The Damage Will Last

The precedents Trump has set, the doubts he has sown, and the claims he has made will linger.

Donald Trump hugging an American flag
Joe Raedle / Getty

About the author: Uri Friedman is the managing editor at the Atlantic Council and a contributing writer at The Atlantic. He was previously a staff writer and the Global editor at The Atlantic, and the deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy magazine.

“The guardrails of our system actually worked,” the political analyst Amy Walter marveled on Monday evening, capturing how many reacted to the Trump administration initiating a formal transition of power to the Biden administration. American democracy had survived its weeks-long brush with disaster, despite President Donald Trump’s baseless fraud claims, surreal press conferences, and shaky legal challenges. All of this brought relief (“excellent news for American democracy”), triumphalism (“we saved ourselves and America”), ample use of the past tense (“Never forget how dangerous and abnormal this all was”), and ridicule of the Trumpian sideshow (“rage tweeting” and “comical lawsuits”).

This isn’t over, folks. While the decision to begin the transition process does amount to an implicit concession by the president, Trump hasn’t yet explicitly acknowledged his loss—and there are indications he might never do so. As I write, in fact, the president is continuing to insist that the “2020 Election Hoax” will “go down as the most corrupt election in American political history,” that he will continue to press this case, and that he “will never concede to fake ballots & ‘Dominion.’”

Trump’s attack on the election wasn’t and isn’t a sideshow. As far as American democracy is concerned, this is the main show. A democracy at grave risk one day cannot be pronounced healthy the next. The precedents Trump has set, the doubts he has sown, and the claims he has made will linger. Restoring faith in the democratic process will take time and effort—and a favorable result is by no means guaranteed.

As I wrote during the 2016 campaign, when Trump was threatening to not accept a loss to Hillary Clinton, democracy depends on the consent of the losers. The capacity of candidates to lose gracefully—or, more specifically, to consent to the winning candidates’ right to govern, and to restrain themselves from stirring up grievances among their supporters—is at the core of democracy.

As the authors of Losers’ Consent, a 2005 survey of old and new democracies around the world, pointed out, it’s typical for the losers of an election to be dissatisfied with the results of the race and the democratic process that produced them. But assuming that the vote is free and fair, they wrote, functioning democracies are predicated on the recurrence of a subtle miracle each election cycle, one we tend to not appreciate until it’s missing: The losers overcome that “bitterness and resentment” and prove “willing, first, to accept the decision of the election and, second, to play again next time.”

At the moment they might be most tempted to subvert democratic institutions, the losers must instead recognize as legitimate a process that just yielded a bad outcome for them. Since winners have much more of an incentive to continue playing the democratic game than losers do, “losers are the crucial veto players of democratic governance,” the authors wrote.

When I spoke with him ahead of the Trump administration authorizing the transition, Shaun Bowler, one of the co-authors of Losers’ Consent and a political scientist at UC Riverside, told me that he assessed Trump’s refusal to concede as not mere noise but also signal. When a football team loses the Super Bowl, he noted, the defeated players don’t rough up the referees and denounce them and the opposing team as crooked. They don’t seize the cameras as a victorious player declares, “I’m going to Disney World!” and yell, “No, you’re going down!”

“If you don’t [have] respect for the rules of the game, you don’t play that game anymore,” he explained.

The commentators who discount Trump’s attacks on the election tend to argue that Trump is unique, and so his challenge to the democratic process is best seen as an isolated event. But just as the president’s America First worldview channeled a real current of thought in the United States about the country’s role in the world, even as it amplified and shaped those views, Trump’s particular challenge to democracy is rooted in broader discontents.

“America is in deep trouble,” André Blais, another co-author of Losers’ Consent and a political scientist at the University of Montreal, told me late last week, pointing to the country’s struggling democratic institutions and severe partisan polarization. Blais believes that “there are very few politicians of the Trump type,” which is why he remains “cautiously optimistic” about American democracy over the long term. But he noted that the essential dynamic of losers’ consent is obviously “not working well” in the United States, and not just because of the president’s reaction to the election result. “The principle that it’s your turn sometimes and not your turn other times—at least some people don’t seem to accept it” anymore, Blais said.

