Next week we get a new president.
Next week we get to watch one of the most remarkable aspects of the American experiment — the commander of the largest military in the world relinquishes his claim to the most powerful nation in history. Obama’s term is ending, and soon he will step aside peacefully without complaint.
It’s a crazy idea, a system where power moves effortlessly from one leader to the next, one party to the next, without bloody upheaval. Imagine such a trade-off in Syria or Sudan, Somalia or Saudi Arabia. Such handovers are unimaginable. There and elsewhere wars are fought for less.
But somehow America has found a way stave off the corrupting influence of power, enough so that every four or eight years the transition occurs. Elections come and go, presidents come and go, without a hitch. Steel-edged self-interest is ignored in favor of stability.
And as a result, year after year, we reap investments in businesses, community, family. No one wants to pour themselves into a future at risk of being torn down every four years, but Americans have figured out how to let the veneer of government change while the substance of our country continues. It is our American legacy, our 200-plus-year history, something so elemental to our democracy that anything else seems absurd.
Maybe it was bound to be taken for granted.
When Donald Trump raised the spectre that this election could be rigged, when he said he might contest the results of Nov. 8 if on Nov. 9 he isn’t White House-bound, he drew a line between himself and our American past. He pointed to the most fundamental of American concepts — those clean transitions of leadership — and opted to take a pass.
This is the history that makes America remarkable, a pillar of our greatness. The candidate who would “Make America great again” would also smear her best qualities, reject her democracy at its roots.
And on what cause? What evidence? Mad claims of rigging, unpunctuated by fact? Trump has offered this show before. It’s a reprise of his Obama birth certificate blowout: all fiction and farce, a ball of lies, a con. In shouting “It’s rigged!” he does more to show his disdain for the American civic process than to enlighten voters with any truth. In the land of honesty Trump is a foreigner, a hustler looking to get America on the cheap.
But his boasts are inconsequential. We are made of stronger stuff than this, and we have faced more meaningful crises before. Remember 2000? Imagine the chaos that would have followed had Al Gore had refused to accept defeat. Considering the irregularities — Florida, butterfly ballots, a monthlong recount, the U.S. Supreme Court — the loser had cause to protest but, as a player in the American political game, Gore recognized the rules. His personal stake in the outcome did not trump the American tradition of graceful defeat.
American politics, as messy as it may seem, is largely about such grace, about high ideals and civic virtue. Though a strain to live up to, American democracy was founded on such optimism. The country’s first president famously stepped down after only two terms in office, which at the time was itself something of a revolution. This was the time of kings and emperor generals, but, like Cincinnatus, George Washington relinquished power after only eight years. Elected in 1789, he retired to his Virginia plantation in 1797 and died there in 1799.
Washington’s civic example, however, outlasted him. It set a precedent for presidents that lasted through the next century, and it wasn’t until World War II that a commander in chief exceeded eight years in office.
Congress passed the 22nd Amendment limiting presidents to two terms in 1947, but for a century-and-a-half before that there was no need for such a rule. American politicians lived by Washington’s example. They recognized the decorum of the office, that their position only held for two terms. Stepping aside gracefully was a presidential prerequisite.
Such grace eludes Donald Trump. The Republican nominee (the party of limited government) is conducting his campaign in a way that almost shouts for more rules, more written laws. But how do you write a rule for presidential candidates unwilling to accept the outcome of elections? How do you put in print the most basic tenet of electoral decorum? Trump has no evidence to back his claims of rigging. We are a week from the election and the Republican nominee is calling into question the very backbone of our democratic system. There ought to be a rule against it.
But actually there shouldn’t. To echo good conservatives, we don’t need more rules. Trump’s behavior begs for laws and regulations designed for the worst of us, legislation designed for that one windbag willing to make outlandish claims. But America is built of stronger stuff than that. Our democracy runs deep. Our rules and laws and governance are meant to be thin. They are the paper covering on something more substantial, a vast nation that the drama of politics only plays on top of. Any swindler with a lawyer can find his way through one more law. Trump has proved that again and again.
What we need is a trust in our roots and our traditions, paired with a demand that claims of election impropriety be followed by evidence. Shouting “The sky is falling” doesn’t make it rain, much less uproot the sun and clouds. Trump needs to be held to account.
And he will be. Next week, ballots will be cast, and we will see where America stands.
And Trump may well win. He’s on the ticket, and it’s the voters who decide. That’s how the system works, how it has worked for 240 years. Next week, we’ll know the outcome.
But, unlike Trump, Americans will accept the results even if they don’t like them. Because in America, that’s how it’s done.
This column ran in today’s Conway Daily Sun.