No one expected Donald Trump and his supporters to lose the 2020 presidential election graciously, least of all those of us who thought he had a much better chance of winning it than public polling suggested.
This is why, in one sense anyway, I think we should not put too much stock in surveys like this one, which suggests that only a quarter or so of Republicans “accept” the results of this year’s election. Ever since Democrats and their allies in the media began using this phrase in the fall of 2016 in a bad-faith attempt to secure some kind of worthless pledge from Trump (they would ignore this apparently world-historic imperative by spending the next four years insisting that Trump was not himself the duly elected president), I have found myself asking exactly what it is supposed to mean. Does the result of a presidential election depend upon our attitudes concerning it? You might as well ask people whether they “accept” the results of bad weather or personal financial setbacks.
Which is why I believe it makes more sense to see the conservative response to the 2020 election not as some bizarre new development on the American right or even as the outgrowth of QAnon and other conspiracy theories, but rather as the inevitable culmination of a process that began long ago.
For decades now it has been clear that the flipside of Americans’ veneration of the office of the presidency, which combines the functions of head of government and head of state into one extraordinarily powerful title, is our insistence that presidents whom we do not ourselves support cannot be just that: politicians we did not vote for and would just as soon not see re-elected. Instead, the opponents of virtually every president in my lifetime, from Bill Clinton to Trump, have insisted that he was at the very least illegitimate, if not a tyrant.
These vague inclinations have a way of justifying themselves. After years of omnidirectional scandalmongering by the House GOP, Clinton was impeached in 1998. George W. Bush, who owed his election to a Supreme Court decision that outraged half the country, spent most of his eight years in office being compared to characters from dystopian novels and to various historical dictators; everything was the subject of intense, indeed at times ludicrous scrutiny, from his invasion of Iraq to his re-election in 2004, which was the basis of another of conspiracy theories involving (what else?) the manipulation of electronic voting machines. Barack Obama’s legitimacy was cast into doubt by his enemies long before his inauguration thanks to the so-called birther controversy, which actually began during Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential run. Meanwhile Trump was accused by liberals of being some kind of Russian plant from the minute he took office, a ludicrous fiction of which his previous opponent appeared to be convinced four years later.
Complaining about supposed democratic norms is a mug’s game. In a country in which authority tends to be understood in what might politely be described as conditional terms, it should not be surprising that the sizable portion of the electorate supporting one candidate should reject the other. The days when people of my grandparents’ generation calmly insisted that the person in the White House deserves our full respect and support regardless of one’s vote are as remote as the gold standard or smoke-filled rooms at party conventions.
My guess is that at some point, likely well beyond the point at which it serves any purpose save those of nostalgia and self-aggrandizement, we will come to regret our inability to acknowledge the victories of presidential candidates we dislike, much less to hope for their success in office. The presidency is too powerful for it to; if our constitution had been meant to give us something more akin to the partisan and provisional office of prime minister, I suspect we would be in a very different position.
In the meantime, however, insisting that only one half of the country should greet the results of presidential elections with unconditional enthusiasm makes about as much sense as asking why 70 million people should have been allowed to vote for the losing candidate.