In the hours before President Trump began to realize that he may not get to "Make America Great Again, Again," the former reality television star who stunned the world in 2016 with his improbable leap to the White House allowed for a moment of candor.
"You know, winning is easy. Losing is never easy. Not for me, it's not," Trump told reporters on Election Day, his voice hoarse from an unforgiving three-week marathon of rallies.
Now, the world is seeing just how difficult it is for a man who built his brand on winning to lose.
Trump has so far rejected the idea of conceding defeat to his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, who on Saturday became president-elect, having secured enough votes to win the Electoral College.
It's a drawn-out and potentially ignominious end to a campaign modeled closely on Trump's 2016 win — a flurry of what so far seem like last-ditch legal challenges to voting procedures in several states.
"He's absolutely going to fight like a wild animal to the very end," his former chief of staff Mick Mulvaney told Fox Business. But some advisers are trying to help him find a way out of his corner, gently appealing to him to protect his legacy.
"It's dawning on him," one former adviser told NPR, speaking on condition of anonymity to comment on private conversations. Trump's ability to withstand political crisis after political crisis conditioned his team to have "a false sense of reality, because he's survived so many times," the former adviser said.
"He never thought he could lose ... and those of us who are in Trump world, we actually never believed he could lose."
Biden made the election a referendum on Trump's character, betting that Americans were tired of Trump's brash and incessant tweets; his willingness to explore positions and arguments that drove divisions on issues of race, class and culture; and his utter refusal to bow to forces of political correctness.
For his part, Trump doubled down on populist messaging to motivate his base: people who feel the "political class" in Washington has left them behind, including white men without college degrees who've been hit hard by the changing economy, evangelical Christians who saw Trump transform the courts with conservative judges during his term and other fiscal and social conservatives.
"If I don't sound like a typical Washington politician, it's because I am not a politician. It's one of the reasons I was elected," Trump repeated time and again.
Trump tried to re-create the magic of 2016, gathering his oldest and most loyal aides to his side, polishing off his old attack lines and — ignoring warnings from public health experts — racing around swing states to whip up enthusiasm at rallies that felt a lot like the old days.
But Trump could not make voters forget the coronavirus pandemic surging across the United States. More than 9 million people in the country have tested positive for the coronavirus, and more than 237,000 Americans have died. Tens of millions more people have lost their jobs and homes in the dramatic economic downturn caused by the coronavirus. Most Americans disapprove of how Trump has handled the pandemic.
Trump, who has consistently downplayed the severity of the pandemic, insisted on the campaign trail that the country has rounded the corner. While Biden warned of a looming "dark winter," Trump pushed on with huge campaign events where thousands of people stood close together, most without face masks, and cheered Trump's counternarrative — that the virus isn't all that bad and will be gone soon enough.
"We want normal life. Normal life," Trump lamented at a rally in Lansing, Mich. "Take us back. Take us back, seven months ago."
Pandemic grounds campaign, just as it takes off
About seven months ago, Trump had been looking at significantly better odds of winning reelection. The economy was booming, and he had just sealed the first phase of a hard-fought trade deal with China.
He had navigated the shoals of impeachment, becoming only the third president in history to face an impeachment trial in the Senate. Republicans there acquitted him on charges that he had abused the power of his office and obstructed Congress by freezing military aid for Ukraine. He had sought that country's help in investigating the business dealings of Biden's son, Hunter.
The dramatic trial quickly vanished from the headlines as it became clear that a new and highly contagious virus was spreading in the United States. Trump knew it was serious, privately telling journalist Bob Woodward, "This is deadly stuff." But publicly, he told Americans everything was under control.
By mid-March, the nation had screeched to a halt. Daily life changed almost overnight. Trump told people to avoid gatherings and stay 6 feet away from others as part of what was initially called "15 Days to Slow the Spread," before it was extended by 30 more days. States issued stay-at-home orders. Schools closed, and people worked from home en masse. The economy went into free-fall. And the government struggled to ramp up coronavirus testing, find medical supplies and equipment, and support crowded hospitals in hot zones like New York City.
Before the 45 days were up, Trump did an about-face. He told Americans that "we cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself" and said he wanted to be a "cheerleader" for the country's recovery. He ignored medical advisers who urged caution — and face masks — and he pressured governors to lift restrictions on businesses and schools.
Trump's own lax adherence to social distancing rules caught up with him around the time he scored a key victory for his conservative base — the opportunity to shape the tenor of the Supreme Court for decades with his nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to fill the vacancy left by the death of liberal icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Trump invited evangelical leaders and other conservative allies to the White House for the announcement, a celebration that top immunologist Anthony Fauci later described as a "superspreader event."
