If Donald Trump never concedes that Joe Biden won the presidential election of 2020, would it matter?
In the fever dreams that disturbed the sleep of liberals over the past four years, it mattered a great deal. The fear of Trump's incipient dictatorship haunted Democrats so deeply that many caught themselves wondering whether the would-be authoritarian in the White House would refuse to step down in the face of an electoral repudiation, disregarding the outcome of a democratic vote and attempting to maintain his grip on power through tyrannical means.
Now that the country has lived through just such a repudiation and the president's rhetorical refusal to accept the results, most appear to recognize that the country isn't in quite the danger they supposed it was. (Hence the joyous celebrations that swept blue cities and towns on Saturday afternoon.) Joe Biden won the election and nothing the current resident of the White House says or does will stop that process of presidential transition.
But that doesn't mean that Trump's refusal to accept the legitimacy of the election and its outcome should be considered a matter of indifference, especially if it continues beyond a few remaining legal maneuvers the president's team of lawyers is likely to try over the coming days. Once those efforts have been exhausted, we will pass into a period when a refusal to concede will do enormous civic harm to the country — not necessarily in the coming days and weeks, but in the presidential elections and transitions of the future.
The process of presidential transition has dozens of steps. Many of them take place behind the scenes within the government itself. Those will begin soon, even if low-level Trump appointees drag their feet for a few days. Other aspects of transition are informal norms involving public officials and journalistic organizations. Some of these have already happened. It's true that some members of the president's party — former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham come to mind — have tripped over themselves to demonstrate their loyalty to Trump as he spreads unverified conspiracies about voter fraud in Pennsylvania and other states. But others, like former President George W. Bush and 2012 Republican presidential nominee and Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, have made a point congratulating Biden on his victory, thereby reinforcing the legitimacy of the vote count verified by all the country's major news outlets, including right-leaning Fox News.
All of it points toward an inevitability: The Trump administration is coming to an end, whether the president likes it or not, and even if he actively denies it. The Electoral College formally votes on Dec. 14. From that point on, it is a certainty that Trump will cease to be the president at noon on Jan. 20, 2021. Even if Trump decides not to attend the inauguration ceremony and remains defiantly in the White House that day, his presidential authority will cease to be recognized by the military, members of Congress, and the heads of executive branch departments and agencies the moment Biden is sworn in. If Trump refuses to vacate the building after that, he will be escorted out, by force if necessary.
Which means that, although Trump may have talked like a tyrant on Twitter for much of his presidency, he never was one in reality. He gained power by winning an election, and his power was always subject to revocation the moment he lost an election, as he now has.
Yet Trump's refusal to concede could nonetheless plant seeds of a future in which such processes of transitions are far from inevitable. If he begins to travel the country over the coming weeks, holding rallies during which he spreads the lie of a stolen election to cheering throngs of supporters, that could do even greater damage. That's because words matter in democratic politics. By casting doubt on the legitimacy of the Nov. 3 election, Trump conveys the message to his most devoted followers that the political system of the United States is fundamentally rigged against them. And by implying that Philadelphia, with its large Black population, is the primary source of the fraud that will deny them their rightful political power, he interweaves a story of injustice and grievance with outright racism.
When people become convinced that they have no viable path to political power, that the cards are systematically stacked against them, they become tempted to go outside the system — either through political violence against those they believe illegitimately hoard power for themselves, or by throwing their support behind their own tribune's bid to stay in power beyond the limits allowed by law.
The primary reason why the processes of presidential transition in the United States up through the present unfold with a kind of necessity and are not ultimately dependent on the concession of the losing candidate is that the people who inhabit the institutions responsible for the transfer of power trust the legitimacy of the electoral process, regardless of which candidate or party prevails. But there is no guarantee that they always will. If Trump can pump enough poison into the political culture, the number of people who are willing to facilitate the smooth transition of power will shrink. When that happens, the process will cease to be automatic.
With his administration's war on the civil service and effort to appoint loyalists throughout the federal bureaucracy, Trump has already done his best to move the country in this direction over the past four years. Using the next two months to spread the lie that he and his supporters were robbed of a rightful electoral victory would be far worse.
Let's hope Trump does the right thing and concedes. But if he doesn't, that's when it will become imperative for every Republican office holder to take an unequivocal stand against him, including mass resignations in the White House and across the Cabinet. The protest would have a single, simple, but crucially important aim: to get the defeated president to admit the truth, which is that his opponent won the election fair and square.
Donald Trump doesn't have the power to stop Joe Biden from taking over on Jan. 20. But he does have the power to do lasting damage to American democracy.
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