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Op-Ed: American democracy depends on the loyalty of losers

Illustration of the White House with an exit sign on the door and silhouette of Donald Trump in window.
(Nicole Vas / Los Angeles Times)

No one will be surprised and few will be disappointed by President Trump’s absence from Joe Biden’s inauguration ceremony. But we should be, because his absence stands for something: a rejection of legitimate political opposition.

At rock bottom, democracy needs two things: winners who refuse to persecute their opponents and losers who are willing to peacefully walk away.

This is what “legitimate opposition” means. It’s not just an idea. It’s a practice. It is acted out when officeholders refrain from using their power to harass, intimidate, humiliate, jail or murder their opponents. And it is acted out when officials who lose elections peacefully leave.

This happened for the first time after the election of 1800, when John Adams lost after one term to Thomas Jefferson. Adams was bitter — he could not bring himself to attend Jefferson’s inauguration. But he did walk away.

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This did not happen again for almost 30 years. Adams’ son, John Quincy Adams, lost after one term to Andrew Jackson in 1828. John Quincy also did not attend the inauguration of his opponent. But he too walked away peacefully.

The Adamses started something — a norm of walking away peacefully — and in the process helped to create the moral imperative to accept defeat. This is what George H.W. Bush did in 1992, when he graciously turned over power to President-elect Bill Clinton. It is what Al Gore did when he conceded to George W. Bush after the Supreme Court interceded to settle the contested 2000 election.

We should have a monument to people like the Adamses, the elder Bush, Gore and all those who have conceded a loss readily and generously. Because democracy depends as much on what losers do after they lose as it does on what winners do after they win.

Trump has taken us back to a time when those in power persecuted their opponents. Before his supporters trashed the U.S. Capitol, Trump trashed the idea of a legitimate opposition every day for four years.

The president’s favored weapon was conspiracism, and his favorite charge was that Democrats rigged elections to defeat him. He first asserted this after the 2016 election. Winners do not usually object to the elections that bring them to power, but Trump could not accept losing the popular vote. So he established the Commission on Election Integrity to justify his lie about massive voter fraud.

After the 2018 midterms, Trump again insisted the election was rigged: “The Republicans don’t win and that’s because of potentially illegal votes.”

And of course, since losing the Nov. 3 election to Biden — and the popular vote by more than 7 million votes — he has persisted in lying about the election being stolen from him. On Jan. 6, speaking to the his supporters just before they attacked the Capitol as the Senate and House were certifying electoral college votes, he blared, “We won this election, and we won it by a landslide.”

Here is where this conspiracy charge takes us: If elections are being stolen, the opposition is illegitimate and therefore must be overthrown.

Even when Trump entered national politics in 2015, it seemed Republican officials would speak truth to conspiracy. We thought they would follow the example of John McCain in the 2008 campaign. After a voter who subscribed to the “birther” conspiracy said, “I can’t trust Obama. ... He’s an Arab—” McCain interrupted: “No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what the campaign’s all about.” McCain understood legitimate opposition as a requirement of democracy.

That was then. Throughout Trump’s presidency, Republicans in Congress have sat on their hands while Trump has worked to delegitimize the opposition by claiming that the elections of 2016, 2018 and 2020 were fraudulent.

Such conspiratorial charges do not dissipate. They have a staying power that other forms of political lies and misinformation lack. The stolen-election lie became a standard view among Republican officials and voters: Even after the attack on the Capitol, 138 Republican House members voted against accepting Pennsylvania’s electoral college tally.

Conspiracy charges today work by substituting repetition for validation. If enough people repeat a false allegation, it becomes true enough. Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) used this logic of repetition to justify overturning the presidential election even though they have not offered a single example of fraud or irregularity.

This is the evidence-free circle of conviction that has enveloped Republican officials under Trump. They can rejoin the world of facts and evidence, but only by accepting the legitimacy of the president who is being inaugurated on Wednesday.

Russell Muirhead is a professor of government at Dartmouth College and a member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives. Nancy L. Rosenblum is a professor of government emerita at Harvard University. They are the coauthors of “A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy.”


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