During last night's third and (mercifully) final presidential debate, Donald Trump was asked whether he would concede the race if he lost.
This is not normal. This is not how this is supposed to work. In every presidential race ever, the loser has conceded to the winner. They have called the person whom they spent the last 18 months plotting against, and they have said, "You won."
This is not easy, because while the American presidency is undoubtedly the hardest (and maybe worst) job imaginable, it is also one of the most desirable jobs on Earth. If you are president of the United States, you are one of the most powerful people on the planet. If you are president of the United States, your innermost thoughts and dreams could alter the course of human history. That is both terrifying and tempting.
No one wants to concede. Richard Nixon didn't want to concede to John F. Kennedy in 1960. George McGovern didn't want to concede to Richard Nixon in 1972. But they did. Nixon, who lost to Kennedy by the slimmest margin of victory in nearly 50 years, congratulated Kennedy on a "fine race." McGovern, who lost in a landslide to Nixon, said in his concession speech, “There can no question at all that we have pushed this country in the direction of peace, and I think each one of us loves the title of peacemaker more than any office in the land."
Both Nixon and McGovern, for all intents and purposes, were full of shit. Nixon's campaign was convinced that Kennedy had committed voter fraud, particularly in Illinois (where Nixon had won 91 percent of counties but still lost the state). McGovern's campaign — and the Democratic Party as a whole — knew that GOP operatives had broken into their headquarters several months before the election in order to wiretap their phones, and that the attorney general was in charge of a secret effort to spy on Democrats. Yet both men conceded, because they knew they had to.
Trump's surrogates have erroneously pointed to the 2000 election to defend the candidate's words. That contest, between Al Gore and George W. Bush, ended in front of the Supreme Court. After television networks reported that Gore had lost the state of Florida, he called Bush to concede. But then more ballots were counted in heavily Democratic counties, and Gore withdrew his concession. By the day after the election, the margin of victory in the state of Florida was too close to call. Four weeks after the election, on December 12, 2000, the Supreme Court ruled that a recount of ballots had to stop, and that Bush should be declared the winner of Florida — and the presidency. Gore conceded, for the second time.
"I say to President-Elect Bush that what remains of partisan rancor must now be put aside, and may God bless his stewardship of this country," Gore said. "Neither he nor I anticipated this long and difficult road. Certainly neither of us wanted it to happen. Yet it came, and now it has ended, resolved, as it must be resolved, through the honored institutions of our democracy."
Gore understood that concession is a moral imperative. If we step into a pedestrian crossing, we have entered into an unspoken agreement with drivers not to hit us. If someone runs for president, they have entered into an unspoken agreement with the voters that if they lose, they'll give up.
Now, Trump is saying he might not. Because Trump does not care for unspoken agreements or moral imperatives. Trump cares only for Trump. Trump believes that he is a "winner," meaning that concession is unthinkable — even if, in fact, he is a loser.
Unlike Gore, Trump has begun doubting the results of an election that hasn't even been decided yet. He is claiming that the race is "rigged." The media, he says, has pushed forward "lies" by publishing what he has actually said and done. In an election governed by reality, his claims would be laughable.
But in a country where half of the electorate believes wholeheartedly that Trump has already won in a landslide (or would have, if it weren't for those meddling minority voters and women), Trump's inability to contend with reality is dangerous. By inflaming conspiracy theories, he is calling into question the agreements we all make that make our country possible.
Of course, Trump will be just fine after the election. He'll likely retire to a beachfront property for a few weeks and enjoy a well-done steak. But his followers and supporters, the people who have gone to his rallies and punched protesters, won't be fine. They'll be angry. And alone. And embittered — even more than they were when Trump found them.
Donald Trump has never had to take responsibility for a single moment or decision in his entire life. He has escaped bankruptcy and divorce court and the normal legal and extralegal guardrails that keep real Americans from giving in to the unrelenting lizard-brain cruelties we all have lurking deep inside. To lose the presidency would be the first time Trump has ever faced a reckoning of any kind.
But he won't. He can't. To lose would be to loosen his grasp on his personal narrative, to destroy "The Art of the Deal". It would tarnish the bronze lettering on Trump Tower. It would make his brand — which, let's be honest, matters more to him than literally anything else on the face of this Earth — one of conspicuous failure.
And he'd rather set fire to the entire history of American democracy than do that.