Yet the president still refuses to acknowledge that outcome. Perhaps fearful of incurring the wrath of Republican voters, 70 percent of whom believe Trump’s claim that the election was marred by widespread fraud, most GOP officials and members of Congress have supported Trump’s unjustified intransigence — though an increasing number of Republican senators seem ready to accept reality now that the electoral college has officially voted.
While Trump insists that only he can “make America great again,” he cannot or will not recognize that part of what makes this country great is the understanding that democracy does not work if those who lose an election refuse to accept the outcome.
This lesson is an integral part of the GOP’s legacy. In 1860, the South refused to accept the election of the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, and went to war to establish its own slaveholding nation. In 2020, only a few Republicans — most prominently Texas GOP Chairman Allen West — have floated the idea of secession. Instead, today’s losers hope to maintain control of the White House through legal and political machinations regardless of the people’s will. Yet despite this difference, the threat to popular government remains the same.
Indeed, it is remarkable how applicable Lincoln’s condemnation of secession is now to the party he helped establish. Secession, the 16th president explained in his first inaugural address, was “the essence of anarchy.” A majority, restrained by the constitutional rights of minorities, was “the only true sovereign of a free people.” Those who reject the will of the majority invite chaos and tyranny. Unanimity is impossible, Lincoln concluded, and “the rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissible; so that, rejecting the majority principle, anarchy, or despotism in some form, is all that is left.”
By adopting the name “Republican,” Lincoln’s new party attempted to invoke the authority of the nation’s Founders in its struggle against the expansion of slavery in the 1850s. In 1860-1861, when Southern states tried to secede rather than accept the people’s verdict that slavery was wrong and must eventually end, the Republican position on democracy conformed to what James Madison and Alexander Hamilton had envisioned.
In Federalist No. 10, and again in Federalist No. 14, Madison attempted to clear up “the confusion of names” that persisted around the words “democracy” and “republic.” Democracy meant “pure democracy,” or direct democracy, “a society consisting of a small number of citizens who assemble and administer the government in person.” A republic, on the other hand, was synonymous with representative democracy, “the delegation of the government … to a small number of citizens elected by the rest.” A republic was far preferable, in Madison’s view, because in a small democracy a majority could more easily unite and oppress the minority, while a republic would encompass a greater variety of interests. The latter was, therefore, a safeguard against majority tyranny, not a repudiation of majority rule as a general principle.
Similarly, Hamilton noted in Federalist No. 22 that the Constitution would be superior to the Articles of Confederation because the Articles, by giving each state one vote in Congress, “contradicts that fundamental maxim of republican government, which requires that the sense of the majority should prevail.”
It is certainly true that compromises in the Constitution violate that maxim, most notably the Senate and the electoral college. (Madison and Hamilton both opposed state equality in the Senate.) In fact, Lincoln was himself a minority president. He only won a plurality of the popular vote in 1860 but would have won in the electoral college even if all opposition votes had been cast for one candidate rather than three. Nevertheless, Lincoln repeatedly emphasized both freedom and majority rule as cornerstones of the Union.
After the fall of Fort Sumter, the new president issued a proclamation calling for 75,000 troops and defining the war as an effort to secure “the perpetuity of popular government.” In his first message to Congress on July 4, 1861, he noted that “our popular government has often been called an experiment” and maintained that the fate of the United States “presents to the whole family of man, the question, whether a constitutional republic, or a democracy — a government of the people, by the same people” could successfully defend itself against a rebellious minority.
And it was at Gettysburg in November 1863 where Lincoln most eloquently characterized the war as a struggle on the part of the Union to ensure that “government of the people, by the people, for the people” — a government “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” — would not “perish from the earth.”
Moreover, unlike Trump, Lincoln’s devotion to popular government did not waver when it appeared that the will of the people might turn against him. In August 1864, with no end to the war in sight and Northern morale at its nadir, Lincoln concluded that he could not win reelection. “Then it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President elect,” Lincoln wrote, “as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he can not possibly save it afterwards.” (The fall of Atlanta on Sept. 1 restored Lincoln’s political standing and positioned Democrats for a crushing defeat in November.)
Now, 156 years later, the Republican Party is rejecting the defense of majority rule that animated Lincoln’s presidency. Trump — who has consistently defended the legacy of the Confederacy, and in so doing has allied himself with white supremacists — is attempting to cling to power after being rejected at the polls. His efforts to overturn the 2020 election appear rather bumbling, yet his determination to discredit the results, which became obvious long before the election, could easily incite violence, even though judge after judge, including some appointed by Trump himself, have rejected his claims. And in a final doomed ploy, some GOP senators and representatives may attempt to sabotage Biden’s election when Congress counts the electoral votes on Jan. 6 — a tactic Lincoln feared Southerners would use in early 1861.
By refusing to accept defeat, Trump and his craven supporters in the GOP threaten the experiment in popular government that Abraham Lincoln gave his life to preserve. Today’s Republican Party seems to have adopted “We’re a republic, not a democracy!” as a mantra to rationalize the exercise of power in defiance of a national majority. This is a significant departure from the Party of Lincoln and one that threatens the entire American system of governance.