Trump Time Capsule #149: ‘Cancel the Election’

John Kerry, with Bruce Springsteen at a campaign event in Ohio 12 years ago today. This was a few days before Kerry narrowly lost Ohio and thus the presidential race to George W. Bush. What Donald Trump has said about elections as this campaign nears its end is dramatically different from what other candidates including Kerry have said at comparable stages. (Reuters)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Donald Trump was of course “joking” when he said yesterday in Toledo, Ohio, that “we should just cancel the election and just give it to Trump, right? What are we even having it for?”

In the clip below, you can see what we’ve come to recognize as a classic Trump-rally two-track message. It’s a mixture of claims that would be outrageous if taken seriously, with a half-joking affect that lets Trump suggest that he’s not being serious at all. As a result, he can have it both ways. People who want to, can take this as something Trump is really supporting. (This is a variation of, “A lot of people are saying....”) But if anyone gets huffy and calls Trump on it, he can say, “What kind of dummy are you? Of course that was a joke!”

So, it’s a joke. But it’s a joke that connects with other non-joke Trump statements deeply at odds with the very process of democratic transfer of power. For instance, “I alone” can save us (a refrain from the convention onward). Or, “It’s rigged, folks, rigged” (of recent months). Or “I’ll keep you in suspense” (at the final debate, about accepting the vote outcome.)

Why do all of these deserve notice? Because other nominees just do not say things like this. Really, this is new—and different, and dangerous, and worth recording as it happens to remember when this election has passed.


Even when under pressure, even when telling themselves that the deck is unfairly stacked, other American public figures have been careful to pay public homage to the electoral process and the need to accept its outcome. Please consider these two examples:

John McCain, 2008. Trump’s remarks were in Toledo yesterday, October 27. Eight years ago on that same date, on October 27, 2008, McCain was also in western Ohio, in Dayton—swing states are swing states. Like Trump right now, McCain was far enough behind in enough polls in enough states to know that he was likely to lose. But here is the way he talked about the election and its outcome on his October 27:

Let me give you the state of the race today. There's eight days to go. We're a few points down. The pundits have written us off, just like they've done before. My opponent is working out the details with Speaker Pelosi and Senator Reid of their plans to raise your taxes, increase spending, and concede defeat in Iraq. He's measuring the drapes, and he's planned his first address to the nation for before the election. I guess I'm old fashioned about these things I prefer to let the voters weigh in before presuming the outcome.

What America needs now is someone who will finish the race before the starting the victory lap ... someone who will fight to the end, and not for himself but for his country.

I have fought for you most of my life, and in places where defeat meant more than returning to the Senate. There are other ways to love this country, but I've never been the kind to back down when the stakes are high.

I know you're worried. America is a great country, but we are at a moment of national crisis that will determine our future….

I'm an American. And I choose to fight. Don't give up hope. Be strong. Have courage. And fight.

Fight for a new direction for our country. Fight for what's right for America.

Fight to clean up the mess of corruption, infighting and selfishness in Washington.

Fight to get our economy out of the ditch and back in the lead.

Fight for the ideals and character of a free people.

Fight for our children's future.

Fight for justice and opportunity for all.

Stand up to defend our country from its enemies.

Stand up, stand up, stand up and fight. America is worth fighting for. Nothing is inevitable here. We never give up. We never quit. We never hide from history. We make history.

Now, let's go win this election and get this country moving again.

“Let’s go win this election.” Versus “Let’s cancel the election.”


John Kerry 2004. Four years before that, Kerry knew he was in a very tight race against George W. Bush, which of course he eventually lost. I don’t see any online transcripts of what he said on his October 27, but here is what he said in Orlando, Florida, on October 29, 2004, which by that year’s calendar was only four days before the election:

In four days, we can change the course of our country. I ask for your vote and I ask for your help. When you go to the polls next Tuesday, bring your friends, your family, your neighbors. No one can afford to stand on the sidelines or sit this one out.

In four days, this campaign will end. The election will be in your hands. If you believe we need a fresh start in Iraq ... if you believe we can create and keep good jobs here in America ... if you believe we need to get health care costs under control ... if you believe in the promise of stem cell research ... if you believe our deficits are too high and we're too dependent on Mideast oil ...then I ask you to join me and together we'll change America.

I see an America of rising opportunity. And I believe hope, not fear is our future.

A woman in Ohio said something about a month ago. I didn't get to meet her, but she grabbed one of my people at the end of an event and she said: "You be sure to get a hold of the Senator and give him this message for me." And the message was, "Senator, we've got your back!"

Give me the chance to make you proud. Give me the chance to lift our country up. And every day I'll look you in the eye and be able to say, "I've got your back!" Four days to change America. Let's go out and make it happen!

“Let’s make it happen” “The election is in your hands.” Versus, “it’s all rigged, they’re going to steal it in the cities, you know what I’m talking about.”


McCain and Kerry, both fighting hard, both destined to lose. Both aware even as they gave those speeches (though McCain more than Kerry) that they might lose. But still talking up rather than down to the voters, as citizens. Both offering ultimate respect to the process by which a democracy chooses its leaders and transfers power from one to the next.

We have heard so much of the other sort of talk from Trump that many people have grown inured to it. It shouldn’t be taken for granted. Of all the norms Trump has broken, including notably the expectation that nominees will provide tax information, his contempt for the democratic process may be the most dangerous.

The “responsible” leaders who still stand with him need to recognize what they are supporting. The rest of the public needs to get out and vote.