"I'm afraid the election is going to be rigged." - Donald Trump, speaking at a campaign rally in Ohio, August 1, 2016
When the overtime period of the 2000 Bush-Gore election finally came to its messy end, many Democrats were consumed by anger.
It had the feel of a slow motion coup: the blown election night projections, the tragicomic, squinty-eyed examination of hanging chads, the rank incompetence of the butterfly ballot design, the theatrical bullying of the Brooks Brothers riot, the colossal self-absorption of Ralph Nader. By the time the Supreme Court finally brought the curtain down on December 12th, lots of people were ready to take their discontent to the streets.
Then, on December 13th, Al Gore delivered his concession.
Much praised at the time, too often forgotten today, Gore's speech was less a political statement and more a love letter to America -- a self-sacrificing, gracious and bitterness-free affirmation that our country and its institutions were bigger and more precious than any single candidate or election. The responsibilities of governance might have fallen upon Bush, but for a few moments that day, responsibility for the endurance of our democracy fell upon Gore, and he delivered. Read the whole thing. It'll take you less than three minutes.
We take concessions for granted in this country. We simply assume that losing candidates will dutifully congratulate the winners and then depart the stage. And so it has been -- thank goodness -- throughout the American experience.
But like much else in this strange election year, perhaps our confidence in this historic norm is misplaced. After all, around the world, there have been innumerable examples of election losers who simply refused to acknowledge their defeat. Losers who shaped elaborate conspiracy myths, who incited mobs to violence, who perpetrated fraud to conceal their loss, who attempted desperately to cling to power.
Can you imagine Donald Trump delivering a concession speech? I can't. I mean that quite literally.
Even when such actions do not escalate into bloodshed, the damage can be grave, intensifying the divisions of a campaign, until they explode into mutually distrustful hatred. If you think the hyper-partisan atmosphere of present-day American politics is bad, just wait until a loser refuses to concede.
Which raises this question: can you imagine Donald Trump delivering a concession speech?
I mean that quite literally. I can't imagine the words coming out of his mouth.
Maybe it is unfair to hold someone accountable for their presumed future actions (or inactions.) But everything about Trump's character and conduct suggests that he would be utterly incapable of admitting loss or of urging unity around a victorious opponent.
Even if buried in a landslide, it seems far more likely that Trump would challenge the validity of the outcome, or lash out to assign blame, or otherwise characterize the vote as an illegitimate denial of the people's will.
Pathological bully, braggart, narcissist, confabulator -- choose your descriptor. They all apply to the Republican nominee for president in 2016. And these are not the characteristics of someone who would ever -- could ever -- put nation above self, especially at a moment of personally humiliating defeat. He has rejected every other norm of civil discourse, up to and including insulting a Gold Star mother. He has rejected even the pretense of respecting the rule of law, up to and including inviting a foreign power to conduct espionage against American leaders. Why should a concession be any different?
Already, Trump appears to be laying the groundwork for a refusal to concede, telling a crowd in Ohio, without a shred of evidence for the claim, that "I'm afraid the election is going to be rigged." If Trump continues to trail in the polls as November approaches, look for this statement to be repeated.
Vince Lombardi famously said, "show me a good loser, and I'll show you a loser." That may be true of football. But democracy needs good losers. And a candidate who is incapable of forgoing power should never, ever be entrusted with power in the first place.