A refusal to concede would be a true coup. Trump’s not prepared for that.
In an interview Saturday with the New York Times, Nancy Pelosi returned to a specter that has haunted Democrats since the beginning of the Donald Trump presidency. She mentioned her fear that if Democrats do not win every election by a wide margin, Trump would argue that there was election fraud and refuse to cede power. This fear has been shared by a large number of Democrats online, Republican Trump critics, and even Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen. Back in February during congressional testimony, Cohen said, “I fear that if he loses the election in 2020, that there will never be a peaceful transition of power. And this is why I agreed to appear before you today.”
The belief that Trump would not concede if he lost stems from an assumption involving the president’s prior behavior. Two constants of the entire Trump presidency have been his shredding of norms and the lockstep support of the Republican Party for those actions. Trump’s violations of precedent and the Constitution have been numerous, and they elicit barely more than a shrug even from critical Republicans. He even discussed refusing to concede back in 2016 without losing the support of his party. According to his critics, a refusal to concede would be par for the course, just another moment for congressional Republicans to cave and Fox News to spin.
But this approach fails to consider the reality of Trump’s earlier actions. These actions, when they have occurred, have always been taken with at least a patina of support from Republican lawmakers. His immigration policy was always similar to that of his predecessors in the party. Trump’s actions on tariffs, immigrant detention, and banning transgender individuals from the military were all taken with the blessing of a significant portion of the conservative movement. They only seem shocking because those conservatives had been outside of the nation’s mainstream for so long.
Those actions that did not receive support from conservative lawmakers have all failed for one reason or another. Subordinates sometimes refuse orders and simply ignore them. They posit alternatives that allow Trump to follow a norm while appearing to be transgressive, like the president’s hollow promise to remove troops from Syria. More often, Republican officials and lawmakers make it difficult for Trump to enact his awful policies and wait for him to become distracted and move on to the next topic. For instance, Don McGahn and Jeff Sessions both stayed in their posts for as long as they did because it would have taken too much work for Trump to fire them. While Trump does enjoy breaking precedent, he only does so when it requires the barest minimum of effort.
Compare these earlier actions with the monumental nature of a refusal to concede. The decision would go against American history and legal precedent back to 1801, when John Adams conceded to allow his hated rival Thomas Jefferson to accede to the presidency. Refusal to concede would lead to mutinies in the armed services, immediate congressional impeachment, and a unanimous Supreme Court ruling. Trump could not put such a plan into motion with a single tweet. He would have to stage a coup, paying off morally ambiguous politicians and moving the rest out of the halls of power in secrecy. There is nothing in his past or in his current character that shows he can put in the work required for such a showing.
Andrew Johnson arguably tried to start his own army and was impeached for it. Richard Nixon attempted to subvert nuclear policy and suffered a mutiny from his Secretary of Defense. No president, except arguably Abraham Lincoln at the start of the Civil War in much different circumstances, has been able to fully subvert the Constitution in the way that Trump failing to concede would do. Trump is not dedicated enough, disciplined enough, or supported enough to go beyond his predecessors and take such an action. No matter what his tweets might say.