Bowler said it was important to avoid overstating the danger that Trump’s refusal to acknowledge defeat poses to the U.S. political system. But he appended a big caveat to that note of reassurance: There’s no direct precedent in modern American history, or even among other democracies, for what’s happening now in the United States. He ticked off a series of potential foreign analogues before dismissing each one. Mexico’s current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, refused to accept the results of his country’s 2006 and 2012 elections, but he wasn’t yet president at those times and democracy in Mexico is far less entrenched than it is in the United States. Charles de Gaulle railed against France’s Fourth Republic for years, but its collapse in 1958 gave way to a Fifth Republic that remained democratic. “This really hasn’t happened before [to] this degree,” Bowler said. “An established democracy walking away from its own democracy, walking away from its own processes.”

And the thing about something unprecedented is that it sets new precedents. Many of the rituals that have helped heal a divided country after past elections—the concession call and speech, the meeting of the current president with the president-elect at the White House, the orderly transition—have been absent in the weeks since the 2020 election. Other rituals (the incumbent’s presence at the president-elect’s inauguration, for example) could vanish as well. Refusing to recognize defeat and attempting to reverse the outcome of the election even if there’s no sound basis for questioning the results could take root as new precedents. That might be especially true if Trump’s brand of populism remains a gathering force in the United States. The political logic of populism argues against acknowledging electoral defeat, because populists would rather attribute their losses to elite conspiracies than acknowledge that they lack popular support.

Bowler said his concerns extend beyond Trump to the many (though not all) Republican leaders who have supported his unsubstantiated attacks on the integrity of the election. (Republican calls for Trump to concede have grown louder in recent days as states have certified election results.) There might be rational short-term political reasons for why they’re doing so, he allowed, “but there’s a longer-term consequence, which is that they’re standing by while someone denies the legitimacy of the electoral process and they’re saying, [to] varying degrees, ‘Yes, that’s right.’”

There are also clear signs that Trump’s message is resonating widely with his supporters. Republican trust in the electoral system has plummeted. (The president, in fact, has followed his announcement of the transition by tweeting about the high numbers of Trump voters who believe the election was stolen and who have lost confidence in the country’s democratic system, tending the doubts he has sown.) The key question, Blais told me, is how many Republicans truly believe Trump’s claims of fraud and how many are simply echoing the president’s narrative out of disappointment with the outcome—a distinction that the blunt instrument of polling can’t capture. “I assume it’s a small minority” who are true believers, Blais said, “but if it’s not a small minority, this is really a huge concern.”

The recent threats of violence against public officials underscore the danger. “Once people begin questioning the legitimacy of the result and questioning the integrity of public officials, then things can begin to unravel pretty broadly,” Bowler said. “We can guess that from now on lots of close races will be contested and called out as being corrupted, so we will see lots of elected officials having to defend themselves from charges of fixing elections.” In today’s information environment, he added, conspiracy theories and allegations of cheating involving the 2020 election will stick around and animate actors—including networks such as OAN and Newsmax—with a stake in keeping alive bitter memories of the race. Trump supporters might remain politically disaffected for much longer than is typical after disputed contests, creating a segment of the electorate that is not just temporarily disappointed but also chronically disillusioned.

“People can nurse grudges for a long time,” Bowler said, especially when those grudges stem from claims of cheating. That’s why it’s so important for losing candidates to concede.

