Unprecedented as it may be in American history, Donald Trump’s persistent refusal to concede the presidential election should not come as a surprise to anyone. Time and again, the president has committed to accepting the will of voters only if he won — a threat he also made when running for president in 2016. He even baselessly challenged the legitimacy of the results of the election that delivered him the presidency four years ago so that he could falsely claim that he also won the popular vote, which he actually lost by about 2.9 million votes. In the end, this is just who Trump is: a man who will not ever admit defeat, no matter how obvious.
But Trump — whose reckless antidemocratic antics are to be expected, even as they are unacceptable — was not the lone loser in this year’s presidential contest. Mike Pence, who lost his bid for reelection as vice president, has so far taken the president’s lead and also shamelessly chosen to abandon democracy by his public silence on the election outcome. The vice president, therefore, bears responsibility for the thwarted transition and the ongoing delusions of American voters who believe the election was stolen.
Trump and Pence lost by more than 7 million popular votes and by 74 Electoral College votes, and the evidence is clear that their claims of voter fraud are vacuous. With Trump still engaged in craven efforts to stay in office — and with the inauguration less than a month away — it now falls to the vice president to face reality and concede in unequivocal terms, making clear to Trump-Pence supporters that his ticket lost fair and square in a legitimate election. Doing so would help restore public trust in the electoral process and close the door on Trump’s assault on American democracy.
Pence came to be on the Republican ticket in 2016 in part because he provided some contrast with Trump’s bombastic rhetoric and erratic behavior. His role was to provide a semblance of normalcy in Washington if they won. As The New York Times wrote after he was chosen to be the vice presidential candidate, “If selecting Mr. Pence would seem to be a concession to standard political imperatives, the move is also a gamble for Mr. Trump, who has typically valued his allies for their deep loyalty and public feistiness, rather than for the workmanlike political abilities that Mr. Pence embodies.”
But over the course of the last four years, Pence has proved himself to be an ineffective leader in a time of crisis and rendered his “workmanlike political abilities” useless. Throughout Trump’s tumultuous presidency, he was just another one of the president’s yes-men — a lackey who seemed to believe that standing patiently behind Trump in his most sinister moments would eventually deliver Pence to the presidency, his long-held dream. And now, as Trump continues his attempts to overturn the election and effectively end democracy in America, Pence, who has lost and conceded elections before, is still standing ever so silently by the president’s side.
Over the weekend, the Times reported an apparent escalation in Trump’s attempt to stage a coup, with the president discussing the idea of using the military to “rerun” the election in states he lost and seizing voting machines across the country, which his lawyer Rudy Giuliani separately pressured the Department of Homeland Security to do. While these outlandish antidemocratic attempts are all but guaranteed to fail (with even outgoing Attorney General Bill Barr refusing to entertain them), they are still damaging American democracy.
Pence has one last chance to stand up for democracy and slam the brakes on Trump’s dangerous actions. By choosing to concede the election that he lost, Pence would undercut the president’s lies, leaving less room for their supporters to falsely believe that the election was illegitimate. And if Pence believes in democracy, which he has yet to prove he does, he would use his final days in office to make the transfer of power more peaceful than what the president has offered.
Unless he does so, Pence’s political cowardice should cast him in the same lot as Trump and his inner circle of conspiracy theorists and be part of his enduring political legacy. As a candidate who lost the 2020 election and, like Trump, has yet to acknowledge the results, Pence shoulders a unique responsibility to stop the president’s childish nonsense. What he chooses to do now ought to determine how history will remember him: as a man who stood in the way of an authoritarian president, or as a treacherous vice president who stood in the way of democracy.
Mitt Romney, the last Republican nominee to lose a presidential election, has called Trump’s efforts to overturn the results “sad” and “embarrassing.” It’s time to say the same of Pence, whose silence will remain complicity until he breaks it.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.