The 2020 presidential election results are in — not certified — and we have a winner. Yet every day, there is another social media post, conspiracy theory, recount or lawsuit seeking to delay, deflect and deny. Although world leaders, even notable Trump allies such as Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and the United Kingdom’s Boris Johnson, have recognized the results and congratulated President-elect Joe Biden, President Donald Trump and his party have not. Frankly, the GOP appears fearful of their own base, paranoid that the president might attack them on Twitter or look to push them from office in the next election cycle. But don’t worry Americans, the system is working — albeit poorly.
On January 20, Biden will be inaugurated as president. That’s a fact. Every day that the GOP enables Trump to claim otherwise is a day that weakens America’s global position and the integrity of our democracy. Timothy McLoughlin of The Atlantic puts it bluntly: “[Trump] repeatedly promoted dictators and undermined liberal democratic norms, at home and abroad. Yet even by that lowered standard, the past few days [of election denial] have damaged America’s international standing…who would now bother to listen to what Washington has to say about running an election?” Who would even bother listening to America now? Trump’s failure to acknowledge the election’s outcome just fuels more conspiracy theories, further divides our country and pits citizens against each other.
Currently, most Republican senators have failed to acknowledge Biden’s win, and Trump is fanning the flames among the 70% of Republicans who think that the election was “stolen” by pushing claims of illegal voting and tampered ballots. U.S. Attorney General William Barr has directed federal prosecutors to investigate allegations of voter fraud. Barr’s direction broke from the Justice Department’s longstanding independence from the White House and from its commitment not to influence the election’s outcome; as a result, Richard Pilger, director of the Election Crimes Branch, resigned in protest. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, when asked about cooperation with the Biden transition team, instead said, “there will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration.”
The reality? Election officials in every state have found no evidence of fraud. The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency has found no evidence of fraud. Trump’s own lawyers, when asked point-blank by a Pennsylvania judge, have admitted that they have no evidence of fraud. Yet the claims persist.
Pursuing recounts and issuing court challenges is all perfectly legal, and Trump is within his rights to do so. The break with democratic norms comes from his refusal to acknowledge reality and prepare for a transition. In fact, the more these claims are litigated and proven false, the higher the chance that Americans will, at some point, come together and acknowledge that this was a safe and successful election. And it was — over 150 million people voted, a higher turnout since Reconstruction and the election of Abraham Lincoln.
Trump’s break with democratic norms comes from his refusal to acknowledge reality and prepare for a transition.
Perhaps Republicans may be falling in line to keep their base energized for the Georgia runoff. Or it may be that they know Trump will continue to be a significant force in party politics. Nobody wants to see their career derailed by accusations that they betrayed the GOP’s golden boy — who, it cannot be ignored, won over 73 million votes despite a bungled pandemic response and highly controversial administration.
But Republicans will have to work with Biden at some point to keep the government running if nothing else. And the much-coveted Trump endorsement is not a guaranteed career boost. Earlier this year, research in Legislative Studies Quarterly revealed that President Trump’s public endorsements ultimately cost Republican seats in the 2018 midterm elections. A better approach for those looking to save their seats might simply be to focus on pandemic relief, economic empowerment and infrastructure development. In other words — their jobs.
It’s not as if this situation is entirely without precedent. The 1932 transition from Herbert Hoover to Franklin D. Roosevelt was marred by Hoover drawing out his recognition and doubling down on his unpopular policies, worsening the Great Depression. The 2000 race between Al Gore and George W. Bush prompted a five-week legal battle over Florida and ended with one of the most controversial Supreme Court decisions in history. But although there are lessons to be learned from both of these elections, 2020 is not a repeat of either. Biden has a transition team ready to go whether Trump cooperates or not, and his margin of victory is secure enough should a recount occur.
This ongoing tantrum from the White House is ineffectual, and what’s more, deeply embarrassing. Four years ago, the United States accepted Trump’s election. Not everyone was happy about it, and certainly, people made use of their constitutional right to protest when Inauguration Day came around. But there were no calls for a civil war, and the White House handled the democratic transfer of power with grace and decorum, as it has for the last two centuries. We expect that same basic standard now.
The American people have spoken. Our democratic system functioned exactly as it was supposed to. It’s time for re-engagement and reconciliation, not fringe conspiracies. Both sides of the debate need to step back from the brink of panic and focus on the future: the tens of thousands of Americans out of work, the growing inequities in our social fabric and the still-looming specter of COVID-19. Whether your candidate won or not, we are one nation, and it’s time we act like it.
Seth Jacobson is the founder and principal of JCI Worldwide, a Los Angeles-based communications and research firm. He spent several years in the Carter and Clinton administrations in positions focused on economic development, and foreign policy and media relations. And is a lecturer on policy and public affairs at Pepperdine University and UCLA.