Donald Trump’s refusal to commit to accepting the final, official verdict of November’s election has provoked a hue and cry as great as any he has sparked in this long campaign — and that’s saying something. The Republican nominee’s defiance of long-held democratic norms is disturbing, and all the more worrisome because no previous candidate has so consistently and publicly seeded doubts about the presidential election results before the voting even took place.
But Trump’s latest vows aren’t as unprecedented as we keep telling ourselves. While each historical event is unique, we should resist the urge to see Trump as somehow untethered from the American past, as completely unlike all his predecessors. The impulse to cast Trump as a unique threat to the republic has led to a great deal of amnesia and historical airbrushing — creating an idealized picture of a past free of bitterly contested outcomes and crisis. National elections do not always end nicely.
In particular, in their zeal to impugn Trump, some writers have revived the myth that Richard Nixon graciously conceded the 1960 presidential election to John F. Kennedy. According to Lyndon Johnson library director Mark Updegrove, Nixon “subordinated his own ambitions for the sake of governmental continuity” and that Trump “would do well to look at” Nixon’s behavior that year.
That’s a hard claim to endorse. The 1960 election between Nixon and Kennedy was a nail-biter. Although JFK seemed to be headed for victory on election night, the outcome wasn’t clear until the next morning. And because of the national vote distribution, Kennedy emerged with an electoral college lead of nearly 100 electoral votes — enough to put his win safely beyond question.
Unlike in 2000, when Vice President Al Gore’s loss to Texas Gov. George W. Bush hinged on a mere handful of ballots in the state of Florida (a state Gore had reason to think he had rightfully won), Nixon had no real basis for believing that a simple recount could remedy enough tallying errors to swing the national results his way. Among the other obstacles he faced, Nixon would have had to reverse Kennedy’s victories in not one but two large states. Still, the narrowness of JFK’s popular margin led angry Republicans to cry that his triumph was fraudulent and to demand investigations.
Nixon and Republican leaders knew that their chances of prevailing at state election boards or in the courts were slim. But they thought they had a chance, because there was circumstantial evidence of fraud in Illinois and Texas. (In Chicago, Mayor Richard Daley’s machine was famous for its creative and illegal ways of making sure Democrats prevailed in Cook County. Lyndon Johnson’s Texas operation was also said to engage in ballot-box chicanery.) And if the Nixon effort failed? The headlines could still tarnish Kennedy’s victory, motivate hard-core supporters, and perhaps provide Republicans with a rallying cry in future elections.
From the start, Nixon kept the door open to challenges, even as he publicly claimed to take the high road. His 4 a.m. concession to Kennedy, which is sometimes cited as an example of his magnanimity, was pointedly phrased in the conditional tense. “I want Senator Kennedy to know and I want all of you to know,” Nixon said to his supporters, “that if this trend does continue, and he does become our next president, then he will have my whole-hearted support.” It was a classic Nixonian formulation, leaving him room to reverse course.
Nixon always pretended that he resisted challenging the result, rejecting even President Eisenhower’s counsel to fight it. This was a dubious, self-serving claim. Eisenhower early on withdrew his support for a challenge, making it harder for Nixon to press on. Nixon’s friend and biographer Ralph de Toledano wrote that even though the candidate knew Ike opposed a bid to discredit Kennedy’s victory, Nixon nonetheless told people that he, not the president, was the one urging restraint. “This was the first time I ever caught Nixon in a lie,” Toledano noted.
While Nixon stayed at arm’s length for political reasons, Republican officials — led by Republican National Committee Chairman Thruston Morton and including some of Nixon’s closest aides — pressed ahead with challenges in 11 states. This wasn’t something they could ever have done had Nixon wanted to stop them. Robert Finch, a California ally of Nixon’s who would later serve in his Cabinet, deployed operatives around the country to carry out what the Associated Press called “field checks,” trying to gather evidence of massive fraud. Peter Flanigan, who would also serve in high-level Nixon White House posts, worked to create a “Nixon Recount Committee” in Chicago. According to news reports, they accumulated about $100,000 in funding, presumably from Republican donors.
