Despite his remarks, many Americans cannot — or do not — want to imagine a scenario in which Trump refuses to concede. Republican leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), reaffirmed their commitment to a peaceful transfer of power, without refuting Trump directly. “There will be an orderly transition just as there has been every four years since 1792,” McConnell tweeted. For other Republicans, such as Mitt Romney, the idea of any president refusing to respect this constitutional precedent is “unthinkable.”
The tepid response to Trump’s refusal to agree to a peaceful transition of power is a product of 230 years of precedent. Indeed, there’s no shortage of historical examples that mirror some of the tensions unfolding during the current election. But this long history has given many Americans a false sense of security. There is the feeling that because a president has never refused to leave office before, it cannot happen now.
This was not a belief shared by the founding generation, who understood — better than some of us do today — that the American republic was fragile. Strangely enough, the men who made it knew well that it could be broken.
Early American political leaders worried that the United States would be a short-lived experiment. At many junctures, they believed that the nation could — and very likely would — fall. Threats, both real and imagined, appeared everywhere: domestic insurrection, enslaved rebellion, foreign invasion, partisan division, regional splintering, elite corruption and hoodwinked citizens, to name just a few.
This was not mere paranoia — a republic had yet to survive the test of time. “[They] have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths,” observed James Madison. Likewise, Alexander Hamilton concluded that it was “impossible to read the history of the petty republics of Greece and Italy, without feeling sensations of horror and disgust.”
As for their own attempt, the Founders were far from optimistic about the longevity of the United States. On the eve of his retirement, George Washington urged the citizenry “to moderate the fury of party spirit, to warn against the mischiefs of foreign intrigue, to guard against the impostures of pretended patriotisms.” However, even he conceded that his advice could not “control the usual current of the passions, or prevent our nation from running the course which has hitherto marked the destiny of nations.”
These concerns were nearly realized in the election of 1800 when a tie in the electoral college caused Democratic-Republicans to contemplate installing Thomas Jefferson as president by force of arms. Both the governors of Pennsylvania and Virginia readied their militias for a fight. But after 35 successive ties, a breakthrough in Jefferson’s favor resolved the contest before violence broke out.
American democracy finally splintered after the election of 1860, when Abraham Lincoln won the electoral college without capturing a single Southern state. Although seven states seceded from the Union following Lincoln’s election (and another four after the fall of Fort Sumter), the executive branch still transferred from Democrat James Buchanan to the Republican Lincoln. Rather than contesting the results, secessionists decided to form their own Confederacy.
Even during the resulting Civil War, Americans still turned out to vote in the 1864 election. When Lincoln’s opponent, George B. McClellan, lost, he conceded, despite the fact that the election took place during one of the most tumultuous periods of American history.
In 1876, when a disputed election carried over to the final days before the inauguration and seemed to risk a second civil war, eventually a deal was struck to install Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in the White House.
Likewise, opponents of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt understood the necessity of committing to a peaceful transfer of power and respecting electoral outcomes, despite a global pandemic and American involvement in the First and Second World Wars, respectively. More recently, the 2000 election, one of the closest in American history, led to a recount in Florida, accusations of thrown-out ballots and confusion over hanging chads. The election was ultimately decided in a 5-to-4 Supreme Court decision, and although some supporters urged Democratic nominee Al Gore not to give up the fight, he conceded to George W. Bush on Dec. 13.
All of these elections had their own controversies and challenges, but candidates agreed on one important thing: If you lose, you’re out.
But Trump has repeatedly eschewed democratic norms and, unlike his predecessors, does not view a peaceful transfer of the executive as sacrosanct. Indeed, Trump, and the Republicans who enable him, have proved again and again their commitment to maintaining their own power at any cost.
Trump has stated his intentions clearly and Americans should take him seriously. The failure to do so misunderstands this long political history as evidence of the strength of the United States’ political institutions rather than their inherent fragility. Early Americans knew then what many have forgotten now — that the survival of the American experiment is no sure thing. Governments can collapse; republics can fall, even the United States of America.
A global pandemic, foreign interference, court-stacking, gerrymandering, voter-suppression, armed “militias” and white-supremacist attacks have not shaken the confidence of some. But American democracy won’t endure just because it always has. In this moment, American exceptionalism could prove fatal.