Trump and his defenders keep saying this, although he actually got more like 74 million votes—he has long inflated his numbers, and this is less than the typical surplus. In any case, the frequent mention of the vote tally is peculiarly irrelevant at first notice yet almost inevitable upon consideration. Trump’s refusal to accept the results of the 2020 election was predictable. Not only had he been laying the groundwork to do so for months, not only had he questioned the legitimacy of the count even in 2016, when he won, but Trump’s whole career is a story of losing and then strenuously insisting that he won.
Claiming to have won is an end in itself, in that Trump’s fame and branding depend on victory, but it also prepares him for the battle ahead. In short, Trump is saying: The people voted for me, then the election was stolen from me, and now the Democrats are coming after me on taxes, and by doing so, they are denying the will of the American people.
Trump test-drove this defense during the Senate trial for his impeachment, which ended with a majority of senators, but not the two-thirds required for conviction, concluding he was guilty. “History will record this shameful effort as a deliberate attempt by the Democrat Party to smear, censor, and cancel not just President Trump, but the 75 million Americans who voted for him,” his attorney Michael van der Veen told senators. This makes little sense: Just because many Americans voted for Trump doesn’t mean he was incapable of fomenting an insurrection and otherwise trying to overturn the election, though it is literally true that Democrats hoped to legally disqualify him from ever running for office again. The charge makes sense only if you believe that Trump voters were the majority, which is false.
The argument makes even less sense in the context of the Vance investigation. The impeachment, at least, had to do with the election. Vance is examining whether Trump committed personal financial crimes before or during his presidency, which has nothing to do with his work in office.
But Trump has sought to create a connection between himself and his base that resembles more closely the intense identification between a political faction and a leader of, say, Argentinian Peronism than anything in American political history. In the winter of 2019, Trump tweeted a meme that featured himself with the caption “In reality they’re not after me. They’re after you. I’m just in the way.” Trump has sought to portray his own interest and his supporters’ as so tightly intertwined that even an inquiry into his personal foibles is somehow a threat to them.
This is nonsense. Cy Vance looking into Trump’s finances poses no more threat to the average Trump voter than Trump getting ticketed for speeding outside Mar-a-Lago—though you can bet he’d insist that was political persecution too. But careful reasoning has never been essential to Trump’s political identity. Displaced grievance has been, and it will remain so for the rest of his life.