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Trump won’t concede the 2020 election to Biden. Here’s why that matters.


Neither the Constitution nor federal law requires losing candidates to concede presidential elections. But not one of the many people who have failed to win the presidency, even in contests with narrow vote margins or legitimate concerns about the process, has challenged the results through to inauguration. And we haven’t seen any concession yet from President Donald Trump, who so far shows no signs of abandoning various quixotic challenges to his loss. He’s not getting much GOP pressure, either. “Let’s not have any lectures about how the president should immediately, cheerfully accept preliminary election results from the same characters who just spent four years refusing to accept the validity of the last election,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Monday.

We have not seen any concession yet from President Donald Trump, who so far shows no signs of abandoning various quixotic challenges to his loss.

All of which is to say we may not be seeing a concession from Trump for a while. So why, besides civility, does this matter? Although not legally necessary for a new president to take power, a concession remains useful for two main reasons: It begins a smooth transition of power across the executive branch, and it makes it clear that losing candidates won’t encourage their followers to seek to achieve through violence what they couldn’t achieve at the polls.

Although 2020’s has been a particularly polarizing election, even bitter rivals have historically swallowed their pride. After calling Donald Trump to concede in 2016, Hillary Clinton declared, “Our constitutional democracy enshrines the peaceful transfer of power, and we don’t just respect that, we cherish it.” Four and eight years earlier, respectively, Mitt Romney and Sen. John McCain had shown similar grace in accepting their electoral fates. In fact, losing presidential candidates’ concession telegrams, phone calls and speeches have been a feature of the American electoral landscape and political culture since the late 19th century.

The vast majority of these statements, however, weren’t made by incumbents. In America’s history, fewer than a dozen sitting presidents have been voted out after only four years. So while we wait to see what comes next during this vital transition period, it’s worth taking a look at what previous candidates running to stay in the White House — those politicians holding the powers of the presidency and seeking to retain them — have done when the results became clear. Perhaps history will help guide the Oval Office’s current resident.

George Washington’s first successor, John Adams, was ousted in his re-election bid. He didn’t react by directing government officials or his partisan followers to take up arms against the victorious Thomas Jefferson. Adams avoided his successor’s inauguration, yes — but he also did nothing to stop it. The same holds true for all nine other incumbents who, before 2020, came up short when they wanted to keep the reins of power. They stepped aside without causing trouble.

The three most recent incumbents voted out at the polls — George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford — highlight the class and dignity with which this can be done.

The three most recent incumbents voted out at the polls — George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford — highlight the class and dignity with which this can be done.

Bush, after losing a bitter campaign in 1992 to up-and-comer Bill Clinton, said: “The people have spoken, and we respect the majesty of the democratic system. … And I want the country to know that our entire administration will work closely with his team to ensure the smooth transition of power. There is important work to be done, and America must always come first.”

Carter conceded the 1980 election to challenger Ronald Reagan even before polls closed on the West Coast (angering allies, who suspected that his early concession dampened turnout there for down-ballot Democratic candidates). “The people of the United States have made their choice, and, of course, I accept that decision, but, I have to admit, not with the same enthusiasm that I accepted the decision four years ago,” Carter said. “I have a deep appreciation of the system, however, that lets people make the free choice about who will lead them for the next four years. … I look forward to working closely with him during the next few weeks. We’ll have a very fine transition period. I told him I wanted the best one in history.”

Ford, only four years earlier, had ensured a peaceful transition to Carter with these words: “I want to assure you that you will have my complete and wholehearted support as you take the oath of office this January. I also pledge to you that I and all members of my administration will do all that we can to ensure that you begin your term as smoothly and as effectively as possible.”

Each of these men emphasized one of the two reasons concessions matter: the importance of handing off a functioning executive branch to the new commander-in-chief and the necessary prevention of any political violence.

There is legislation on the books that seeks to facilitate a coordinated and orderly transition. But outgoing presidents can still leave an utter mess behind, undermining a new administration’s initial attempts to lead the country’s departments and agencies. Instructing senior officials to cooperate with incoming officials only to the minimal extent required by law, for example, could leave vast amounts of policy hanging. Imagine coming into the State Department only to find that departing political appointees refuse to discuss ongoing diplomatic issues. Or worse, imagine a conscious decision by outgoing officials to initiate foreign policy crises in the closing hours of the administration for the new crew to struggle with as it moves in. Better to accept the election’s result and contribute to good governance, for the benefit of all.

The second reason for a smooth transition, to maintain domestic harmony, feels even more urgent in 2020. Elections are competitive, fractious events. By definition, they expose divisions; often, they inflame tensions. Trump’s campaign at times seemed to emphasize the latter, including his refusal to disavow armed “militia” members — some of whom are even accused of plotting to kidnap a Democratic governor. A concession by the losing side’s standard-bearer signals to riled-up supporters that the political fight is over and shouldn’t evolve into physical conflict.

Many countries have experienced street battles and even civil wars after contentious elections. The United States has fared much better thus far. And much of the credit for that goes to the losing presidential candidates who, for the greater good, have communicated their acceptance of outcomes they didn’t like.

There has rarely been a better time to remember that — and to unite.

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