Should Trump Concede? Not Yet | Opinion

For some people, the past three weeks have gone just as the prophecy foretold. Donald Trump, despite having been decisively ousted by the people, is doing what aspiring dictators the world over do when votes don't go their way: He is refusing to step down.

Shortly before Election Day, the Transition Integrity Project—a coalition comprising "some of the most accomplished Republicans, Democrats, civil servants, media experts, pollsters and strategists around," in the words of one co-founder—conducted "war games" to predict the coming results. In three of the four simulations, Biden won, and Trump's reaction led to violent chaos. "Partisans, including Trump, may try to deploy law enforcement, National Guard troops and, potentially, active-duty military personnel to 'restore order' in a manner that primarily benefits one party," wrote Georgetown Law Professor Rosa Brooks in The Washington Post.

Now it is all coming to pass: Trump's wanton accusations of fraud and refusal to concede the election—after major media outlets called the race for Biden—have led Perry Bacon Jr. at the polling website 538 to wonder: "is America's democracy in trouble?" Citing "people who study democratic norms and values both in the United States and abroad," Bacon argues that "the sitting president's refusal to acknowledge electoral defeat is worrisome, as it raises the prospect that he will not uphold a core tenet of democracy"—namely, the commitment to a peaceful transition of power after an election loss. Thus, the story goes, it is vital that Trump should bow out gracefully and let the country come together around the legitimate victory of Joe Biden (who himself called for a concession on November 16).

But this grand narrative is wrong in practically every respect. Were there any justice in the world, each of the sentences above would be tagged as "misleading" on Twitter. Instead, it is President Trump's every tweet that is being carefully monitored. Even innocuous Instagram posts celebrating Veterans Day—which have nothing to do with the next four years except that they indicate, accurately, that Trump is the sitting president—are peppered with with reminders that "Joe Biden is the projected winner of the 2020 U.S. presidential election."

No such provisos attach to claims that Stacey Abrams won her election as governor of Georgia. Nor was there public outcry when both Hillary Clinton and Jimmy Carter called Trump "an illegitimate president" last year. "I believe he understands that the many varying tactics they used," sniffed Clinton, "from voter suppression and voter purging to hacking to the false stories...there were just a bunch of different reasons why the election turned out like it did." "He lost the election," said Carter, "and he was put into office because the Russians interfered on his behalf."

So while it's true, as Bacon notes in 538, that Clinton formally conceded to Trump in 2016 at Obama's urging, it is willfully selective (at best) to leave the story at that. There followed four years of unremitting bitterness and dedicated insistence from every level of the anti-Trump coalition that the president's victory was stolen with Russian help. One FBI lawyer, Kevin Clinesmith, even confessed to altering a crucial email in his ravenous quest to finger Trump for collusion and foul play.

And so anyone who wants to contrast Trump's stubbornness with Hillary's grace is memory-holing an unending litany of baseless aspersions cast on the legitimacy of 2016's election, long after special counsel Robert Mueller reported that his investigation did "not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities." Trump is not being uniquely intransigent here.

Nor is he flouting any "norms," as his detractors continue to insist. If anything were ever abnormal, it was Al Gore going back on his word and un-conceding in the aftermath of the 2000 election, with its famously contested results. But I don't begrudge Gore his change of heart any more than I fault Trump for his persistence—in both cases, I am content to apply the simple standard that no president must concede until he is sure he has lost.

It's perfectly true that smoothly functioning representative government depends upon a peaceful transfer of power. Such a transfer will indeed occur on Inauguration Day, just as the Constitution dictates, if Biden is confirmed the winner.

But note the "if," which is also dictated by the Constitution. Contrary to the Twitter warnings, there are no "official sources" that call presidential elections one way or the other before the votes of the Electoral College are ratified. "The Electors shall meet in their respective States," declares the Constitution, "and they shall make a List of all the Persons voted for." The person with the most votes upon the completion of that process may rightly be called the official president-elect. That's it. Until then, it is perfectly valid—indeed, perfectly constitutional—to say that this election is still up in the air.

President Trump at the White House
President Trump at the White House Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Because it most certainly is. It is the most unorthodox election of our lifetimes by a country mile. Democrats launched hundreds of court cases and made massive changes to typical procedures in light of COVID-19. This included widespread mail-in voting, a practice whose potential for fraud was recognized by The New York Times not long ago, in 2012. There are legal investigations ongoing in key battleground states, with others pending.

In such a context, it does not "set a dangerous precedent" or "threaten our democracy" to hold out on a concession. It does not cause "democratic erosion," to use Dartmouth College Professor Brendan Nyhan's phrase. Trump's behavior violates absolutely no clause of the Constitution. It is not particularly extreme, even in recent historical context—let alone in the larger sweep of American history, which includes such bitterly rancorous transitions as the one from John Adams' administration to Thomas Jefferson's in 1801. Under our present circumstances, it is perfectly reasonable for Trump not to concede at this time.

What's not reasonable is the hauteur with which Democrats, Never-Trumpers and pundits alike are demanding en masse that Trump roll over. This, after four years of unmitigated #resistance. After Nancy Pelosi's suggestion that Biden should not debate Trump because she "wouldn't legitimize a conversation with him." After Hillary Clinton's insistence before election night that Biden "should not concede under any circumstances." Trump is up against an opposition that never gives one inch, that insists with deadpan seriousness upon the most absurd claims, that never concedes a single thing when there is even a sliver of a chance at victory—if that.

Coming from such an opposition, the demand to concede represents an act of shameless effrontery and obvious disingenuity. What they are after here is not "unity" or "reconciliation," despite Biden's language. Democrats are avowedly salivating for the time when they can make lists of enemies and start "archiving Trump sycophants," in the words of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. To acquiesce to the demands of such people is not to promote unity, any more than a schoolboy promotes unity when he gives a bully his lunch money.

In light of all this, the objection that Trump is impeding the Biden team's access to executive briefings seems hardly germane. It is neither mandated by our system, nor necessary for its success, that the incoming president should receive access to White House intelligence for months during the transition effort. In this instance, the whole question at issue is whether there ought to be any transition efforts at all. It would be giving that very game away to start updating the alleged president-elect on such matters as the state of coronavirus efforts, as he has requested. It is a request that amounts to concession by the back door.

I will, however, make one concession of my own. I don't think Trump ought to be claiming, as he and some of his supporters have, that he won the election outright. Nor should we credulously buy into every available claim of fraud we find floating around Reddit. We should wait to see the best available evidence laid forth in court, and we should demand that evidence be respected. What we want here—what every patriotic American ought to want—is the full truth about what happened this November.

Democrats' insistence that it's not only unnecessary, but evil, to look into that truth or ask those questions is part of what makes their attitude so galling. But it does no good—and looks quite unserious—to be acting as if the case is closed in the other direction.

The case is not closed in either direction, which—I reiterate one last time—is exactly why Trump should not concede until it is. All the grandstanding to the contrary on the Left only makes me more certain that this is so. We don't stand for intimidation or take orders from journalists in this country. We believe in following through with the prescribed procedures of a free and fair election in full, until all parties are satisfied. Once we've done so, the loser must concede. But not before.

Spencer Klavan is host of the Young Heretics podcast and associate editor of the Claremont Review of Books and The American Mind. He can be reached on Twitter: @SpencerKlavan.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.