Ronald L. Feinman is the author of Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama (Rowman Littlefield Publishers, August 2015). A paperback edition is coming in March 2017.
There is a growing danger of civil disorder when the Presidential Election of 2016 is over, if Donald Trump were to refuse to accept defeat, no matter what the margin of victory. He has hinted at such action, although leaving doubt after the first debate that he would follow through on an earlier threat to do so.
This would be a total contradiction of the whole history of the United States, and is what makes us unique and special in the history of nations—that we have peaceful elections, and a peaceful, stable transition of government, in which the loser gracefully concedes and supports the winner, and often is at the new President’s inauguration.
The tradition of a peaceful transition began when Thomas Jefferson defeated John Adams in 1800, and continued when John Quincy Adams won a hotly contested election in 1824 over Andrew Jackson, despite having fewer electoral votes. Jackson was furious, but he used his energies to defeat Adams in the next presidential election, rather than stir internal civil disorder. The tradition of graceful defeat also included Stephen Douglas backing Abraham Lincoln after the Presidential Election of 1860, and third party nominees John C. Breckinridge and John Bell trying to resolve differences peacefully before the Civil War began six weeks after Lincoln’s inauguration.
The contested Presidential Election of 1876 saw popular vote loser Rutherford B. Hayes inaugurated over Samuel Tilden, due to a political deal known as the Compromise of 1877, which was clearly a political deal to keep the losing Democrats happy and avoid a new civil war. This was feared during the four months before the inauguration, but Tilden was gracious in defeat.
The same situation of gracious concession occurred when Woodrow Wilson won in 1912 over William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt, and also when Herbert Hoover was defeated by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, although Hoover refused to talk with FDR in their automobile on the way to the inaugural stand. Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower were not on the best of terms in 1953, and Truman was known for an outspoken attitude toward those he disagreed with. But the victory and inauguration of Ike went on without incident, despite Richard Nixon, who had bad mouthed Truman over the Alger Hiss matter four years earlier, and was being inaugurated Vice President with Ike.
Eisenhower might have felt that John F. Kennedy was too young and inexperienced to succeed him, but was gracious with the new President at the inauguration. So was Lyndon B. Johnson, when Richard Nixon succeeded him in 1969, despite Nixon’s known reputation for a lack of ethics in his campaigning methods over his career. And Gerald Ford conceded gracefully to Jimmy Carter in 1976; in fact, the two men became fast friends over the next three decades, the closest such association since Thomas Jefferson and John Adams renewed their former friendship that had existed until the two men sought the Presidency and competed against each other.
Jimmy Carter was very unhappy over his defeat, but was gracious to Ronald Reagan in 1980, as was George H. W. Bush, who was stunned when Bill Clinton defeated him in 1992. There may have been “bad blood” between rivals Carter and Reagan, and Bush and Clinton, but there was no question the loser would accept defeat graciously.
In the 21st century the best example of gracefulness in defeat was Al Gore, who after battling for five weeks through the courts on the close election results in Florida, conceded in a dignified manner, and even announced opponent George W. Bush’s victory in 2001 from the dais of the United States Senate, as Vice President Richard Nixon announced the victory of his opponent, John F. Kennedy, in 1961, and Vice President Hubert Humphrey announced the win of his opponent, Richard Nixon, in 1969. The same applied to Vice President Walter Mondale announcing the victory of Reagan over Jimmy Carter and himself in 1981. John Kerry showed class in his concession to George W. Bush in 2004 as did John McCain in his acceptance of the victory of Barack Obama in 2008 and Mitt Romney to Obama in 2012.
There has never been a threat of a losing candidate refusing to accept the victory of his opponent, even in the midst of an oncoming Civil War, or in the midst of the Great Depression, or during the tensions of the Cold War years. There is absolutely no excuse or justification for even a perceived possibility that Donald Trump might cause a major threat to civil order by encouraging his supporters to refuse to accept his defeat. Yet, we have some Republicans, including Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin seemingly setting the stage for possible civil disobedience and even violence based on the argument that Bill and Hillary Clinton are totally corrupt, and that no victory by Hillary Clinton would be valid. It is truly terrifying to think of the possible threat to the new President and Vice President by crazed supporters who use Trump’s vehement opposition and potential rejection of the results as an excuse for bloodshed and violence, including a possible threat to the health, safety, and lives of Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine.
This should be seen as a treasonable act, were it to occur, requiring the arrest, trial and incarceration of any Trump supporters, including the candidate himself, who represent a threat to constitutional order and American democracy. Donald Trump would go down in history ever worse than his reputation has already been sullied by his actions and statements promoting division and chaos in America, and undermining its ability to protect national security. Being a “sore loser” who advocates or endorses violence and bloodshed would put him into a class with people such as Benedict Arnold and Aaron Burr as traitors to the nation.
This article was originally published at History News Network