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OpinionColumnistsCathy Young

The damage from Trump's temper tantrum

President Donald Trump speaks in the press briefing

President Donald Trump speaks in the press briefing room on Nov. 24, 2020 Credit: AP/Susan Walsh

All six states in which Donald Trump has challenged the results of the vote have now officially certified those results. If anyone actually thought the president had a path to victory even after Joe Biden was declared the winner more than three weeks ago, it’s certainly gone now. Yet Trump and his clownish legal minions continue to make outlandish and debunked claims of rampant fraud and incoherent demands to invalidate the election.

While this is more a temper tantrum than a coup at this point, the damage to our democratic institutions is massive. Even the conservative National Review magazine, fairly supportive of Trump in recent years, calls his behavior "disgraceful." And yet quite a few conservative pundits are also trying to play the old "what about" game, pointing to Democratic attacks on the legitimacy of Trump’s victory in 2016 and George W. Bush’s victory in 2000.

But it’s a phony equivalency.

First of all, it’s transparently partisan, omitting Republican efforts to delegitimize Bill Clinton (on the grounds that he never won a majority of the popular vote, due to H. Ross Perot’s third-party run) and Barack Obama (on the grounds of supposed questions about whether he was born in the United States). These efforts did not just come from the looney fringe. Clinton’s mandate in 1992 was disparaged by then-Senate Republican leader Bob Dole (R-Kansas). The "birther" crusade to prove that Obama was a Kenyan-born usurper was led, of course, by none other than the current president.

Secondly, while rhetoric undermining the legitimacy of presidents from the opposing party (which started with GOP attacks on Clinton) is an unfortunate development in American political life, Trump’s parting rampage raises the attacks on democratic legitimacy to a new and dangerous level.

In every other instance, the rhetoric was just rhetoric. Yes, some Democrats in 2016 suggested that Trump’s win was tainted by Russian election meddling and by the lack of a popular-vote majority; the late Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia) publicly said that he did not consider Trump a legitimate president, and some prominent Democrats flirted with unfounded claims of vote tampering by Russian agents. But Hillary Clinton gave a concession speech the day after the vote, saying, "Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead." (While she eventually said she considered Trump illegitimate, that was nearly three years later when he faced a likely impeachment inquiry.) The transition proceeded in an orderly fashion.

In 2000, Al Gore challenged the election results in Florida (where he had a legitimate case for a recount and was about 500 votes behind Bush) but gracefully conceded once the Supreme Court ruled against him, giving a concession speech on Dec. 13. He urged all Americans to "unite behind our next president" and pledged to "honor the new president-elect and do everything possible to help him bring Americans together."

By contrast, Trump — whose efforts to challenge the election have been consistently shot down in court — continues to claim that he won by "a lot" and his victory was stolen. He has attacked Republican state officials who wouldn’t play along with his allegations of fraud (for which his own Attorney General, William Barr, admits there is no evidence). He delayed the start of the transition as long as he could, and still refuses to concede or to meet with Biden. There are rumors that he plans to announce his 2024 candidacy during Biden’s inauguration.

Make America great again? Right now, it’s more like "make America a joke."

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine