They say you learn more from defeat than from victory. Now that Donald Trump is (probably) about to lose the biggest, loudest contest of his life—and has insinuated that he won’t accept unfavorable results—I would recommend two recent documentaries that show, respectively, how losing should and should not be done.
The movies are Mitt and Weiner. Released just two years apart (both debuted at Sundance, funnily enough), they offer a splendid study in contrasts about how candidates for high office navigate the indignities and insanities of 21st century campaigning: How they handle setbacks, how they react to criticism—fair and unfair—and, ultimately, how they reconcile their high opinions of themselves with total rejection by the American electorate.
Mitt, directed by Greg Whiteley and released in 2014, is a behind-the-scenes look at six years in the life of Mitt Romney, from the earliest days of the 2008 Republican primaries (Romney, you’ll recall, came in second to John McCain) all the way to Election Night 2012, when he lost the presidency to Barack Obama.
The first time I saw Whiteley’s film, I wrote about how much more engaging, likable and—God help us—authentic Romney turned out to be when he wasn’t surrounded by the hound dogs in the press. How soberly—and accurately—he was able to identify and assess his own electoral weaknesses, even in the most high-pitched moments of both campaigns. How, in the end, those very shortcomings—the stiffness, the flip-flopping, the “47 percent” video—prevented America from noticing the wholly decent and eminently qualified candidate who resided underneath.
Watching Mitt again recently—this time in the age of Trump—I found myself admiring this version of Mitt Romney even more than I did the first time. Apart from the billions of other ways Romney is preferable to Donald Trump—both as a politician and a human being—in Mitt he presents as a man responding to adversity and disappointment about as well as someone in his position possibly could. No matter how bad things get—say, when he loses the New Hampshire primary to John McCain in 2008, or when Obama gets the better of him in their second debate in 2012—he always seems to grasp exactly what the problem is and how he might—or might not—be able to fix it.
In other words, Romney never succumbs to self-pity, never throws a tantrum, never blames his troubles on everyone else, never loses touch with reality. For all the cockeyed optimism he projects both on and offstage, at heart he is a steely-eyed realist whose sense of optics and the public mood are sharper, perhaps, than that of anyone else in his inner circle—including the members of his large and fiercely loyal family.
As the rest of his posse whines about the unfairness of it all—asking, incredulously, how voters could possibly prefer President Obama to him—Mitt retains the wherewithal and discipline to look inward—to understand why he is struggling and, in time, to recognize a lost cause when he sees one. On Election Night—as the numbers trickle in and it becomes clear the evening is not going his way—he maintains a sad, stubborn smile, resolute that, through months of hard campaigning, he has arrived at some sort of inner peace.
Now consider Weiner, the doc from earlier this year by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, which follows Anthony Weiner through his ill-conceived, disastrous campaign for mayor of New York in the summer of 2013.
Weiner, as you know, is the feisty former congressman from Brooklyn who was forced to resign his House seat in 2011, after it was revealed he had texted pictures of…himself…to a series of strange young women. From the shame and disgrace of that sordid affair, he decided the next logical step was to become chief executive of the largest city in the United States—a contest he would lose by a comically huge margin (he finished in fifth place, with 5 percent of the vote), hindered, in part, by a brand new sexting story that hit newsstands at the worst possible moment.
Like Romney with his project, Weiner allowed the crew of Weiner to follow him around everywhere—through the good times and the bad—and the most salient impression we get is that Anthony Weiner is possibly the only man in America more narcissistic than Donald Trump.
At no point in this film does Weiner consider the well-being of anyone but himself; at no point does he feel particularly responsible for the misfortunes that seem to follow him everywhere he goes; at no point does he understand how ridiculous his multiple sexting scandals have made him look, even to his own supporters; and at no point does he ponder whether running for mayor—or anything else, for that matter—was an act of pure hubris—and, as it turned out, the beginning of the end of his marriage. (His wife, Huma Abedin, announced their separation earlier this year, following yet another round of sexting with yet another random lady.)
This is not to say that, during this ordeal, Weiner is entirely without self-awareness or introspection. In fact, the filmmakers frequently cross-examine their subject about the wisdom of his many puzzling life decisions, and he does occasionally attempt to ascertain what might be going on in his brain.
All the same, Weiner’s quest is fundamentally a lonely and selfish one—a way to prove and redeem himself after an embarrassing and tawdry fall from grace (not that he was ever particularly graceful in the first place)—and his response to repeated humiliations is to step right back into the flogging machine that the press is all-too-willing to fire up.
Witness, for instance, his confrontation in a Jewish bakery with a customer who berates him for his immature behavior—a charge Weiner rebuts by (you guessed it!) behaving immaturely. Seeing Weiner take the bait and escalate the situation into a pointless shouting match—later breathlessly reported on the evening news, naturally—we cannot help but agree with a smirking bystander who turns to the camera and says, “He could’ve just walked away.”
But Anthony Weiner is not the sort of person who can just walk away from anything. He is too proud, too petulant—too insecure in his own skin—to let even the mildest criticism slide. He is a political street fighter who can trash talk others until the cows come home but turns into a sputtering nincompoop whenever the insults ricochet back in his direction.
Remind you of anyone else we know?
If Donald Trump insists on losing the 2016 presidential election—surely, no one can still believe he’s trying to win—and if he wants America to extend even a modicum of respect for how he does so, Mitt Romney’s is the ideal model for him to emulate: Calm, cool, collected and classy.
It is to Romney’s credit—as a candidate and a person—that Trump can’t even pretend to exhibit the graciousness in defeat that Romney essayed so well in 2012, both in public and in private. While there is still time for Trump to completely transform his personality and accept his personal failings like a man, the smart money remains where it has always been: As far as political temperaments go, Donald Trump is nothing more than a giant stinking Weiner.