. In Winner World, people are born winners, and this doesn’t change. It’s a highly comforting narrative, and it’s usually a tale told by well-fed folks on the top of the pile, since it justifies the order of the world: from the oyster to the Emperor, everything is arranged just as it should be. If you are King of the Mountain, it is pleasant to think the peak was constructed from the top on down, just to give your feet somewhere to rest.

In the old days, we had more explicit ways of detailing this racket: we labeled it the Great Chain of Being, spoke in term of God’s favor, of worm-eaten mythologies that told us who mattered and why they would always matter. Like artistic inclination, bankruptcy, or treason, this was all thought to be in the blood.

Time passed, and this claim was debunked. Some of the debunking was done by revolution; I suspect a large portion was achieved by the obvious and tragic facts of aristocratic inbreeding. Nevertheless, the scales dropped from our ancestors’ eyes and lies of this kind no longer worked as the coin of the rationalizing realm.

The successful soon migrated on to other arguments. This all happened very slowly, of course. The Slavemaster of Monticello, when not engaging in his own astounding mental gymnastics to fortify his delusion that he owned living human beings, summarized the case nicely:

... all eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view. the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of god.

Needless to say, the “palpable truth” was not so obvious to everyone, including Jefferson himself. When science rose up in the popular imagination, then so did insipid arguments based on the superiority of certain genders and ethnicities. Some of these assertions used bastardized versions of poor decent Darwin’s complicated science to justify oppression.

To this day, we still believe in saddles. We implicitly acknowledge this when we discuss that some people only deserve vocational training, or when we tell ourselves certain criminals should never have the right to vote, or when we take Andrew “Bell Curve” Sullivan seriously. Our culture is full of these terms: Rich Dad, Poor Dad, alphas and betas, cucks and gorilla mindset.

For example, when journalists discovered Jonah Lehrer was a fabricator of the first order, the unspoken shocker was that someone so favored by the people that matter should be found to be a fraud. The system has a thousand devices to justify its continued existence, but the conclusion is forever the same: some of us are born to sweet delight, and some are born to endless night, as the poet said.

Of course, it’s a lie.


Nothing is clearer then the fact there is winning and losing in the world, and these events happen to people. Nobody denies this.

But what is indefensible is the belief that these properties are somehow stamped into human identity. In other words, the argument that there are people who win, period, and people who lose, period, and that you cannot turn one to the other, or that they inhere beyond any attempt to mitigate or erase the stain. Nonsense. But it is this unspoken assumption that undergirds our candidates’ ideas, and many economic and social notions.

If we consider it even for a moment, the “some people are winners, some people are losers” proposition makes no sense. Our culture opposes it: our stories are full of powerful men and women who are characterized by moments of immense loss. Krypton, the Wayne Family, the Stark Family, and Uncle Ben are lost. Wonder Woman leaves Paradise Island, Ilsa departs on her plane, Rosebud burns. Odysseus is lost at sea and glorious, man-killing Achilles falls before Troy.

Our religions oppose it. The conservative Christian journal First Things declares “Christianity is a religion of losers.” The entire faith is built around one horrifying moment of loss. Chapter 78 of the Tao te Ching states “Nothing in the world is as soft and yielding as water, yet nothing can better overcome the hard and strong, for they can neither control nor do away with it.” The Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible, is full of stories of losing. Psalm 34:19 says “Adonai is close to the brokenhearted, and helps those crushed in spirit.” The longest chapter of the Koran counsels believers to “Give good tidings to the patient, who, when disaster strikes them, say, ‘Indeed we belong to Allah, and indeed to Him we will return.’”

The idea of winning and losing as being states of being, instead of results, may explain our complicated and contradictory ways of judging human competency. It also explains the paradoxical nature of high status: to be worth climbing, a hill must be tall. The elite wish to think of themselves as strong, and so therefore the hill must be difficult. But they also want to think of themselves as enjoying just returns, so the hill must be within the scope of normal human ambition. For a fortune or a prize to be worthwhile, it must be beyond your fellow man’s reach, but close enough for him try a grasp. Otherwise what’s the whole point of lording it over others? Who among us, besides me, even dreams of being the greatest emperor of Ancient Rome? On the other hand, who of us doesn’t aspire to being in Kendrick Lamar’s squad? One is far more glorious and impossible, the other one is fun, unlikely, but doable. And so it goes with many of our goals.

