For more than a year, the American political landscape has endured carpet-bombing by former president Donald Trump’s insistence that he had been re-elected in a landslide in 2020 and was denied a second term by massive fraud and illegal voting practices.
He has seized every opportunity to promote thoroughly discredited accusations and bizarre conspiracy theories as irrefutable evidence that he rightfully belongs in the White House and an honest process would have placed him there.
Despite the dismissal of some 60 lawsuits seeking to overturn the election results as well as scattered recounts and audits of ballots producing no evidence of misconduct, Trump has resolutely plowed onward, ridiculing those who disagree with him while characterizing the Biden Administration as an illegitimate usurper of the presidency.
His behavior since the election has careened from angry to petulant to petty to crude to profane to personally insulting.
Suffering a defeat at the hands of voters is often difficult to accept fully, a reality made all the more agonizing by a razor’s edge margin of loss. While candidates react differently, most, though disappointed, are gracious while indulging in second guessing campaign decisions and strategy.
In 1981, I served as press secretary for the gubernatorial campaign of Tom Kean in an election that wasn’t decided for more than three weeks while a recount was underway and Congressman Jim Florio, the Democratic candidate, conceded.
Kean won by 1,797 votes — an astonishing average margin of 85 votes per county — out of more than 2.2 million cast.
Understandably, Florio filed for a recount, as any other candidate certainly would have done under similar circumstances.
In the weeks following the election and with the outcome in some doubt, Florio — although failing to overtake Kean in the count — never alleged fraud or improper behavior by election officials. He never suggested that victory was rightfully his and was being denied him.
He and Kean both remained outwardly calm with a faith that the election system would work with the integrity guaranteed by the Constitution and produce a result which voters would accept with confidence that it was conducted with unassailable fairness.
In the aftermath of the closest gubernatorial election in state history and the first and thus far only one subjected to a recount, Florio resumed his career in the U. S. Congress, never questioning the legitimacy of the Kean victory or insisting that he’d been cheated. ( Eight years later, Florio successfully sought the governor’s office.)
I was in a unique position in 1981, able as a participant to gain insight not only into the dynamics at play in the campaign but to come away from it with an understanding and appreciation for the demeanor of the candidates themselves under enormously trying circumstance.
The contrast between my 1981 experience and the 13 months since the 2020 presidential contest could not be more vivid nor offer a starker contrast between the responses and actions of the two men who lost nearly 40 years apart.
Like a great many others who possess backgrounds in the media, politics and government service, I have followed the ex-president’s borderline unhinged rantings, marveling at the embarrassment it has inflicted on the Republican Party and dismayed at the lack of any serious pushback from party leaders.
Indeed, his grip on the party is vise-like, even to the point of enjoying the support of a majority of self-identified Republicans who select him as the first choice for the presidential nomination in 2024.
Many in the party believe a break with Trump is crucial, that he lacks sufficiently broad support in the country and would harm down ballot candidates by re-litigating the 2020 election and repeating false accusations and outlandish theories.
His unrelenting obsession with declaring he was robbed of victory has obscured the reality of just how tantalizingly close he came to winning a second term.
*Biden’s 7.6 million popular vote plurality was achieved in two states — New York and California.
*Trump lost Wisconsin, Georgia and Arizona by a cumulative total of just under 43,000 votes.
*Had Trump prevailed in those three, he would have received 43 electoral votes (Georgia and Wisconsin 16 each and Arizona 11) placing the outcome at 275 to 263 in his favor rather than the 306 to 232 Biden victory.
*Trump lost by fewer than 43,000 votes out of more than 155 million cast.
While Biden has fallen into the low 40 percent range in public approval, his victory is accepted as entirely legitimate and the result of a fair process.
For all Trump’s bluster and posturing, nothing he has alleged is credible. He has displayed no inclination to move on and his insistence that the 2020 election was rigged to guarantee a Biden victory is the ranting of a candidate unable to accept losing and rationalizing his defeat as the result of underhanded and sinister forces.
To be sure, there are those who believe as he does. Denial, though, succeeds only when circumstances exist to be denied.
Ernest Hemingway famously defined “class” as “grace under pressure.”
In the fall of 1981, Jim Florio and Tom Kean had it in abundance. In the days following in the fall of 2020, Donald Trump did not.
Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.