How did we get here? How did the United States come so close to the overturning of a democratic election that has guaranteed the peaceful transfer of power for almost 250 years? Infamously, President Trump refused to accept the results of the 2020 election after he was defeated by former Vice President Joe Biden. Was this the start of a trend of election denial in the United States or a step in a sequence of democratic erosion? Trump’s denial of the 2020 election should have been predicted due to his comments during the 2016 election and in the run-up to the 2020 election.
The night of the 2020 election before an official winner was announced, President Trump took the stage and argued, “This is a fraud on the American public. This is an embarrassment to our country. We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win this election.”1 Not only did he falsely declare himself the victor of the election, but he also undermined the integrity of the democratic contest by questioning its validity. His Vice President Mike Pence took a notably different approach, he offered his thanks to the American public and called for all the votes to be counted until a winner was declared. Their opponent, Biden, took the same attitude as Pence and thanked his voters for their support but did not declare himself the winner of the election. In comparison to Biden and Pence’s statements, Trump’s insistence of declaring himself the winner of the election was early, reckless, and a threat to the very democracy of which he was the leader of.
Trump’s denial of the 2020 election should not have been a surprise, in 2016 during a debate with Hillary Clinton he said he would wait to see the final tally of the election before accepting the results of it. According to PolitiFact by Poynter Institute, Trump was the first candidate in American history to cast doubt on the result of an election before the election took place.2 The pieces of this sequential puzzle showed its head in the run up to the 2020 election. Trump frequently made similar statements where he cast doubt on the election results if it was determined that he lost. In July of 2020, when asked by Chris Wallace whether he would accept the results of the election, Trump responded, “I’m not going to just say yes.”3 Later, on August 24th when addressing the republican conference, thanking them for the nomination Trump said, “The only way [the democrats] can take this election away from us if this is a rigged election.”4 Both comments took place before the 2020 election and allowed Trump to set the stage for his denial in November.
In comparison to the losers of both the 2016, 2012 and 2000 elections, Trump’s comments are dangerous and raise numerous red flags about his true intentions. The peaceful transfer of power has been a mainstay in concession speeches starting from the birth of the nation and have been a crucial component of the speech as recently as the previous two elections.
The peaceful transfer of power was a large component in Clinton’s concession speech the night of the 2016 election, she said, “Our constitutional democracy enshrines the peaceful transfer of power and we don’t just respect that, we cherish it.”5 Her statement was not out of the norm for concession speeches by the losing candidate in the United States. In her speech she recognized Trump as the rightful winner of the election, she said, “Donald Trump is going to be our President. We owe him an open mind and a chance to lead.”6
The night of his loss to Barack Obama in 2012, Mitt Romney admitted his defeat and offered his congratulations to the President on his successful reelection bid. Romney declared, “The nation, as you know, is at a critical point. At a time like this, we can’t risk partisan bickering and political posturing. Our leaders have to reach across the aisle to do the people’s work.”7 Since the 2012 election was won by Obama there was no need for a peaceful transfer of power between the two differing political parties. However, the two campaigns worked together on a plan nicknamed the “Readiness Project” to have a seamless and peaceful transfer of power between the Obama and a potential Romney administration.8
The 2000 election was one of the closest Presidential races in the history of the country and the winner of it was determined by the Supreme Court. Although Gore lost in a highly contentious and questionable election, he conceded to his opponent and accepted the results of it. He stated, “Now the U.S. Supreme Court has spoken. Let there be no doubt, while I strongly disagree with the court’s decision, I accept it… for the sake of our unity of the people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession”9 Gore put the nation ahead of his own personal interests. He knew his duty was to the constitution and not his political affiliation.
In comparison to Clinton and Romney and Gore’s speeches, Trump’s denial of the election results before and after the election demonstrates that he has some traits of a stealth authoritarian.10 One of the components of earning this title is the changing of electoral laws that benefit the person or party in power. After the election, Trump advocated for laws that restricted access to the ballot box and mail-in voting which he primarily blamed for his defeat. In places like Georgia, Trump endorsed laws that limited the number of ballot drop-off boxes and require ID to receive absentee ballots. Most dangerously the new laws allow for the politically controlled state legislature to create a “State Election Board” which was previously a non-partisan committee.11 This politicization and manipulation of democratic mechanisms paired with Trump’s previous comments about the elections has proved that he intentionally harmed American democracy in an attempt to erode the validity of the 2020 and future elections.
The chain of events starting from the 2016 election established a sequential puzzle that should have predicted Trump’s denial of the 2020 election. This pattern of behavior differed greatly from the norm, which was demonstrated by Clinton, Romney, and Gore’s concession speeches in which they were cordial, accepted the results of the election and offered support for their opponent. Trump’s denial of the election and endorsement of laws that suppress democracy are examples of stealth authoritarianism. Therefore, due to his previous behavior, Trump’s claim of a rigged election could have been predicted. If Trump runs again in 2024, the results could be catastrophic to free elections in the United States. Many high-ranking supporters of the former president are running for Attorney General in key swing states, they have the power to challenge and reject the results of the presidential election if the votes don’t fall in their favor. This potential challenge, denial and over-turning of the election results could put the final nail in the coffin of the 1787 Constitution.
1 Trump, Donald “Donald Trump 2020 Election Night Speech Transcript” https://www.rev.com/blog/transcripts/donald-trump-2020-election-night-speech-transcript
2 Carroll, Lauren, The Poynter Institute “Is Trump the first-ever candidate not to say he’ll accept election results?” https://www.politifact.com/factchecks/2016/oct/25/hillary-clinton/trump-first-ever-candidate-not-say-hell-accept-ele/
3, 4 Niedzwiadek, Nick, Politico “The 9 most notable comments Trump has made about accepting the election results” https://www.politico.com/news/2020/09/24/trump-casts-doubt-2020-election-integrity-421280
5, 6 Clinton, Hillary “Hillary Clinton’s concession speech (full text)” https://www.cnn.com/2016/11/09/politics/hillary-clinton-concession-speech/index.html
7 Romney, Mitt “Mitt Romney’s concession speech (Full transcript)” https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/decision2012/mitt-romneys-concession-speech-full-transcript/2012/11/07/99f9c98c-28a0-11e2-96b6-8e6a7524553f_story.html
8 Associated Press “Romney, Obama teams prepare for transfer of presidential power, just in case” https://www.deseret.com/2012/10/26/20443418/romney-obama-teams-prepare-for-transfer-of-presidential-power-just-in-case
9 Gore, Al. ABC news “Text of Al Gore’s Speech” https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/story?id=122220&page=1
10 Varol, Ozan “Stealth Authoritarianism” https://brightspace.binghamton.edu/d2l/le/content/157872/viewContent/490202/View
11 Layne, Nathan, Reuters “Explainer: Big changes under Georgia’s new election law” https://www.reuters.com/world/us/big-changes-under-georgias-new-election-law-2021-06-14/