It’s hard to remember now, but the third and final presidential debate on Oct. 19 featured a surprising and welcome amount of substance (relative to the others at least). Unfortunately, most of that faded quickly into talks of nasty women, bad hombres and Trump’s instantly infamous statement that he would keep us “in suspense” on whether he’d concede the election if he loses.
The press collectively lost their minds on that last point over the next 24 hours, claiming Trump was destroying democracy by refusing to concede. But as the outrage fades and even the most optimistic polls say Trump will likely lose, it’s worth looking at this scenario from a calmer point of view.
WHAT WOULD REALLY HAPPEN IF TRUMP DOESN’T CONCEDE?
Well, nothing really.
There’s nothing in the American election process requiring a candidate to acknowledge the results. Our (complicated and weird) electoral college will do its thing once the results from all the states come in and our new President will be sworn in. Whether or not the loser concedes has zero bearing on this. It’s like being in an airplane and refusing to listen to the pre-flight instructions. The plane is taking off whether you acknowledge them or not.
CAN TRUMP CONTEST THE ELECTION RESULTS AT ALL THEN?
Well, if Trump is the suing type (and there’s reason to think he might be), he could sue the government alleging fraud. There are a few problems with that, though. One is he would have to sue individual states since each state handles its own electoral process. This is actually why the idea of a rigged election is so unlikely—the results are extremely decentralized.
Trump would then have to prove why the electoral results for that state weren’t just incorrect, but so wrong it could change the allocation of that state’s electoral votes. IF a court for that state felt Trump had a legitimate claim, his lawsuit could then move forward. On the off chance Trump won the suit, it would require some sort of recount. However, because this election doesn’t look very close, Trump would have to make a strong case of voting fraud to get a court to even consider his suit.
We’re talking about something far different than the 2000 elections where an incredibly small amount of votes in one county could reallocate an entire state’s votes causing a different candidate to win. That’s unlikely to happen again in our lifetime, and almost certainly not in this election.
SO WHY IS EVERYONE MAKING SUCH A BIG DEAL ABOUT THIS?
Simply put, because the peaceful exchange of power is something we take pride in as a country. The concept was unheard of before George Washington refused a third term, and one could argue its current popularity in the world is connected to our example.
In a recent interview, Purdue University political science professor and elections expert James McCann said that how a country responds to an exchange of power says a lot about that country’s stability. “[In evaluating a democracy’s stability] one of the indicators you’d be on the lookout for is whether the losers stay beaten or whether they militate outside your formal institutions,” McCann said. “If you see the latter, that would be indicative of democracy turning into something else––authoritarianism or something bad.”
In other words, it’s really important that the people in a democracy have faith in that democracy. To go back to the airplane example, it may not matter if everyone is listening to the pre-flight instructions, but if half the plane decides they really don’t trust the pilot you’ve got a problem. This is what’s scary about our current political climate: People are really, really disillusioned with our political system. This is why Trump and Bernie Sanders were so unexpectedly popular—they both said the system was rigged and that they were outsiders who could bring it down.
This is why refusing to acknowledge the electoral results could be dangerous. If there is one thing Trump is good at it’s inciting strong emotions out of a very loyal group of followers. Worst case scenario is Trump loses, sues several states (more for symbolic purposes) and then announces to anyone who will listen that he should have won. He could encourage his core supporters not to acknowledge Clinton as President or to protest. Considering a Republican office in North Carolina was firebombed, the aftermath of that could get ugly. Maybe not “destroy the fabric of civilization” ugly, but it’s the kind of a historical turning point in a country you don’t easily walk back from.
Presumably, though, Trump wouldn’t do that. Considering what we’ve seen of him so far, it’s likely Trump will acknowledge the loss, decry the system as corrupt and then find a way to stay visible long after (possibly through the rumored Trump TV).
What’s concerning though is this doesn’t make people’s discontent with government go away. We will still be a nation divided, with a people less and less certain “the system” works. That’s ultimately what makes Trump’s claims not to concede so scary: He’s giving voice to a very real impulse many people feel.