The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Can Republicans relearn how to accept political outcomes they don’t like?

(Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
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Many people were surprised when Democrat Andy Beshear beat incumbent Republican Gov. Matt Bevin in Kentucky’s gubernatorial election this week by 5,000 votes, but the fact that Bevin isn’t ready to concede hasn’t shocked anyone. And that decision raises questions we ought to be prepared for in the eventuality that President Trump loses in 2020.

Citing “irregularities” but offering nothing in the way of evidence, Bevin has asked for a recanvass (in which vote totals from around the state are retabulated), which could be a prelude to a recount and ultimately to a “contest.” The most remarkable statement, however, came from the president of the Kentucky Senate, who noted that according to state law, the election could end up being decided by the state legislature, where Republicans have firm control of both houses. Which means that technically, they could just give the election to Bevin if they wanted. He also pointed out that the outcome could be called into doubt by the fact that there was a Libertarian candidate in the race, and had he not been on the ballot, many of his votes would have gone to Bevin.

To be clear, Bevin is perfectly within his rights to hold off on a concession; eventually he’ll have to either prove that something went seriously wrong or give up. And there are certainly cases where Democrats have protested that electoral outcomes were unfair; you might recall last year how Stacey Abrams ended her campaign for governor of Georgia but pointedly refused to call it a “concession” because, she said, it would grant the election, in which her opponent engaged in various forms of voter suppression, a legitimacy it did not deserve.

That case, in which a candidate said that the election was fundamentally problematic but still accepted the result and moved to prepare for future elections, shows us one possible scenario that could play out in 2020. But there are other, much darker ones.

One occasionally hears liberals muse that even if Trump were to lose next year, he might simply refuse to vacate the White House. This seems a highly unlikely scenario, especially since there may be nothing Trump fears more than public humiliation. Instead, what is far more likely is that Trump would not have to be physically removed from the Oval Office, but would — starting immediately after Election Day and continuing into his post-presidential life — undertake a campaign to discredit the results.

He might claim, as he did after the 2016 election, that millions of people voted illegally against him. He might allege that a foreign country hacked the voting machines (not Russia, of course — Vladimir Putin would never do such a thing). He’ll certainly object that the media were biased against him. All of it would be, in Trumpian style, unburdened by facts but nevertheless convincing to his devoted supporters.

The most important question is: If he’s back at Mar-a-Lago furiously tweeting about how much he was wronged, will anyone care? Or will he succeed in leading his voters to refuse to accept that the election was proper simply because they didn’t like it?

Some of those supporters certainly won’t accept it. They’ve been trained by Trump and other Republicans over and over to reject anything that challenges their faith in Trump’s godlike perfection. Newspaper reports behind-the-scenes chaos in the White House? It’s “fake news.” Poll says Trump’s approval rating is down? They just made the numbers up. As Trump told supporters last July, “Just remember, what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” They’ve had years of practice constructing a mental world made up only of “facts” that support their existing views.

But the new president will take office whether they like it or not. They can take to the streets in their MAGA hats and shout that they’ll never concede that the Democrat is actually president, but that won’t stop the inauguration from taking place. And then what?

At one extreme, you have a genuine potential for violence. Part of Trump’s unspoken message is that while democratic institutions may be inherently illegitimate, they can still be managed or manipulated to serve Trump’s ends. But if they can’t, then some may conclude that the ordinary processes of politics are insufficient to solve America’s problems, and the only thing that will is a spasm of violence. If even a tiny number of people conclude that, it could be terribly dangerous.

At the other end, you could see Trump supporters channeling their anger into a new tea party aimed at working against the Democrat’s presidency through ordinary political means like protest and elections. To a certain degree that’s inevitable, since we live in an era in which every presidential election is followed by a backlash.

But perhaps the most important factor will be how Republican officeholders react. Will they distance themselves from the defeated Trump, or will they continue to quake in fear of his supporters? After four years of doing the latter, do they remember how to do anything else?

If those Republicans send a message that the election’s outcome was unfortunate but not cause for a revolution, things could calm down quickly. But I fear they may not have it in them, that the way they tried to delegitimize Barack Obama will be not half as bad as what they have in store for the next Democratic president. Trump might not have the attention span to lead a revolution, but Republicans know how to spend years sabotaging a president. As depressing as it is to say, that might be the best outcome we can hope for.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: How a small number of GOP defections could doom Trump in 2020

Frank O. Bowman III: An impeached and convicted Trump could still run in 2020. Here’s how to stop him.

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Trump’s madness is not enough to doom him in 2020

Jennifer Rubin: The 2020 race just keeps getting more uncertain

Hugh Hewitt: Trump should swiftly reject the schedule of 2020 debates