Are we really surprised that the anti-establishment presidential candidate is unwilling to say whether he will accept the outcome of the election on Nov. 8?
During Wednesday night’s debate, Fox News moderator Chris Wallace did a remarkable job keeping the candidates on track and focused on substantial issues. The biggest news to come out of the 90-minute election season brawl was Republican Donald Trump’s refusal to say that he would accept the outcome of the election. To be precise, he said, “I will look at it at the time.” (He doubled down on the position Thursday saying at an Ohio rally that he would accept the results “if I win.”)
His opponent, Hillary Clinton, was predictably (and understandably) horrified. Pundits immediately began howling. However, take a step back. Being able to answer that question definitively requires knowing that the election will provide a predictably clear outcome.
While current poll data suggest that Trump is going down in flames in the Electoral College, there is no guarantee that Clinton will win by a landslide three weeks from now. We have to look no further than the 2000 election of President George W. Bush for evidence to that point. In mid-October of 2000, by some polls Bush was up as much as 52 percent to 33 percent against former Vice President Al Gore.
We know how that ended. After more than a month of dispute and litigation the actual result was a dead heat, with Bush ultimately losing the popular vote but winning the presidency with the necessary votes in the Electoral College.
Most Democrats then and now have not expressed disappointment that Gore did not immediately concede and in fact supported his actions to challenge election results. And certainly they would expect that in a similarly close contest Clinton would fight for a definitive determination, even if it meant not initially accepting the results. And if a foreign power attempted to hack electronic voting machines, as some have suggested, fighting in unity for the voice of American voters would be the patriotic duty of both candidates.
However — and here is where history and Trump divide — at no point did Gore attempt to undermine the actual institutions or their processes before or after Election Day. In that strange interim with the nation’s press corps essentially camping at the Texas Capitol, we wrote about the responsibility borne by victors, and more importantly “losers.”
“The loser, however, will face a huge test of character,” the Statesman editorial board wrote on Day 9 of the standoff. “He will be called upon to rise above the rancor, the rhetoric and the disappointment in the last and perhaps best test of his leadership.”
Gore and his team took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court, and once defeated there, he gracefully stepped aside the very next day and removed himself from the limelight, allowing Bush to take legitimate control of the executive branch.
“While we yet hold and do not yield our opposing beliefs, there is a higher duty than the one we owe to political party,” he said as he yielded to a Bush presidency. “This is America, and we put country before party. We will stand together behind our new president.”
Despite reports of Gore’s bruised ego, he nursed those wounds in private, allowing the important work of the country to continue.
Trump has given little indication that would be his course. In fact, quite the opposite. His litigiousness when he doesn’t get his way is well-documented. His campaign is already in talks about the creation of a television network, Trump TV, which would presumably be an outlet to continue to spew vitriol and divisiveness. He has gone out of his way to plant preliminary seeds of doubt, not only about our electoral process, but about our military leaders, our Congress, our federal agencies, our court system and our national security.
He is a man so immune to the wisdom of advisers that he declines international security briefings, he flouts the rule of law by suggesting that he would lock up his opponent if he wins without trial and threatens to put America’s nuclear arsenal to use abroad.
As Clinton correctly put it Wednesday night, “He is denigrating — he is talking down our democracy.” The damage that Trump has done already to the American fabric will be felt for some time. The same institutions he feels the need to disparage are the very ones he would need if he were to win, and should he lose, Trump has already weakened those institutions for years to come. A Trump fight over the ballot box would inevitably involve character assassination of the referees as part of a default strategy that would attempt to delegitimize the entire judicial system.
The message of “Making American Great Again” suggests that the United States rose to power on its military might alone. Certainly, our military is strong, but the country’s ability to muster its moral authority and point to its political stability is our leverage when the rest of the world threatens to fall apart. It is by far our most valuable domestic and foreign currency — supporting our economy, bolstering our military and allowing all of us to pursue the ideal of our founders stated in the Declaration of Independence and in our Constitution.