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.