The whole world is watching, waiting for Trump to concede

Since 1896 when Democrat William Jennings Bryan conceded the presidency to William McKinley, every loser has followed his precedent. “[T] he returns indicate your election, and I hasten to extend my congratulations. We have submitted the issue to the American people and their will is law,” Bryan wrote in a telegram.

So began the American custom of the losers in the presidential sweepstakes conceding to the victors. Over 120 years, Americans have witnessed 32 such speeches — by telegram, radio, live TV, and most recently YouTube. While there’s no law that requires any losing candidate to acknowledge defeat, it’s become an American tradition intrinsic to the orderly transition of power. To that point presidential historian Robert Dallek told the Los Angeles Times that these speeches “demonstrate a continuing commitment to peaceful transitions of power.” He added that they also send an important “signal to supporters that they need to join the defeated candidate in accepting the loss.”.

Yesterday when all the networks (including Trump’s once beloved Fox) and USA TODAY called the election for Joe Biden, Donald Trump blew up this patriotic custom of calling for unity. He responded by refusing to concede, even threatening additional legal challenges and claimed in a statement, “Biden is rushing to falsely pose as the winner…. The simple fact is this election is far from over.”.

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Only an hour before Trump had tweeted, completely erroneously, “I WON THIS ELECTION, BY A LOT!” (Which Twitter noted was untrue).

Both Democrats and Republicans have consistently maintained this long-held custom, which is really about closure and continuity. “The whole campaign is a formalized warfare,” Paul Corcoran, a political theorist who studies U.S. Presidential campaigns, told NPR last week. “The more I looked at the concession speech, the more I realized that [it serves] an important political function. There needs to be a ceremonial recognition of an end.” Its ultimate purpose, he added, isn’t about losing candidates accepting their fate but about bridging divides so that their supporters will accept it.

More:Donald Trump has lost to Joe Biden, what’s next? The presidential transition from hell.

When Democrat Jimmy Carter became a one-term president (much like Trump), losing to Ronald Reagan in 1980, he publicly recommitted to American democracy, saying, “I have a deep appreciation of the system, however, that lets people make a free choice about who will lead them for the next four years.”.

Similarly, when Republican Richard Nixon lost to John F. Kennedy in 1960, in a very tight contest, he, too, called for Americans to come together. “I have great faith that our people, Republicans, Democrats alike, will unite behind our next president.”.

Sure, there’s a formula to these speeches, starting with a call for unity, a recommitment to democracy, and a vow to continue the fight for their own causes. To that last point, when Democrat Hubert H. Humphrey, the sitting vice president, lost to Nixon in 1968, he emphasized, “I shall continue my personal commitment to the cause of human rights, to peace and the betterment of man.” This part of the formula gives any loser–including Trump–a way to try to cement his legacy and signal to his supporters that he’s not abandoning them.

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Some concession speeches have gone beyond the expected, reaching notes of grace. In 2008 Republican John McCain, who lost to Barack Obama (the first Black man elected president) told a crowd in Phoenix. “This is an historic election… And I recognize the special significance it has for African Americans and for the special pride that must be theirs tonight.”.

He continued: “I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just congratulating him, but offering our next president our goodwill and earnest effort to find ways to come together, to find the necessary compromises, to bridge our differences and help restore our prosperity, defend our security in a dangerous world, and leave our children and grandchildren a stronger, better country than we inherited.”.

Even Democrat Hillary Clinton, smarting from her surprise loss to Trump four years ago, rallied by telling a hotel crowd: “Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead. Our constitutional democracy enshrines the peaceful transfer of power. We don’t just respect that. We cherish it.”.

Perhaps Trump needs a writing prompt to help him with this speech. I would actually refer him to Clinton’s speech. “Joe Biden is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead. Our constitutional democracy enshrines the peaceful transfer of power. We don’t just respect that. We cherish it.” And I’d also suggest that he paraphrase McCain’s concession, in this case referencing vice-president elect Kamala Harris. “This is an historic election… And I recognize the special significance it has for Black Americans and for the special pride that must be theirs tonight.”.

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With more lawsuits coming on Monday that’s a pipe dream. After all it was Trump who told Fox News anchor Chris Wallace in July, “I’m not a good loser. I don’t like to lose.” Mr. President: With history in the making, you have one last chance to redeem yourself. The whole world is watching.

Steven Petrow, a writer on civility and manners and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, is the author of five etiquette books. His new book is “Stupid Things I Won’t Do When I’m Old.” Follow him on Twitter: @StevenPetrow.

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