Why Concession Speeches Matter

Trump’s refusal to admit electoral defeat is even more poisonous than you think.

On January 20, 2017, when Donald Trump took the oath to the United States Constitution, the New York developer assumed the right to enlarge it as if he were merely adding another wing to a casino. Trump says he will be “reinstated” into the American presidency this August 1.

This refusal of the ex-president to accept that he is just that, an ex-president, reminds me of a time downright bucolic.

In 1960, John F. Kennedy won a perilously close election against Richard Nixon. Many on the Republican side were questioning the results, especially in Illinois and Texas. (Even JFK himself would casually refer to his running mate Lyndon Johnson as “Landslide” in reference to the shenanigans that got him elected senator from Texas in the first place.) For Kennedy, even Nixon’s silence in the hours after the November balloting was a problem. The Massachusetts politician knew that only the loser could declare the last hurrah and make clear to his supporters that the other guy had won.

To his credit, Nixon, the sitting Vice President, did just that. When Kennedy called him the following Saturday and asked to meet, he leapt at the offer. Knowing it would seal the victory, Nixon agreed to host his triumphant rival in Florida for a friendly get-together. That Monday, at the Key Biscayne Hotel, with the photographers and TV cameramen looking on, Nixon played the good sport, chatting away with Kennedy over bottles of Coke.

This willingness of a defeated candidate to perform the part, no matter his or her feelings, is an unwritten part of the American constitution and it has been seen as a grim necessity. For the candidate hoping to someday get another chance, a gracious statement of defeat is seen as a sign of good faith in the electoral process itself. Part of what tarnished Nixon’s reputation well before Watergate was his churlish behavior after losing the 1962 California governorship when he told the press in self-pity, “you won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”

For years I simply accepted the “concession speech”—whether Nixon’s or Jimmy Carter’s, for whom I worked—as an honorable, if emotional, election night ritual. I would warm to the moment the loser appeared before the cameras to comfort his supporters, admit defeat, and wish the winner well and promise to promote their cause. Call me a political romantic, but I felt it was one time in our too-long campaigns when a candidate would show his or her true soul. John McCain’s concession was particularly noble, noting the importance to the country’s evolution that it had elected a Black man. That his staff prevented Sarah Palin from giving a vice-presidential concession was also a welcome note. Al Gore was remarkably eloquent in taking to the microphones after he lost the Supreme Court’s Bush v. Gore case.

Now, having watched Donald Trump’s treachery these last months, I know that concessions are about more than protocol, magnanimity, or even seemliness. The country’s unity is at stake. By his refusal to accept the electoral fact of 2020, that Joe Biden won and he lost, Trump has taught me that admission of defeat is a necessary element in our democracy. Failure by a candidate to admit its results can render an election enduringly suspect.

This is Donald Trump’s game, of course.

Where Hillary Clinton (2016) had the moral strength to concede defeat, he has rallied his voters by claiming he won. (We should have realized that this was in the offing when he claimed insanely in 2016 that he had won the popular vote and that the numerical tally had been sullied by illegal immigrants.) He then used his refusal to accept the otherwise obvious 2020 results as a gambit to keep the country at its own throat. Two-thirds of the Republican Party continue to believe Trump’s claim of victory in the 2020 election.

This belief the election was rigged has also ignited insurrection. We saw the mob who responded to his call to prevent Congress from certifying the vote of the Electoral College. Like-minded general Michael Flynn even suggested there should be a military coup against the elected government.

More trouble may be brewing ahead. A poll shows three in ten Republicans currently accept Trump’s vow that he will be “reinstated” as chief executive this summer.

What will happen when this nonsensical event fails to occur? All of this is because a losing candidate refused to tell his people the hard truth that the other candidate received more votes, 7 million more in the popular vote, the same number in the electoral college that he, Donald Trump, had won with his victory in 2016,

As I said, I used to view concession speeches as part of the human drama of election nights, a moment where the defeated hopeful stands and displays his or her grace.

Adlai Stevenson may have done it best after losing to General Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952. Recalling an Abraham Lincoln line, he said, “It hurts too much to laugh, but I’m too old to cry.”

Both Clinton and Gore won more popular votes than their opponent, Hillary Clinton, almost four million more. All managed to concede, as have others over the decades. Samuel Tilden managed to concede after a brutal contest with Rutherford B. Hayes that was settled by a congressional commission.

And yet, they did their duty to the US constitution, accepting the validity of the other candidate’s right to the office on which they themselves had set their heart.

No one but a losing presidential candidate can know the personal cost involved in such moments. It requires standing before your supporters to say you have failed them, standing before the country and admitting its verdict. Whatever else can be said of him, Richard Nixon accepted this duty in November 1960. As Ted Kennedy would say at the time of Nixon’s death, “Despite the intensity of the campaign and the narrow outcome, he accepted the results with grace and without rancor.”

That get-together of Kennedy and Nixon, it is well recorded, took place six days after their razor-edge election. We are now six months after Joe Biden’s inauguration and Donald Trump has yet to show either the grace or the patriotism to do the same.

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Chris Matthews

Chris Matthew's long career as a political aide, author, broadcast host, and journalist includes a stint with the U.S. Capitol Police. Simon & Schuster published his memoir, This Country: My Life in Politics and History, on June 1. He is also the author of 2013’s “Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked.” Both books are published by Simon & Schuster.