There is a documentary from 2014 on Netflix called Mitt. It is a behind the scenes account of Mitt Romney’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns. There is a scene towards the end of the film which shows the Romney family and campaign staff gathered on the night of the 2012 election. Huddled around a television, they await the result. As soon as it becomes clear that he has lost to the incumbent Barack Obama, a disappointed but composed Romney turns to his family and staffers:
“So what do you think you should say in a concession speech? Oh and does somebody have a number for the President [so I can concede]”.
In today’s political climate, Romney’s grace in defeat is striking. Decorum, humility and respect, especially from the losing side, often seem a rare thing nowadays. When a leaked tape of Trump’s conversation with elections officials was released by The Washington Post on 4 January, we were reminded once again just how much the current President lacks these traits.
The recording obtained by the Post is of an hour long phone conversation between Trump and election officials from the state of Georgia, primarily Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and his deputy, attorney Ryan Germany. The purpose of the call appears to have been to allow the President to list his concerns about the integrity of the November election in Georgia. I’ve had the pleasure of listening to the whole thing, and I can confirm he did just that. His booming voice dominating the conversation, Trump rants on for 10, 15 minutes at a time, with occasional breaks for snivellingly supportive comments from White House courtiers, and stuttering, aghast rebuttals from Raffensburg and Germany.
“All I want to do is this, I just want to find 11,780 votes (…) because we won the state, and flipping the state is a great testament to our country.”
Raffensperger tries to put the truth across: “We believe we have an accurate election”. Trump’s reply is predictable: “You don’t, you don’t, not even close”. Later on: “The real truth is that I won [Georgia] by 400,000 votes”.
And on and on it went. Trump manages to accuse his enemies of seemingly every means of electoral fraud known to mankind. According to the President, in Georgia alone there were thousands of forged ballot signatures, dead people and those living out of state voted en-mass, ballot-drop boxes and voting machines were tampered with, and the ballots themselves were subject to a combination of stuffing, shredding and duplication.
“What we’re seeing is not at all what you’re describing” was Germany’s response to this infantile display. For their courage to speak truth to power, both Raffensperger and Germany deserve admiration, particularly as Trump attempted to intimidate the former with fanciful corruption allegations: “You know what they did and you’re not reporting it. That’s a criminal offence (…) that’s a big risk for you.”
What emerges from the tape is a President who believes that he has been targeted by a vast, conspiratorial campaign, who believes that the US electoral system is riddled with corruption, and is willing to threaten officials he regards as disloyal. Above all, it’s very clear he is utterly convinced that he did win in November.
It is this conviction, and the President’s refusal to recognise the true result of November’s poll, which lies at the centre of our situation two months on. Perhaps our most important lesson from the last few weeks should be the importance of concession from the loser. It’s an element of our electoral process we take for granted because rarely has it been a problem. But without it, democracy cannot function. Trump has shown us that if a candidate refuses to give in, and instead obfuscates and undermines the true result, then a portion of his supporters will stay loyal. Today, great swathes of the Republican Party are reluctant to accept the legitimacy of Biden’s mandate. A great wedge of disaffected and angry voters have been cleaved (perhaps permanently) from the GOP into the bosom of forever-Trumpism. As a result, the U.S. has failed to begin the process of national healing that must follow any election. That is the president’s doing.
“We will never concede!” That was Trump’s message to the supporters who assembled in Washington on Wednesday. That line encapsulates the new kind of politics we have become accustomed to in the last decade. It is a politics of maximum conflict; no ground is ever given, and no apologies are ever made. When an apology is given, rather than being taken as a sign of admirable humility, it is used as a political club to drive home a victorious message. In short, the campaign never stops, even after your side loses an election. In fact, that’s a great time to double down.
Trump has birthed the latest and worst incarnation of this politics, but both left and right must bear responsibility for giving it a footing. For example, the 2016 US election result precipitated the formation of ‘The Resistance’, activist groups (concentrated on both coasts) who wasted no time in kick-starting a campaign against Trump’s legitimacy. The day after Trump’s inauguration saw approximately four million Americans take part in the ‘Women’s March’, including half a million in Washington. Trump’s opponents had every to right protest, but normally Presidents are given a period of grace in which to prove themselves. Trump supporters may feel (with some justification) that their man never got that chance. For her part, Hillary Clinton toured the world’s press following her defeat, and seemed to argue that Russian interference was primarily to blame for her loss, rather than issues slightly closer to home, like her atrocious campaign, or even her her rapist husband. Clinton’s willingness to emphasise the role of Russia in her defeat smacks more than slightly of Trump’s allegations of a ‘stolen election’.
To be clear, Clinton was quick to concede, and there was no storming of the capitol in 2016. But it would be accurate to say that many Democrats, far from accepting the legitimacy of Trump’s presidency, viewed it as unlawful from day one.
My fervent hope is that a Biden presidency, operating at a more sedate pace than its febrile predecessor, will calm America’s political atmosphere. The return to a more respectful politics, of the kind Mitt Romney showed in 2012, requires effort from both sides.
Above all, Americans must rediscover a reverence for truth, and this is where Trump is guilty above all. He has made lying his modus operandi. Again and again he failed to concede, and he lied about the true result. Each one of these lies incurred a debt to the truth. On Wednesday that debt was paid with the lives of five people, and the humiliation of American democracy.
The storming of the capitol laid bare the consequences if America fails to lower the temperature of its politics. In Biden, Americans have an opportunity to step back from a precipice. The country must seize it. There are no excuses now.