The predictions most people make about the outcome of this election are probably right. President Trump’s refusal to concede to Joe Biden will not change reality. His lawsuits appear to be going nowhere, with one judge describing a Trump campaign legal brief as “inadmissible hearsay within hearsay.” Republican state legislators are not going to designate their own slates of electors in defiance of the duly recorded vote totals. So, once all the ranting and suing is over, Biden will almost certainly be inaugurated as president of the United States on Jan. 20.
But Trump is attacking, defaming and delegitimizing U.S. elections in a manner unprecedented in the country’s history. His obstructionism won’t keep him in power, but it will deeply wound America’s democratic culture. He is whipping his base into a frenzy about a stolen election, and few of them are going to change their minds because of court decisions and recounts. The conspiracy theory of the stolen election of 2020 is here to stay.
A reminder: Whatever one may say about Democratic anger and allegations after 2016, Hillary Clinton conceded to Trump the night of the election and made her formal concession speech the next day, saying, “I congratulated Donald Trump and offered to work with him on behalf of our country. I hope that he will be a successful president for all Americans.” The following day, President Barack Obama invited Trump to the White House, spent an hour and a half talking with him and promised full cooperation for a successful transition.
The historical parallel that seems most appropriate today is a very dark one. After Germany surrendered at the end of World War I, ultra-right-wing groups concocted the myth that Germany was actually on the verge of winning the war in November 1918 but surrendered because of a conspiracy to destroy the country plotted by certain communists and Jews. In his book, “The Death of Democracy,” historian Benjamin Carter Hett explains why this “stab in the back” theory endured: “The trauma of defeat left millions of Germans believing a particular narrative about the war not because it was demonstrably true, but because it was emotionally necessary.” Adolf Hitler often raised the topic during his rise to power. During a 1922 speech, he said, “We must call to account the November criminals of 1918. It cannot be that two million Germans should have fallen in vain and that afterwards one should sit down as friends at the same table with traitors. No, we do not pardon, we demand — Vengeance!”
Today, Newt Gingrich says, “I think [Biden] would have to do a lot to convince Republicans that this is anything except a left-wing power grab financed by people like George Soros, deeply laid in at the local level. . . . It’s very hard for me to understand how we’re going to work together.” Trump retweeted a video of actor Jon Voight saying, “This is now our greatest fight since the Civil War, the battle of righteousness versus Satan. Yes, Satan, because these leftists are evil, corrupt and they want to tear down this nation. . . . Let us fight this fight as if it is our last fight on Earth.”
Historian Timothy Snyder points to the danger of such rhetoric: “If you have been stabbed in the back, then everything is permitted. Claiming that a fair election was foul is preparation for an election that is foul. If you convince your voters that the other side has cheated, you are promising them that you yourself will cheat next time. Having bent the rules, you then have to break them.”
A political system is not simply a collection of laws and rules. It is also an accumulation of norms and behavior. When Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) says Trump is “100 percent within his rights” to behave as he is, he is missing this crucial distinction. There is a reason past presidents have conceded defeat when it was statistically clear that they had lost, without waiting for the last vote to be counted. And Trump’s defeat is decisive. Biden is on track to win as many electoral votes as Trump did in 2016. Biden’s margin in Georgia, which he will probably narrowly win, is more than 25 times larger than the difference in Florida between George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000. Biden enjoys a larger margin in Pennsylvania than Trump got in 2016.
It is a cliche to say, but it’s true: Democracy is above all about the peaceful transfer of power. Trump is shredding those norms for his own egotistical needs. But his actions today will have a large and lasting effect on this country’s politics for decades, creating a cancer that will metastasize in gruesome ways.