How wonderful that would be, to be a Born Winner! Yet who are currently the winningest man and woman on the planet? Merman Mike Phelps, who until his retirement was cursed to guzzle Jabba-sized portions and dwell in the basement of forever practice, bong rips, and thousand-yard stares? That guy? Perhaps it’s the raw hosepipe of swim power, Katie Ledecky? She’s a socially awkward teen who, if she found out the guys on 4chan were writing weird fan fiction about her, would probably ask her friends at camp to stone her to death with DVDs of Swimfan. Bolt? The man lamented just the other day about how slow he felt; he thought he could have been faster if someone had gotten in front of him during the race.

These people are Olympians, which means they have led lives of constraint which would drive most people to distraction. That’s the price of repeated Olympic victory. These athletes have dominated in their sports. By the narrow notions of winning, they have gold. But are they the inherent in-the-bone-marrow-winners of Trumpian rhetoric? The best competitors do not live large in the Donald’s fashion — their lives are almost monastic in their regularity and focus.

Is this the standard for being a winner? Aren’t winners supposed to be able to do whatever they want, when they want? Isn’t that what common wisdom tells us winners are like? Moreover, what happens when they become regular people? Are they still winners then? What about when they age, or when their records are inevitably surpassed? Do they then become losers? How does that work?

What about America as a whole? The Washington Post reported that Team USA nabbed first place in Rio by “an overwhelming margin, netting 121 medals by the end of Day 17. The final U.S. haul includes 46 gold, 37 silver and 38 bronze.”

America attained its thousandth medal in Rio, and “Dominance of the medal table has come to be expected of Team USA — which has led the overall standings in every Olympics since Seoul 1988.” If any human beings on the planet are winners — the raw, primal, embodiment of victory, untainted by riggable standings of social status, wealth, fashion or history — it is the American Olympians, the most dominant team of the wealthiest and most powerful nation upon which the sun has ever shown. Yet Mother Jones tells us that:

“There’s a reason why so many American athletes turn to sites like GoFundMe for financial help: Unlike other countries, the United States doesn’t provide government funding to its Olympic committee.”

Some members of the IOC are actually paid more to sit and watch; they receive far more in the way of remuneration or goods at all than any of the actual contenders:

“The athletes are the very bottom of a trickle-down system, and there’s just not much left for us,” US javelin thrower Cyrus Hostetler told the Post. “They take care of themselves first, and us last.”

Most of the Olympians lose, and even of those that win, the great majority of them go back to jobs where they don’t make very much money. Part of the problem with the notion of Winner World is that winners always have to be winners. But what do you do when Nancy Kerrigan turns out to have been a mom since the days of Lillehammer?


This holds for our national history. When we talk about America, we use the phrase “pilgrims” or “brave” or “dreamers,” but under the eyes of the Winner World, the unspoken reality which lurks behind our ancestors’ choices is that they were losers by the lights of the Old World. The rich and comfortable tended not to leave.

The idea of Americans as Forever-Winners doesn’t just fail to explain our athletes; it can’t even adequately explain our history. We seem clever and successful now, but at the time, America started as a nation full of people who’d lost in every way. Not just once, but time after time. Like Rome, which started as a village of outcasts, America booted up as an island of misfit toys. None of the Framers would have been prominent in the Old World. Speaking of noted rage-aholic John Adams in Founding Brothers, Joseph J. Ellis writes that he was “another one of those American characters who would have languished in obscurity if born in England or Europe.”

The people who came to America had lost, and many who followed in their footsteps also lost. In England, the Puritans lost, and the Cavaliers lost, and they came here, and they fought each other, and they lost again. The Germans lost. The French lost. The Irish lost consistently for centuries. Latinos lost when America put its southwest states where Mexico used to be. The Jewish people lost, the Polish lost, the Italians lost. The Chinese lost and came over here, where they lost for years. African-Americans got here by losing everything. The Native Americans lost their civilization and their land. The Founders, even most hoity-toity of them, were the descendants of losers: second sons or unwanted refugees, small-wigs to a man. General Washington, who cursed himself for a lack of proper education, fought a war with less a living army and more of a eat-what-you-kill mosh pit who loitered around battlefields with chronic morale decay. They probably suspected the Tea Party would be cosplaying them online two hundred and forty years later; eager to save time, they just jumped onto British bayonets and called it a day. America only won because Britain was better at losing. Lost, lost, lost, lost. Under the system of Winner World, we are all losers.

