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Will Trump cling to power even if he loses? Spoiler alert: No

Photo illustration by Lesley Becker/Globe Staff; Globe file photos; Adobe

Another news cycle, another round of anti-Trump hyperventilation, this time over the prospect that the 45th president of the United States won’t leave the White House when it’s time to make way for the 46th.

Not surprisingly, the nonsense began on Twitter.

Trump sycophant Jerry Falwell Jr. tweeted over the weekend that the president’s term should be extended by two years to compensate for the Russia investigation — “payback for time stolen by this corrupt failed coup,” in Falwell’s words. Trump retweeted the jeer, following it with his own complaint that “they have stolen two years” from his presidency “that we will never be able to get back.”


Typical Trumpian chain-yanking, in other words, combined with typical Trumpian self-pity — the usual sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Yet within hours the Washington Post was reporting Trump’s gibe as a potentially ominous political development. His words were “perhaps tongue-in-cheek,” it acknowledged. But “some legal experts. . . saw the president’s apparent longing to overstay his four-year term in office as an assault on the rule of law.” It quoted Michael Cohen, the former Trump lawyer/fixer, who told the House Oversight Committee in February he feared that Trump would refuse to go even if voters give him the boot. “If he loses the election in 2020,” Cohen had said, there might “never be a peaceful transition of power.”

Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told the New York Times that Democrats had to win by a commanding margin in 2020, or Trump would contest the election results. Then CNN turned up the volume, asking: “What happens if Donald Trump refuses to admit he lost in 2020?” Trump biographer Michael D’Antonio predicted that if the president is defeated in his reelection bid next year, “he’ll try to cook up some reason to stay.” Soon Harvard law professor Larry Tribe was on the bandwagon. And The Intercept’s Mehdi Hasan. And MSNBC’s Joy Reid.


Republicans reacted to this left-wing frenzy with hoots of derision. But they have their fever swamps, too. A few years ago it was conspiracy-mongers on the right who were getting worked up over the prospect that a detested president would refuse to yield power.

In 2014, Ben Carson — then a noted neurosurgeon, now US secretary of Housing and Urban Development — told an interviewer that President Obama might declare martial law and cancel the 2016 election.

That was “no stretch of the imagination,” right-wing radio host Bob Siegel assured his followers in 2015: Given Obama’s “utter contempt for American law, many are concerned that this president will not step down from office.” Three months before the 2016 election, the conservative website American Thinker took up the alarm in a piece headlined “If Obama cancels the presidential election, who will stop him?” And when word spread widely on social media that Obama had announced he would refuse — “in the best interests of our nation” — to vacate the White House if Trump were elected, the fact-checkers at felt compelled to point out that the source of the blockbuster story was a fake news parody site.

Reality check: Since 1789, US presidential elections have been conducted like clockwork every four years, unimpeded even by civil war. For 222 years, presidents have been handing over power peacefully to their successors — not always graciously, but unfailingly. You have to be from Kookville to seriously believe that any president, however egotistical, would try to block an election or prevent an inauguration.


But Kookville has more residents that you’d think.

“The [George W.] Bush administration has both the inclination and the power to cancel the 2008 election,” warned liberal activists Harvey Wasserman and Bob Fitrakis in a long Common Dreams essay in 2007. “Those who think this crew will quietly walk away from power are simply not paying attention.” The renowned singer Willie Nelson told conspiracy theorist Alex Jones that Bush and his operatives were likely to find a pretext to nullify the election and “stay in power.” In The Nation magazine, New York University law professor Stephen Gillers imagined a scenario by which Bush might indefinitely “postpone” the 2008 election.

Before Bush, it was Bill Clinton who supposedly schemed to cling to power even after his lawful term was up. Yet Clinton left when he was supposed to, just as Bush and Obama did. If we do nothing else right in this country, we know how to transfer power. John Adams, the first president to lose an election, wasn’t happy to surrender his office, but he bowed to the voters’ will. So has every defeated president. So will Trump, if he loses next year. He may do it with bad manners and a torrent of tweeted insults. But when the time comes, he’ll go.


Jeff Jacoby can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby. To subscribe to his free weekly newsletter, Arguable, click here.