With only five weeks left in the campaign, an outbreak of the virus tore through Trump's inner circle, infecting the president himself. Trump was hospitalized for several days at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where he took experimental treatments. His condition was initially unclear. But he recovered and declared himself better than ever, a yarn he spun again and again on the trail. "I feel like Superman!" he said in Waukesha, Wis.
Still, he lost 10 days of valuable campaign time, and one of three scheduled debates against Biden was canceled. The Democrats had also gained the clear advantage on the airwaves and the Internet. Biden's campaign was flush with more than three times as much cash on hand as Trump's team for the homestretch.
While anger sweeps nation, Trump stokes division
Trump's campaign was also tested during a second crisis that shook the nation.
A Black man named George Floyd was killed on Memorial Day by a white Minneapolis police officer who knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Video footage of Floyd's death unleashed fresh waves of pain and anger about racism in America, sparking protests and unrest across the nation.
But in the aftermath of Floyd's death, Trump doubled down on the "law and order" theme he had used successfully during his 2016 run for office. He stoked anger and division by railing against "thugs" and rejecting assertions of systemic racism in policing.
After polls showed his tough talk had turned off suburban female voters who saw it as racist, Trump spent weeks speaking directly to them, pleading for their votes. His campaign poured nearly $1 million into Facebook ads starting in late September, using a page called Women for Trump and targeting women in must-win states such as Florida, Pennsylvania, Georgia and North Carolina.
Trump made the case that he was offering safety and stability for the "suburbs," as opposed to the chaos of the "cities" — another appeal to his mostly white base. He amped up culture wars, arguing that efforts to tear down Confederate statues and promote anti-racism training were antithetical to the American way of life.
At the same time, his campaign was pouring $20 million into outreach to Black voters, opening 17 field offices in Black neighborhoods where even a small increase in votes from his abysmal 2016 performance could help make a difference in tight races. He boosted his support marginally.
In a parallel strategy, he pushed to woo Latino men — key to tight races in Arizona and Florida — in part with an anti-socialism message. Gains among Latino voters helped Trump win Florida but were not enough to make up for a surge of support for Biden in Arizona.
Personal punches fail to land
Trump resurrected another strategy from 2016: attacking his opponent as "a servant of the wealthy donors, globalists and special interests who got rich bleeding America dry and putting America last," as he told a rally in Carson City, Nev. He attacked Biden as someone who failed the country during 47 years in Washington, compared with his own relatively short political career of 47 months.
As part of this attack, he railed against the business activities of Biden's son, Hunter — bringing full circle a strategy that had helped lead to Trump's own impeachment at the end of 2019. The punches failed to land.
His speeches in the homestretch careened from topic to topic in classic Trump style, focusing on better times just around the corner — the kind of economy he had presided over at the beginning of the 2020 campaign.
He didn't focus much on his plans for a second term, instead spending more of his time talking about his 2016 race and his complaints about his foes. Throughout the campaign, Trump had a difficult time articulating what his second-term agenda would look like.
Meanwhile, voters cast record numbers of ballots ahead of time — a trend thought to favor Democrats. Trump railed against mail-in voting on the trail in part because it would lead to a drawn-out counting process. His campaign marshaled what it had described as a small army of lawyers to prepare to challenge rules and results.
But in the days after the Election Day, some of the challenges seemed slapdash and amateurish. On Saturday, shortly before The Associated Press declared that Biden had won, Trump announced on Twitter that his allies would hold a news conference at the Four Seasons in Philadelphia — only to clarify shortly afterward that the event was at Four Seasons Total Landscaping, a squat building in an industrial part of the city, located next to an adult bookstore and across from a crematorium.
His allies recognize that Trump's legal options are limited and think that he will eventually concede.
"At some juncture, he's going to have to accept that the election didn't go his way," Republican strategist Scott Jennings told NPR, noting momentum would eventually shift against Trump and his angry statements.
"The weight of American democracy and the weight of our institutions and the weight of the momentum of how all this works will, frankly, make whatever he says less important," Jennings said.
On Friday night, Laura Ingraham, a Fox News host who is a favorite of Trump's, appealed to him to prepare to withdraw with "grace and composure" and focus on becoming a "kingmaker" for others who would carry on his policies.
"If there is no path for Donald Trump's second term, it doesn't mean the end of the America First movement or his role in leading it," Ingraham said. "This is only the beginning."