The Republicans managed to get several U.S. attorneys to convene grand juries to investigate, and some cases proceeded through the court system. In late November, it still seemed remotely plausible that these undertakings would bear fruit. “It is now imperative that the results in each state be definitively settled by the time the electoral college meets,” said an editorial in the New York Times on Nov. 26.
In truth, it was only in Illinois, where Kennedy’s margin was about 9,000 votes, that the GOP had anything resembling a case — and flipping that state alone wouldn’t have given Nixon the White House. Still, Morton and RNC Treasurer Meade Alcorn made front-page headlines when they continued to declare Nixon the rightful winner in that state well into November. An unnamed Republican official told Tom Wicker of the New York Times that if Nixon prevailed in Illinois, the GOP “might go all out to reverse the apparent Electoral College victory” that Kennedy was expected to garner when the electoral college met on Dec. 19. Next on the horizon were South Carolina, New Jersey, New Mexico and Nevada, the Times reported.
A down-ballot race, for position of Cook County state’s attorney, provided the occasion for a recount. Republican Ben Adamowski, a longtime Daley antagonist, had lost his office to a Democratic challenger by 25,000 votes. But the recount in his race also examined presidential ballots. In the end, 943 votes had been undercounted, far short of the 4,500 that would have been needed for Nixon to win the state. The Republicans appealed the case to federal court and to the State Board of Elections (which was composed of four Republicans, including the governor, and one Democrat), but it all came to naught. Since then, academics studying the issue have concluded that while some fraud no doubt occurred, it probably wasn’t substantial enough to award the state to Nixon. Certainly, there exists no conclusive evidence, or historical consensus, that the election was stolen.
Meanwhile, in other states, the GOP failed to prove its case. In most instances there was nowhere near enough evidence of fraud or even error to warrant more than small squibs in the newspapers. In New Jersey, for instance, courts authorized recounts in five counties, but by Dec. 1 the state Republican committee found no significant problems in the tally and stood down. In Texas, Nixon lost by a substantial 46,000 ballots, and a federal judge dismissed the case.
Nixon publicly accepted the courts’ decisions, but privately he remained convinced he had been robbed. At a 1960 Christmas party, he was heard greeting guests, “We won, but they stole it from us.” To this day, many people seem to subscribe to this unsubstantiated claim.
There was nothing patriotic or honorable about Nixon’s behavior in 1960. He acted for self-serving reasons in trying to reverse Kennedy’s victory, and he kept his hand hidden because, as he wrote, he feared that “charges of ‘sore loser’ would follow me through history and remove any possibility of a further political career.” His hypocrisy in feigning to take the high road while allowing his allies to do his dirty work does not deserve our admiration.
What relevance does this have for Trump’s talk of fraud, a rigged election and possibly rejecting the election results? First, while Nixon’s behavior in 1960 was different in key ways from Trump’s this year, there are also similarities worth attending to. Although Nixon’s 1960 challenges fell within legal parameters and didn’t constitute an assault on democratic traditions, his grandiose sense of entitlement — his sense, like Trump’s, that if he personally doesn’t win it means, de facto, that the system’s rigged — was on view. In retrospect we can see that it held clues as to the lawless presidency that was to come.
Second, and perhaps more important, we should be careful not to romanticize the past. Our democratic experiment has on the whole been a model to the world, and it should inspire pride, not least in how we peacefully transfer power between presidents. But we should bear in mind there has always been an ugly undercurrent in our history — of resentment of those whose politics are different from our own, of distrust of the duly constituted political authorities, of impatience with democratic norms and procedures. Most of the time, this undercurrent is kept in check, but from time to time it spills over. Our system has been quite good at containing those eruptions, but they remind us that at the bottom there is a fragility to our democracy — a fragility we should take pains never to forget.