The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Donald Trump’s disregard for our transition rituals threatens our democracy

These rituals ensure the peaceful transfer of power

President-elect Barack Obama is welcomed by President George W. Bush for a meeting at the White House in Washington, with former presidents, from left, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter on Jan. 7, 2009. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

Donald Trump is refusing to concede, demanding that vote counting halt in some places and yet continue in others. He is also asserting widespread fraud without a shred of credible evidence. Following his lead, most elected Republicans are refusing to treat Joe Biden as president-elect, while a Trump appointee has even withheld federal funding for Biden’s transition and agency heads have been directed to cease communication with the Biden team. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went so far as to predict a “smooth transition to a second Trump administration.” Whether Trump will attend Biden’s inauguration is unclear.

Even if Trump leaves the White House willingly, he seems determined to leave the democratic system and the workings of government in shambles.

It has never been this way before. U.S. presidents typically work to smooth the paths forward so that new administrations can begin from a solid foundation. Even during the most fraught of transitions, when the incumbent president has lost, American presidents have a tradition of putting aside the sting of defeat and collaborating with the person who dealt them the blow — all to honor democracy and protect constitutional rule. A defeated president carries enough influence to bring calm to the transition, but — as Trump is proving — he also has tremendous power to disrupt.

Our transition rituals date back to 1800, the first time a defeated president had to hand power to the other party. Questions swirled about whether John Adams’s Federalists would really hand control of government to Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans — involuntarily, but peacefully.

Although Adams declined to attend Jefferson’s inaugural, he vacated office. And the new president tried to unify Americans in his first inaugural address, proclaiming, “We are all Republicans; we are all Federalists.” This gesture of unity ended up establishing a new American political tradition: the presidential transition.

It has grown into a sequence of full-blown political rituals that guide the nation from the elation and grief following an election through the moment a new administration assumes power. These political rituals provide comfort and predictability, reassuring us that while presidents might come and go, institutions and the rule of law are constant.

The transition begins with a concession, in which the defeated candidate acknowledges their rival’s victory, and in the interest of national unity, praises the democratic process and its outcomes and maintains that Americans’ shared values are more important than the issues that divide them. Concession settles any lingering doubt about the election and throws the defeated candidate’s support toward the president-elect. The first public concession came in a telegram from William Jennings Bryan to William McKinley in 1896, in which Bryan proclaimed that “we have submitted the issue to the American people and their will is law.” The custom of giving a speech dates from the advent of communications technology: first radio, and then film and television.

Concessions have come even in the most excruciatingly close elections, including 1960, 1976, 2000 and 2016 — often when the defeated candidate’s supporters want him to fight on.

Concessions are especially important from defeated presidents; should they refuse to concede, they can disrupt the transition. Aware of this, one-term presidents have generally been magnanimous in loss. In 1980, Jimmy Carter expressed his “deep appreciation … of the system that lets people make a free choice.” In 1992, George H.W. Bush reminded his supporters that he, President-elect Bill Clinton and “all Americans share[d] the same purpose: to make this, the world’s greatest nation, more safe and secure and to guarantee every American a shot at the American Dream.” These speeches expressed a shared respect for democratic institutions that superseded an individual candidate’s will to win.

The next milestone of the transition consists of meetings between the outgoing and incoming presidents. These meetings serve multiple purposes: to fill in the president-elect on policy and national security issues and to provide a visible display of a seamless transition from one first family to the next.

Such meetings can be awkward, especially when a defeated president attempts (usually unsuccessfully) to convince his successor to carry on signature policy initiatives. In 1932 and early 1933, for example, Herbert Hoover hosted two meetings with Franklin D. Roosevelt during which he lobbied Roosevelt to continue Republican economic policies to address the Great Depression. Their contentious exchange culminated with a shouting match in the White House during a ceremonial tea the day before the inauguration.

Other meetings were more constructive. Gerald Ford offered to host Jimmy Carter’s entire transition team in the White House in 1976 (a presidential first), and four years later, Carter likewise hosted Ronald Reagan’s transition team in the White House movie theater.

Meetings between the presidents’ spouses are also a significant part of the transition process. They can alleviate anxiety and project an image of calm. The White House meeting between Betty Ford and Roslyn Carter in 1976 transformed a friendly acquaintance into a close friendship between these women and their husbands. The meeting between Barbara and George H.W. Bush and Hillary and Bill Clinton in 1992 came after a contentious campaign that was peppered with personal attacks — but also after President Bush’s gracious concession speech. The couples’ first social meeting after the election was warm and congenial; it marked the beginning of a decades-long friendship and collaboration in service work, despite political and generational differences.

Finally, the ritual and pageantry of Inauguration Day — in which the outgoing president, vice president and their spouses participate fully in handing off power — completes the transition. The incoming first couple traditionally meets their predecessors at the White House and rides together to the Capitol.

That has not always been the case: In 1801, 1829 and 1869, Adams, his son John Quincy Adams and Andrew Johnson all skipped their successors’ swearing-ins due to bad blood. In the latter case, Ulysses S. Grant so despised Johnson that he refused to ride to the Capitol in the same carriage.

But Grover Cleveland — the only sitting president to have the distinction of being defeated twice, once in a general election and once when his party failed to renominate him — adhered to the ritual in the late 19th century. After both losses, Cleveland sportingly attended his successors’ inaugurations. Since then, all one-term presidents have witnessed the men who defeated them take the Oath of Office.

The ride to the Capitol can be awkward after a rough campaign. While Hoover and Roosevelt shared a blanket to fight the cold on Inauguration Day 1933, the ride was as chilly in mood as in temperature. Ronald Reagan observed that Jimmy Carter seemed awkward and distant during their shared limousine ride to the Capitol. Carter was pensive, but his mood stemmed less from losing an election than from his worries about the deal he had forged with Iran during the waning hours of his term to release American hostages.

Bush exemplified the spirit of the transition when he began a new ritual, leaving a letter in the Oval Office for Clinton. “You will be our President when you read this note,” Bush wrote to his onetime rival. “I am rooting hard for you,” he added.

Trump, by contrast, seems to be rejecting the entire series of rituals, with potentially dangerous consequences. He has rejected the results of the election and encouraged his supporters to do the same. But when defeated candidates set aside their disappointment, celebrate the democratic process and support the victor, that reflects a civic virtue that places the office above individual desire and ego, ensures continuity of government and secures confidence in our democratic system. It is this virtue that compels politicians in both parties to subordinate their own ambitions to the public good and achieves a peaceful exchange of power.

Instead, Trump is fostering a new political culture that repudiates ritual and along with it the value of institutions over individuals. Following his lead, Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) and Republican John James in Michigan have yet to concede their Senate races despite insurmountable deficits. Further, many leading Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), have either refrained from encouraging Trump to concede or coaxed him to dispute the election results until he has exhausted all other options. In doing so, they fuel suspicion of the system and champion the worship of the man over the office — and over the rule of law.

The destruction of our transition rituals by a president who seeks to hold on to power should awaken deep concern. Abandoning these traditions could do deep damage to American trust in elections and our tradition of a peaceful transfer of power. Political ritual is crucial to our political process; it serves as a constant reminder that the office is more important than the officeholder.