Trump’s Refusal to Concede: A Thought Experiment


President Trump at Arlington National Cemetery yesterday.Erin Schaff/The New York Times


A president is trying to undo an election result: How would you describe that situation in another country?


The political scientist Brendan Nyhan has often responded to events during the Trump presidency by asking a question: What would you say if you saw it in another country?

Let’s try that exercise now. Imagine that a president of another country lost an election and refused to concede defeat. Instead, he lied about the vote count. He then filed lawsuits to have ballots thrown out, put pressure on other officials to back him up and used the power of government to prevent a transition of power from starting.


How would you describe this behavior? It’s certainly anti-democratic. It is an attempt to overrule the will of the people, ignore a country’s laws and illegitimately grab political power.

President Trump’s efforts will probably fail, but they are unlike anything that living Americans have experienced.


“What we have seen in the last week from the president more closely resembles the tactics of the kind of authoritarian leaders we follow. “I never would have imagined seeing something like this in America.”

Michael Abramowitz, the president of Freedom House, which tracks democracy, told The Times.


It is “one of the gravest threats to democracy” the country has faced, Ryan Enos, a Harvard social scientist, wrote yesterday.


“The result is crystal clear and, yet, the incumbent is creating ambiguity by baseless claims.”

He added in an email.


I asked political scientists and historians for analogies, and they offered a few. The ruling party in Mexico probably reversed the true election result in 1988, as did ruling parties in Zimbabwe in 2002, Iran in 2009 and maybe Russia in 1996, Steven Levitsky, a co-author of “How Democracies Die,” told me. The details were different — the fraud sometimes occurred before the results were announced — but all were cases of politicians stealing an election mostly without military force.


The closest U.S. comparisons are more than a century old. The Federalist Party considered depriving Thomas Jefferson of the presidency in 1800 and used the courts to weaken him. During Reconstruction, parts of the South overturned election results, sometimes through violence. And of course multiple states responded to Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 victory by seceding from the union. (Thomas Edsall’s latest Times column has more details on each of these.)


What happens next? Republican officials seem to be trying to finesse the situation. They want to avoid angering Trump, who remains popular with Republican voters, as Liam Donovan, a party strategist, notes. That helps explain why most Republican officials have refused to recognize Joe Biden as the president-elect and have made vaguely supportive comments about Trump’s false claims.


But this support seems halfhearted. Few Republicans are taking their own steps to reverse the election result.


The two crucial next steps are the certification of state election results and the appointment of Electoral College voters, as Andrew Prokop of Vox explains. Both must happen by mid-December. If Republican officials in some states interfere — say, by trying to appoint electors who ignore the election results and vote for Trump in states he lost — it will be a sign that his attempt to undo the election has reached a more serious stage.


Eventually, Republican officials will be forced to make a choice, The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent writes — between breaking with Trump and breaking with democracy. Democracy seems much more likely to prevail, but in a damaged state. “Millions of his supporters,” my colleague Maggie Haberman writes, “will believe what he says.”



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