The last time an incumbent American president lost a re-election bid, Americans saw a Republican capable of dignity and grace. "The people have spoken," George H.W. Bush said, "and we respect the majesty of the democratic system." Though the sting of defeat was still fresh, the outgoing president reminded supporters, "There is important work to be done, and America must always come first."
Donald Trump, evidently, has chosen a very different course. The Republican incumbent has decided to reject the results he doesn't like, brazenly lie to the public, concoct foolish conspiracy theories, and attack his own country's democracy in ways no living American has ever seen from their president.
How unusual are these circumstances? Thomas Edsall reached out to a rather large group of historians and constitutional scholars "to see how they explain what should be an inexplicable response to an election conducted in a modern democracy." Several used the "U" word.
For example, James Kloppenberg, a professor of American history at Harvard, responded to the inquiry in great detail, though he acknowledged at the outset, "Trump's refusal to acknowledge defeat is unprecedented." Samuel Moyn, a Yale historian, added, "I think we will come to understand him as the weakest recent president, and this 'unprecedented' situation in which he refuses to acknowledge election results is just more proof."
Americans have seen close and contested elections, but Jonathan Gienapp, a professor of history at Stanford, added, "[N]one of these earlier examples featured what we see now: a completely manufactured controversy based on no evidence whatsoever, purely to maintain power, and to overturn a legitimate election."
That said, it's worth narrowing the focus a bit, because while the United States is wholly unaccustomed to such autocratic tantrums, these are familiar circumstances across much of the world. The New York Times noted today the degree to which Trump is "joining a club of truculent leaders who, regardless of what voters decide, declare themselves the winners of elections."
That club counts as its members far more dictators, tyrants and potentates than leaders of what used to be known as the "free world" — countries that, led by Washington, have for decades lectured others on the need to hold elections and respect the result.
All of this, of course, comes with relevant caveats. Trump has not turned to violence or the use of force to crush opposition forces. He also did not cancel the election for fear of losing. While the Republican is in the midst of an ugly tantrum, there is no doubt that he will vacate the White House in 69 days.
But after months in which the outgoing American leader took steps to undermine his country's electoral system, and practically begged his attorney general to prosecute his opponent -- whom Trump said should not be "allowed" to run against him -- Trump is doing what autocrats often do: denounce election results they don't like, while concocting ridiculous theories to reject opposition votes as illegitimate.
"[T]he United States has never before had to force an incumbent to concede a fair defeat at the polls," the Times added. "And merely by raising the possibility that he would have to be forced out of office, Mr. Trump has shattered the bedrock democratic tradition of a seamless transition." The article went on to note:
Among the anti-democratic tactics Mr. Trump has adopted are some that were commonly employed by leaders like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela and Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia — refusing to concede defeat and hurling unfounded accusations of electoral fraud. The tactics also include undermining confidence in democratic institutions and the courts, attacking the press and vilifying opponents.
Serhii Plokhy, a Harvard historian, said, "Trump's behavior is without precedent among leaders in Western democracies. Even in military dictatorships, the dictators more often than not honor the results of elections and they retire if they lose them."
I hope Republicans who stand with Trump take note of just what they're endorsing.