Donald Trump has not yet conceded the election he lost. He may never do so. But he has acknowledged reality.
“In the best interests of our country,” Trump wrote on Monday, he would relent and allow “initial protocols” around the transition of power to commence. And gears of government soon began turning. The General Services Administration released transitional funds and allowed the president-elect’s team to access government agencies. Federal law enforcement provided resources to conduct background checks on Joe Biden’s team. The president’s ill-fated and spectacularly mismanaged attempt to challenge the results of the presidential election is over. The system worked.
This was an outcome few observers could conceive of a few weeks ago. Not, at least, in the absence of an intervention by the forces arrayed in defense of democracy. Trump’s reckless agitation was supposed to have dire consequences that our fragile republic might have been unable to withstand. Even today, this idea persists: But for the actions of a handful of conscience-addled Republican officials, Trump might have pulled off an honest-to-goodness coup. Nonsense.
What we witnessed over the last two months wasn’t just an embarrassing, slapdash display that a more proficient usurper than Trump might have competently executed. What we saw, and what could have been anticipated, was a series of harebrained parliamentary maneuvers, meritless lawsuits, and bewildering conspiracy theories designed not to overturn the election but salve the president’s wounded ego.
For some, this needed to be a formidable threat. The menace the president represented to the proper working order of America’s democratic institutions couldn’t be foiled by the entropic functioning of those very institutions. Too much has been invested in the existential peril posed by Trump for his wicked designs to be so easily undone. But that is precisely what happened.
Team Trump certainly made a go of it. They put tremendous (though apparently resistible) pressure on elected officials and functionaries in contested states to refuse to certify vote tallies that would hand the race to Joe Biden. They filed petition after petition in the courts. Trump himself insisted that the race was marred by fraud, and no doubt millions of Americans who voted for him nodded credulously along. But none of it worked.
The courts dismissed the Trump campaign’s petitions not because they feared history’s verdict as determined by the New York Times editorial board. They did so because the arguments the campaign made were fallacious, strained, and contemptuous of the rule of law—a concept Americans take for granted, but which is not so easily negated. The president’s claims of fraud imploded under modest scrutiny because a diffuse collection of states conducts our decentralized elections, and each canvassing board is beholden not to Washington D.C. but their local constituencies.
Perhaps the Trump campaign’s most successful effort to subvert the process—a two-hour ordeal in which Michigan’s Wayne County election commission dragged its feet but ultimately acquiesced to the certification of Biden’s victory—was destined to be resolved by the Board of State Canvassers anyway. And if a public outcry helped break the deadlock, it came from the citizens of Detroit who were being disenfranchised, not the usual suspects on the banks of the Potomac.
None of this is to say an executive as contemptuous of America’s political traditions as Trump has shown himself to be isn’t dangerous. The president’s trespasses against representative democracy were broadcast well in advance. “Win, lose, or draw in this election,” the president was asked in late September, “will you commit here today for a peaceful transferal of power after the election?” Trump could not muster even a perfunctory nod in the direction of continuity. “Well,” the president replied, “we’ll have to see what happens.” There was plenty of time for the nation’s stakeholders to prepare for the worst. But the mistake many observers made was only to see the worst to the exclusion of other likelier outcomes.
Even before Trump made these infamous remarks, the Atlantic’s Barton Gellman revealed that “sources in the Republican Party at the state and national level” told him that the Trump campaign prepared contingencies in the event of a clear loss that presaged exactly what we’ve just witnessed. The scenario Gellman outlined was ominous and depended upon “the forum of decision” moving “elsewhere,” by which he meant out from the institutions and into the streets. And in a nation without a mature republican culture, there might have been mass violence, insurrectionary bureaucratic cabals, disloyal generals, and the like. But the United States is not such a nation.
Gellman speculated in good company. “With the stage set for a dramatic showdown in the event of a close-run result,” the Financial Times conjectured, “a constitutional crisis could play out against the backdrop of violent unrest in the streets.” The Los Angeles Times surveyed Angelenos only to find the paper’s readers confirmed its editors’ views. “The militias and the white supremacists,” one local Trump opponent mused, “they’re going to put out the call to arms.” High profile political operatives conducted well-publicized “war games” to simulate possible post-election outcomes, the results of which ranged from uneventful banalities to the precipice of outright civil conflict.
All this is quite unnerving, and it was a shock to the system when the president declined to concede his unambiguous loss at the polls. What apprehensive observers failed to anticipate was the system absorbing the shock. That is itself a display of faithlessness.
Oddly, President-elect Joe Biden’s team seems to evince more faith in those institutions than its more apoplectic allies. As author and CNN contributor Bakari Sellers observed, the incoming administration did not react to Trump’s machinations by pounding the table, filing lawsuits to compel Trump’s to begin the transition process, or demand that Republican lawmakers choose between their loyalty to their constituents and the country. They were patient. And by putting their faith in the process, they exhausted all of Trump’s objections to Biden’s legitimate election while also getting the outcome they wanted.
But many are still not convinced. Those who are committed to the idea that the republic is more precariously positioned than we know are wondering aloud: What if the election had been closer? What if Trump’s attempt at usurpation was more competently executed? What if, what if? No one should want to see those propositions put to the test, but the country’s legal and civilizational guardrails would still be in place if they were. The Madisonian understanding of man’s fallible nature would still be baked into the founding documents, and they would still characterize our institutions and national charter. Those undervalued elements of the American civic compact have prevailed, and they are likely to prevail again.
The institutions, the culture, and the citizenry steeped in the unseen virtues of republicanism emerged triumphant. The relative volume of self-righteous tweets from the Acela corridor was never a factor.