The statement Bill Clinton delivered on December 14, 2000, after the Supreme Court halted the recount of votes in Florida, is one of the best examples of losing gracefully. “Last night President-elect Bush and Vice President Gore showed what is best about America,” he said, referring to Al Gore’s concession speech and George W. Bush’s victory address. “The essential unity of our Nation was reflected in the words and values of those who fought this great contest.” Gore’s statement, and then Clinton’s, effectively delivered the presidency to Bush after one of the most contentious elections in American history. In Losers’ Consent, the authors cite Gore’s decision to concede after the Court’s ruling as a striking example of the “democratic bargain” functioning properly—especially since Gore had lost so narrowly, and polls at the time showed that 97 percent of his voters thought he was the rightful president of the United States.

Recently, just as Trump was tweeting about the “meaningless” 2020 vote, I got on a Zoom call with Terry Edmonds, Paul Glastris, and John Pollack, the three speechwriters who worked on Clinton’s statement. They recalled springing into action once word came of the Court’s decision and Gore’s plan to concede, gathering on a well-worn yellow couch in Edmonds’s basement West Wing office to figure out what the president would say next.

They were young, idealistic, and aggrieved by what they perceived as an injustice rendered by the nation’s highest court—and, more practically, were now apparently out of the jobs they thought they might have in a future Gore administration. They recalled that early elements of the draft “came in hot.” Typed notes from Pollack observed that there was “justifiable frustration” and “even anger” over the fact that tens of thousands of ballots in Florida hadn’t been tallied, and pointed out that Gore got more votes than any presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan. The country’s democratic system, he wrote, was based on the premise that every American’s vote should count. “It felt like the system, to me personally, was broken or breaking,” Pollack recalled.

Many of these points didn’t make it into the full draft that Pollack eventually walked over to the Situation Room and sent to Clinton, who was visiting the United Kingdom at the time. The heat had been dialed down. But that draft, while expressing the president’s commitment to ensuring a “smooth transition of power” to Bush, dwelled on Gore’s “principled defense” of “the right of every citizen to vote, and to have that vote count” and the need for “healing the partisan breach, and restoring public confidence in our electoral system.”

The draft “wasn’t bitter” or “angry,” Glastris recalled. “It just acknowledged what the people who voted for Al Gore and supported Bill Clinton were feeling. It was, in its own way, magnanimous.”

But in the humbling experience that is the speechwriter’s lot, Clinton sent back the draft hours later having crossed out, with a black Sharpie, every word but “I … Vice President Gore” and “I … want to … the American people.” He’d rewritten it all. The reference to Gore’s defense of counting votes was gone. The mentions of the partisan breach and lack of confidence in U.S. elections were gone. Yes, the nation was divided and he disagreed with the Supreme Court’s decision, Clinton allowed in the remarks he ultimately delivered. But he accepted the verdict, echoed Gore’s concession speech, and emphasized the need to rediscover “unity” and “common ground.”

“We worked for [people], for both the president and the vice president, who were statesmen, who were adults in the room, who understood that this was a moment that called for a lot more conciliation than rancor,” Edmonds told me.

“What I think [Clinton] did was take out anything that anyone could point to and say, ‘Sore loser,’” Glastris added. “His audience was the history books. His audience was the next administration. He didn’t want to … mar the message he wanted to deliver, which is: ‘You won. Pass the baton.’”

Pollack told me that he had deliberately tucked away his early notes on the statement in his official speechwriting file for posterity because he’d felt the point that every vote must count was so central to American democracy and the episode of American history he was living through, even if it wasn’t necessarily appropriate for Clinton to focus on it in his remarks.

But what happens to our democracy when the grievances of those who lose elections aren’t carefully wordsmithed out of presidential remarks and pocketed for the enlightenment of future generations, to avoid igniting the kindling of despair that elections leave behind? What happens when they are instead aired far and wide—indeed, fanned by an American president declaring the country’s entire democratic system “RIGGED”?

Trump is a unique political actor, Blais said, but “if the results of 2000 had happened today, [even] without Trump, but with all this partisan polarization, I don’t know what would have occurred.” He exhaled sharply, plainly bewildered by what he was witnessing across the border in the United States. “This will be tough. Very tough.”