George H.W. Bush did it.
So did Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, and Herbert Hoover. It probably wasn’t easy, yet they knew this was what the moment demanded and democracy required. So each of them took that ceremonial ride to the Capitol with the man who had defeated them, sat there politely as he took power that had been theirs.
Which brings us to Donald Trump. Can anyone, even in their most fanciful imaginings, see him doing that?
Michael Cohen can’t. “Given my experience working for Mr. Trump,” Trump’s former fixer, lawyer, and toady told the House Oversight Committee Wednesday, “I fear that if he loses the election in 2020, there will never be a peaceful transition of power.”
Let that marinate a moment. And ask yourself: What happens if this guy whose self-definition, whose entire psychological structure, is founded upon a self image as a man who always wins, loses? Can you see him quietly accepting it with dignity and grace?
One can more readily imagine Mitch McConnell twerking in Times Square.
And if Trump does refuse to accept the verdict of the electorate, what do the people who have followed him slavishly, renouncing common sense, simple decency and the evidence of their own eyes, do then? Will they reject the legitimacy of the new president? Will violence follow?
You may think the entire scenario far-fetched. But in the Trump age, that term hardly has meaning anymore. Indeed, it is a measure of how extraordinary this era is that this fear, expressed by a man who knows Trump better than almost anyone, was not the top takeaway from the hearing.
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No, most of the chatter has had to do with whether Trump is, as Cohen painted him, a racist, a liar, a con man, and a crook—all important things to know. But surely it is just as important to ponder whether the racist, liar, con man, and crook is also a threat.
One wonders if, in largely failing to grapple that question, news media and the electorate are not, yet again, failing to appreciate what an outlier Trump is. It’s worth remembering how some of us spent the first six months of his term waiting for him to turn some metaphorical corner and “become presidential.” That never happened, and the people who thought it would seem silly in retrospect. They underestimated his willingness and capacity to explode our every expectation and sacred norm.
And they may once again be making that same mistake. John Dean, you will recall, famously warned Richard Nixon of a “cancer” on the presidency. But in 2019, the cancer is the presidency. So there is a need for us to be clear-eyed and sober about what we face. I don’t know that we’re there yet.
In the impassioned soliloquy with which he closed the hearing, committee chair Elijah Cummings spoke of the need for America to get “back to normal.” In those words, there was a probably unintended echo of Lincoln, early in the Civil War, yearning to restore the Union. But what Lincoln later came to realize is that the Union had been so profoundly sundered it could never be returned to what it had been.
The same seems true of us now. “Normal” is gone. If America is to survive this cancer intact, it will have to embrace what Lincoln famously called “a new birth of freedom.” In other words, we will have to cobble together a different America—one hopes, a better America—from the broken shards of what used to be.
As the election of 2020 bears down, our ability and willingness to do that is the one great hope this country still has.
With any luck, it will be the only one we need.