Much has already been written about the first presidential debate of 2016 and more certainly will be. Much has and will be made of stage persona, missed opportunities, an absentee moderator or one who got it just right, what part preparation should play in debates or for the most important job in the world, sniffs/grunts/or microphone malfunctions, and the baffling fact that Rosie O’Donnell and Howard Stern were name checked in such a forum, among other things. None of those will address the most important line of the night. It was delivered by Donald Trump, and it was the last thing said from the stage. “The answer is, if she wins, I will absolutely support her.” He doubled down in the spin room to an MSNBC reporter when asked if he would support the outcome of the election when he said, “yes, absolutely.”
It may not seem like much to say that after 43 peaceful transfers of power over the last 219 years the next one should be equally legitimate. Unfortunately, in an age when a candidate claims the primary system that ultimately nominated him was unfair; that the general election system set up by the Constitution he claims to love (all 10 articles, though there are only 7) is probably rigged against him; that voter fraud—people voting “ten times” or more—is rampant when all evidence says it is exceedingly rare; that “maybe the Second Amendment people” can stop the next president from nominating undesirables to the Supreme Court; and whose very rise to prominent politician began with an effort to delegitimize the first African American president in history; such an admission is very important indeed. “I will absolutely support her,” he said. We may come to see that line as the critical point in a very divisive campaign.
James Carville, long-time Democratic strategist, and Steve Schmidt, part of George W. Bush’s administration and former chief of Senator John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008, recently discussed the issue of calling into question the legitimacy of the electoral process. They called it “a fundamental attack on the country” (Carville) and “incredibly toxic for a democracy” (Schmidt). Carville said, “…if there’s such a thing as a sacred moment in a secular democracy [sic] is when the former president gets on the helicopter…to go back wherever they came from and a new president takes office.” Schmidt added, “The loser grants legitimacy to the winner through the concession speech and initiates [the peaceful transition of power].” These are two veterans of winning and losing campaigns from opposite sides of the political spectrum agreeing on a point that enables every democracy. That is, presidential elections are a fair contest of ideas where the victor becomes the legitimate leader of the entire country—including those who voted against them, those who did not vote at all, and, perhaps profoundly, even the person who was their opponent. Democracy only works when we agree on this foundational point.
So let’s also agree on this. Instead of thinking about joining a militia should Secretary Clinton win, as one Trump supporter attending the Gwinnett County Fair told NPR’s Steve Innskeep; instead of claiming, as many Democrats did after the 2000 election, that the election was taken, not won, and that the president was not their president; instead of setting about from the beginning, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did to President Obama, to block every initiative of the duly elected leader of the free world; let us pledge to do as Mr. Trump has and “absolutely support” the next president of the United States, whoever it may be, even as we continue the hard slog of representative government through passionate but civil dissent. It would have seemed hyperbolic to say so, though somehow it now is not, but our democracy depends on it.