“An election does not end when the winner declares victory,” wrote Scott Farris in “Almost President,” his 2011 study of unsuccessful presidential candidates. “It ends only when the loser concedes defeat. This may seem a minor distinction, but it is what makes American democracy work.”
If Farris’s book comes out in an updated edition, that line may need to be changed. For while Donald Trump has lost the 2020 presidential election, he evinces no intention of conceding the race to Joe Biden. Having spent four years in the White House shattering longstanding norms, Trump is now wrecking another of the unwritten but crucial expectations of presidential politics — the duty to accept defeat with dignity and submit to the people’s decision.
Nobody likes to be beaten in a contest, and there have always been graceless losers. But a tennis player who smashes his racket when he loses a set or an NBA superstar who refuses to shake hands when another team wins ultimately affects only his own reputation. A presidential candidate who won’t acknowledge defeat, on the other hand, undermines the legitimacy of American democracy and inflames partisan rancor just when the need for reconciliation is greatest.
Vanquished presidential contenders from John Adams to Hillary Clinton accepted the loss and ended the fight. Every incumbent defeated for reelection cooperated with the peaceful transfer of power to the victor. In two elections (1800 and 1824), the Electoral College results were inconclusive and the contest was decided by the House of Representatives; the disputed 1876 election was eventually settled through a bipartisan compromise. But even in those cases, the losing candidate made clear that he acquiesced in the outcome.
Andrew Jackson won the most votes in 1824, and his supporters raged when an alleged “corrupt bargain” led to John Quincy Adams becoming president instead. Yet the day after the decision was reached, Jackson approached Adams at a social event and greeted him with no hint of acrimony: “How do you do, Mr. Adams?” Jackson said. “I hope you are very well, sir.” His courteous demeanor was widely noted. “You have, by your dignity and forbearance under all these outrages, won the people to your love,” one admirer wrote. Jackson came back four years later to defeat Adams in a rematch.
For well over a century, it has been an unbroken tradition in American politics that the losing candidate publicly concedes to the winner, thereby signaling that the fight for the White House is over and bowing to the voters’ judgment. The custom began in 1896, when William Jennings Bryan sent a telegram to William McKinley, who had defeated him to become the 25th president of the United States. “I hasten to extend my congratulations,” wrote Bryan. “We have submitted the issue to the American people and their will is law.”
When President William Howard Taft was trounced in the 1912 election, he not only congratulated Woodrow Wilson but issued a statement calling on all Republicans to support the Constitution, “close ranks and march forward.” In 1932, another defeated president — Herbert Hoover — sent Franklin D. Roosevelt a telegram wishing him “a most successful administration,” and promising that “in the common purpose of all of us I shall dedicate myself to every possible effort.”
With the rise of television came the concession speech, and some of the most affecting moments in US presidential history.
“It is traditionally American to fight hard before an election. It is equally traditional to close ranks as soon as the people have spoken,” said Adlai Stevenson after losing to Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. Unlike Trump — who insists the election was rigged through massive fraud and keeps telling his followers “WE WILL WIN!” — Stevenson urged his voters “to give to General Eisenhower the support he will need to carry out the great tasks that lie before him. I pledge him mine.”
Trump supporters fume that Hillary Clinton and many leading Democrats called Trump an illegitimate president and spent years accusing him of colluding with Russia to win the 2016 election.
Yet as soon as the votes were counted in 2016, Clinton did what unsuccessful presidential candidates are supposed to do: She conceded defeat, congratulated her opponent, and expressed the “hope that he will be a successful president for all Americans.” Never did she suggest that his Electoral College majority should be treated as fraudulent. “We must accept this result and then look to the future,” she told her legion of supporters. “Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead.”
Richard Nixon similarly took the high road in 1960, after losing to John F. Kennedy in the closest presidential election in history. So did Al Gore when the Supreme Court ended the protracted recount in Florida 20 years ago.
So should Trump.
No law compels the defeated 45th president to make a concession speech. But the nation’s civic health deeply requires it. There is no other way to break the fever of an inflamed and angry election campaign — to leach away some of the poison that has sickened the body politic, and allow recuperation to begin. Trump’s presidency will end on Jan. 20, with or without his cooperation. But if he keeps denying that voters denied him a second term, if he goads his supporters into treating Biden as a usurper, he will inflict lasting damage on the electoral process that for more than two centuries has enabled the peaceful transition of power in America. We take such transitions for granted, but that may end if Trump refuses to concede.
Like all defeated candidates, Trump is morally obliged to put country before ego. If he fails to do so, he will not only be shattering another norm but inflicting lasting harm on the country he professes to love.