John Adams did not approve of Thomas Jefferson. The second president battled to retain his office through the brutal election campaign of 1800 and through the arduous process of establishing the winner of a close contest in a deeply divided young nation.
Yet, when it finally was established that Jefferson had prevailed, Adams accepted the results of their fierce competition. That acceptance may have been grudging and bitter. No one doubted that Adams was disappointed. But the fact of his disappointment made the sitting president’s recognition that he must stand down all the more meaningful. In accepting a result that he had battled to avert, Adams set a standard for the peaceful transfer of power between electoral rivals. And for the peaceful settlement of contentious competitions in unsettled times.
The standard has been maintained for 216 years. It has been tested, to be sure. There have been many bitter and divisive campaigns. There have been more close finishes than Americans choose to remember. There have been extraordinary circumstances where contests have been too close to call and candidates have refrained from conceding, as Al Gore did in 2000, while recounts have been pursued. But the basic premise of respect for the process has, with striking consistency, been recognized and respected by those who seek the nation’s highest office. Serious presidential contenders have not dared to speak during the course of their campaigns of refusing to accept the will of the people.
Donald Trump, who showed his totalitarian instincts when he said in the second presidential debate that his opponent would be jailed if he was elected, used the third debate to declare his intention to set a new standard regarding the acceptance of election results:
Who will decide the character of that suspense? Donald Trump.
Who will decide when, of if, it ever ends? Donald Trump.
Who will hold the process hostage to his fantasies and furies? Donald Trump.
Much of consequence was said in the final debate of the 2016 presidential campaign. Moderator Chris Wallace attempted to lead the candidates through an issue-oriented discussion—even as the Trump and Clinton wrangled over who was “the puppet” of Vladimir Putin.