But we are also winners. As anyone with the slightest thread of world experience can tell you, people win all the time for work they didn’t do. You’re reading this in English, which already says something about you, and statistically speaking, taking all the maybes and variables into account, you are most likely staring at this sentence while abiding in the Good Old U.S. of A, which means you won just by being born — and if you follow my particular optimistic school of thought, it’s so unlikely we’re here at all — atoms, planets, life, much less rational, feeling beings, that everyone and everything you see and touch and feel and hear is a great, bewildering, astonishing, blue-ribbon miracle.

If our inherent status seems flexible, or dependent on our point of view, perhaps that’s a hint that, as far as matters of categorization go, “winner” and “loser” are not terms we should apply, to ourselves or anyone else. More to the point, we must change the way we think. It’s fine to have standards — everybody loves to achieve. There will always be contests, and there always will be victory and defeat. We have every right to feel good about ourselves, to be proud of our victories, confident in our abilities. But we cannot allow this to become a toxin.

We have institutions which exist to promote this unfortunate kind of thinking. Silicon Valley, and In Search of Excellence, and the Ivy League, and all the other morally suspect engines of our so-called meritocracy, love to play this game, the Best and Brightest. These Best and Brightest People are the worthwhile folks, the ones who ought to be saved, at any cost.

The meritocracy works as long as we keep up this assumption: well, if the Best and Brightest exist, they’ll find a way. It makes a certain kind of sense, doesn’t it? It’s a fine illusion. But what if there’s no natural winners and losers? What if there are just people, and we all have varying strengths, but all of us deserve a chance to flourish, inasmuch as we are able?

In our yearning to celebrate, to congratulate and reward excellent performance, we risk forgetting the nature of effort. The entire process screws up our understanding of what it is to deserve. If you honestly worship winning, you will begin to believe only winners deserve dignity. You might, for instance, favor a system which gives more to people whose parents and grandparents were winners, without thinking much about why it should be that way at all. We might punish losing, even when the losing person really isn’t at fault.

We are working slowly, all too slowly, to dismantle systems of obvious oppression. But the most troubling notion of all, that some of us are inherently born to go first, has not been slain. We reinforce this idea every day in a hundred ways, through inherited wealth, and color, and gender. Our meritocracy is obviously, flagrantly flawed: we pull a golden thread that only a few can clasp onto through the wheels of a machine made of so many subtle gears and social cues that so few can know how to succeed, no matter how hard they work. In America, the country where nobody is poor, just momentarily impoverished millionaires, this is dangerous.

Gladwell, in his article The Talent Myth, wrote about Carol Dweck, a psychologist. Dweck noted “that people generally hold one of two fairly firm beliefs about their intelligence: they consider it either a fixed trait or something that is malleable and can be developed over time.”

Gladwell discusses a study Dweck did at the University of Hong Kong, where classes are conducted in English. She and her colleagues:

approached a large group of social-sciences students, told them their English-proficiency scores, and asked them if they wanted to take a course to improve their language skills. One would expect all those who scored poorly to sign up for the remedial course. … Curiously, however, only the ones who believed in malleable intelligence expressed interest in the class. The students who believed that their intelligence was a fixed trait were so concerned about appearing to be deficient that they preferred to stay home. “Students who hold a fixed view of their intelligence care so much about looking smart that they act dumb,” Dweck writes, “for what could be dumber than giving up a chance to learn something that is essential for your own success?”

To love being a winner too much is to become terrified of losing, of being vulnerable and losing foolish — to fear risk and adventure, to fear life. If your entire sense of self-worth and identity is built on being a winner, then losing will be hard going for you. We see this happening with Trump, the man to whom winning means so much. Instead of rationally assessing and replying to the challenges around him, he’s started the round of recriminations; the firing squad that happens within groups that have been proven wrong but cannot admit it. If he loses, Trump will do what many of the narcissists I have known do: Houdini the hell out of the facts. Which makes a twisted kind of sense, of the North Korean and Assange type: if the absolute bedrock truth of the world is your perpetual rightness — that you are always a winner, that, by the laws of nature, you cannot be wrong — then the rest of the world must be broken, not you.

It is not that losing is a blessed opium from the river of wonder. Losing is no fun. Always has been, always will be. No matter what it teaches you, like finding alcohol in junior high, it is almost always a humiliating ride into Scrubtown. You will find no C.S. Lewis-style justification of pain here. Cold showers do not virtue make. Losing is not pleasant. But losing is the price we pay for winning. They are two sides of the same coin, more brothers than opposites. Winners and losers: if we claim we are all of one, all of the time, then we have not merely forsaken all knowledge of victory, but forgotten our own selves as well. And that is the greatest loss of all.

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