“As newspapers and media across the country and around the world reported Joe Biden’s victory and Donald Trump’s defeat in last week’s election, Trump himself — along with his Republican allies in Congress, including the entire Senate majority leadership and the Republican House minority leadership — remained defiant.
I queried a number of American historians and constitutional scholars to see how they explain what should be an inexplicable response to an election conducted in a modern democracy — an election in which Republican victories up and down the ballot are accepted unquestioningly, while votes for president-elect Biden on the same ballots are not.
Many of those I questioned see this discrepancy as stemming from Trump’s individual personality and characterological deficiencies — what they call his narcissism and his sociopathy. Others offer a more starkly political interpretation: that the refusal to accept Biden’s victory stems from the frustration of a Republican Party struggling to remain competitive in the face of an increasingly multicultural electorate. In the end, it appears to be a mixture of both.
Many observers believe that the current situation presents a particularly dangerous mix, one that poses a potentially grave danger to American democracy.
Jonathan Gienapp, a professor of history at Stanford and the author of “The Second Creation: Fixing the American Constitution in the Founding Era,” noted by email that there have been close, contested elections in the past,
But none 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.
In this context,
Trump’s refusal to concede and his congressional allies’ refusal to object to what he is doing is indeed most dangerous. If it continues to be given oxygen, it’s hard not to think that there could be lasting damage to the republic.
This, Gienapp concluded, “is what rot looks like.”
James T. Kloppenberg, a professor of American history at Harvard, responded to my inquiry with a broad overview, worth quoting at length:
Trump’s refusal to acknowledge defeat is unprecedented. Yet it is consistent with everything he’s done throughout his life, so it should not surprise us. While political scientists often focus on institutions and political practices, democracy, where it exists, rests on deeper cultural predispositions that are harder to see. Unless a culture has internalized the norms of deliberation, pluralism, and above all reciprocity, there is no reason to concede to your worst enemy when he wins an election, nor is there any reason to acknowledge the legitimacy of opponents.
It is just these underpinnings of democracy that Trump threatens, especially now:
Norm-busting has been Trump’s modus operandi from a very early age, so to expect him now to conform to democratic norms is unrealistic. Conceding defeat is a tradition consistent with the ethic of reciprocity: you admit defeat, move on, work with those you disagree with, and try to win the next election. Establishing those norms is the work of centuries, not decades. The colonies that became the United States had been at it since the 1630s. By 1787 those cultural pillars were already in place.
Trump’s behavior, Kloppenberg argues, is the culmination of long-term developments within Republican ranks:
Many conservatives considered the New Deal a repudiation of the laissez-faire dogmas they claimed were written into American life. They were wrong about that, as a generation of progressives had shown for decades before FDR’s election. But from Goldwater and Reagan through Gingrich to the present, many Republicans have viewed deviations from what they consider the gospel of free-market capitalism as heresy. Of course there has never been anything remotely resembling a free market in the United States. State, local, and federal governments were involved in daily life from the nation’s first days. But the fantasy of unrestrained capitalism has endured, as has the strategy of condemning as ‘un-American’ anyone who dares suggest otherwise. Given Trump’s four years of hate-mongering and his stubborn refusal to acknowledge reality, his behavior since the election is to be expected — and criticized as the direct challenge to democracy that it is.