What may be most telling in the final anticlimactic debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is not a strong premonition of how this race is likely to end——but what could happen after it.
Trump responding to moderator Chris Wallace’s query as to whether he would accept the results of the election answered without hesitation, “You’ll just have to wait and see.”
“What I’m saying is I will tell you at the time. I will keep you in suspense,”
At that moment millions of TV viewer’s jaws no doubt dropped across the land!
The response in itself has enough shock value to reverberate for the remainder of the campaign and wiped out any good Trump had done for himself in the first 20 minutes or so of the debate in which there was quite unexpectedly actual substantive discussion and some evidence of decorum.
That little ray of bonhomie quickly evaporated as Trump reverted to his more familiar name calling and personal assaults taking the bait that Clinton’s team had obviously carefully prepared.
The bigger issue, however, is what ensues assuming Trump loses which almost every poll is now predicting and refuses to accept the will of the voters as he has threatened.
Can a loser de-legitimize a democratic election simply by declaring it null and void? Perhaps in a dictatorship or an unruly third world nation.
The responses came swift and furiously from across the political spectrum and the legal community.
Trump’s decision whether or not to concede is irrelevant. The vote of the Electoral College which will meet several weeks after the election is conclusive, even if the popular vote says otherwise as was the case in the hotly disputed Bush-Gore election in 2000.
Apparently these admonishments have not deterred Trump who told a fan rally in Delaware, Ohio just a day after the debate, “I would like to promise and pledge to all of my voters and supporters and to all of the people of the United States that I will totally accept the results of this great and historic presidential election — if I win.”
In our history there is no precedent for such defiance even after the most hotly contested presidential elections.
When Richard Nixon lost to John F. Kennedy in the bitterly contested 1960 race by less than 113,000 votes, he declared, “I want Senator Kennedy to know, and I want all of you to know, that certainly if this trend does continue, and he does become our next president, that he will have my wholehearted support and yours too.”
In the 2008 campaign won by Barack Obama after questions about the legitimacy of his citizenship were raised (and enthusiastically stoked ever since by Trump), John McCain graciously conceded without hesitation.
Commenting on it at the time, Steve Schmidt, McCain’s top campaign strategist, stated, “Among the values most necessary for a functioning democracy is the peaceful transition of power that’s gone on uninterrupted since 1797. What enables that is the acceptance of the election’s outcome by the losers.”
Al Gore wavered initially but then openly conceded to George W. Bush in the still debated 2000 election in which the Supreme Court ultimately stepped in to stop the voter recount in Florida even after serious balloting irregularities that brought howls of injustice and threats of legal challenges.
One theory has it that Trump, even were he to lose, still wins by launching a “grievance movment” as one commenator calls it which will outlive his candidacy and keep him in the limelight as his party works to clear the wreckage left behind.
A parallel theory is that Trump and Steven Bannon, the alt-Right Breitbart-inspired svengalli credited with masterminding the Obama-Clinton evil empire will launch a new blockbuster TV show that can keep the Trumpians aroused for years to come.
Of more immediate concern to the Republican Party is the spectre of numerous candidates having their elections challenged for legitimacy if Trump’s arguments of voter fraud and rigged voting even if entirely unfounded, are given credence and subjected to legal process in different states.
This puts in jeopardy numerous candidates in very tight races who would like nothing more than complete separation from the man at the top of their ticket but face the Hobbesian choice or accepting him or losing the votes of those prepared to go down with the ship at whatever cost.
While all the political repurcusions of Trump’s stance, beginning with the wholesale rejection of his candidacy by the more level heads in the GOP, are not yet forseeable, Trump has created a schism in the party which will require heroic efforts to repair.
Trump’s mindless belligerence is not just a setback to the party but to a nation which has relied since its beginnings upon peaceful and orderly transition in its leadership regardless of who wins or loses.
The laws and the Constitution are strong enough to withstand the likes of Trump and the voters now have the benefit if that is the proper term of seeing and knowing what this guy is made of.
Still, he is laying the groundwork for years of seething resentment, moral decay, civic unrest and even outright violence merely to serve his own unprincipalled needs His fitness for office is no longer if it ever was something to be taken seriously.
Trump may decide to give a victory speech when he loses —- and he probably will. The voters must not concede to his madness.