Tragedy of Trump’s refusal to accept defeat

Monday, November 16th, 2020 00:00 |
US President Donald Trump. Photo/AFP

Julian Zelizer 

Imagine what a normal transition might have looked like. President Donald Trump could have started with a gracious concession speech, congratulating President-elect Joe Biden on his impressive victory and urging his voters to throw their weight behind the nation’s new commander-in-chief.

He could have arranged for a public meeting, as Obama did in November 2016, to preach unity. 

“I want to emphasise to you, that we are going to do everything we can to help you succeed because if you succeed, then the country succeeds,” Obama said when they met in the White House just days after Trump’s surprise election win. 

Trump could have made a public commitment to oversee a smooth transition, especially since the nation is still in the throes of a deadly pandemic.

He could have given the greenlight to the head of the Government Services Administration, to acknowledge Biden’s win and release the resources necessary for the new administration to hit the ground running come January 20, 2021. 

Instead, Trump is living in his own alternate reality, and forcing government officials to play along.

As one former national security official told the Washington Post, staffers know Biden will be the next president, but they are “not allowed to act like that will happen.” 

There’s plenty President Trump could be doing; previous presidents have used the lame duck period to finalise major policies.

In 1980, for instance, President Jimmy Carter negotiated an end to the Iran Hostage Crisis and signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which protected millions of acres of land from development. In December 1992, President George H.W. Bush finished negotiations over START II, a bilateral treaty with Russia to reduce arms, while readying then President-elect Bill Clinton to assume power. 

Trump could be doing the same. He could be pushing Senate Republicans to adopt a larger stimulus bill after agreeing to increase the White House’s proposed package from $1.6 trillion to $1.8 trillion in talks with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi before the election.

He could also implement measures to contain the current surge of Covid-19 while starting to prepare for the rollout of a potential vaccine. 

Instead, Trump seems focused on challenging the election results with spurious claims about voter fraud while spreading disinformation aimed at delegitimising the President-elect.

He is devoting his energy to Twitter rants, and lawsuits - which keep getting thrown out;  rather than concerning himself with the important work of governance.

It seems apparent that in his final days in the White House, Trump will continue to stoke division rather than call for unity. 

If there’s anything Trump is likely to accomplish before he leaves the White House, it will probably involve the pardoning power presidents tend to exercise, in their final months in office. 

Trump is likely to take advantage of his ability to do so, especially since so many of his associates have been convicted of crimes.

He might even attempt to pardon himself, a highly dubious move according to some constitutional scholars. 

Dispute the results

Of course, none of this should come as a surprise. Before the election, the President made it clear he would be willing to dispute the results if he lost.

This is a President who has always prioritised his own power over the well being of Americans.

He has proven himself incapable of turning over a new leaf, despite some commentators who assumed, that it would happen.

If Trump is unwilling to fulfill his duties as President in the next two months, then the least he can do is step out of the way, so that the incoming administration can be in the best position come Inauguration Day. 

If  he continues on this path, it will be tragic. And historians will look back on the next two months and debate what might have been — how many lives and livelihoods could have been saved — if only Trump had been capable of thinking of someone other than himself.

— The writer is  a Professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton University

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