Friday 13 November 2020
The 45th president’s refusal to concede is laughable – but we ought to remember it
The world has been having a fair few laughs at Donald Trump’s expense this week. There are the mugshots of a relieved Melania mocked up for Tinder. There’s the American actor Michael Rapaport turning Twitter blue with a masterclass in foul-mouthed rants, suggesting it’s time for the 45th president to pack his bags. And plenty of beaming pictures of Trump boasting of beating the greatest golf pros – based, of course, on counts that stop at the 12th hole.
Hello, I’m James Harding, editor and co-founder of Tortoise, and as I record this week’s Editor’s Voicemail, it’s six days since the count made clear that Joe Biden would be the next president of the United States. And it’s six days in which Donald Trump has refused to concede. In fact, he has issued baseless claims of votes stolen and deleted; he’s raised money for more legal challenges; and he’s stoked suspicion of the election result.
So this week’s Voicemail is intended to be like a scribbled note in the margin of a book, a couple of exclamation marks in pencil beside the news as it happens.
Because I wish English had the equivalent of German compound nouns – words like schadenfreude, joy at other’s pain. It would be wonderful is there was a single word that could describe Donald Trump’s refusal to concede as a moment of monumental smallness, an act that’s importantly pathetic. Because, some may roll their eyes, others may rage, but he’s made himself a joke and, in three ways, a significant joke.
The first is that the narrative he’s told himself and his supporters since his first appearance in the East Room of the White House on the night of the election is a simple on. The narrative is that he’s won. But it’s not true. And we must remember it. Because it’s not just the latest example – and the biggest yet – of the politics of grievance. It’s the politics of false grievance.
It’s not just another case of a white, wealthy, privileged male claiming to be disenfranchised and locked out by the establishment. It’s the most obvious example yet of how the reactionary populist claims to be anti-establishment truthtellers are false. When the populists play the victim card in politics and the media in 2021 and beyond, it’ll be important to point back to this moment when Donald Trump falsely claimed to have won the election. He didn’t. He wasn’t robbed. That’s not true. It’s false grievance. And it is laughable.
Of course, it’s not funny.
The second point to remember is that it should serve as a famous example of how populism tends towards vandalism; how the politics of me is destructive, and the politics of we constructive. Narcissism, in one form or other, always leads to the conclusion that the world doesn’t fully appreciate you, that it somehow fails to see quite how great you are. And in politics, it means that, at some point sooner or later, the person who loses the vote must try to tear down the system of voting and the rule of law: it undermines democracy.
And third, many have seized on the turnout in the US election 2020 as a sign of democracy’s rude, stubborn good health. More importantly, perhaps, the institutions of democracy have held up: the voting process and the vote count; the rule of law, state’s rights and the constitution. You may think I’m premature, that trouble may still come. I hope not – and I don’t expect it. People, it turns out, see the value in the institutions that, more than any one person, guarantee their individual freedoms. In fact, it’s enough to make you smile.
It’s been hard not to replay John McCain’s concession speech in 2008 and think wistfully of another time in American politics. Trump is dwarfed by comparison. Others have vented their frustration by ridiculing him. But the absence of a concession speech is a thing; it’s milestone of sorts. It’s one to remember when we are revisited by the politics of false grievance, by vandalism in office, and in fights for the institutions of democracy. In that sense, Donald Trump has been eloquent in what he hasn’t said.