In an excellent piece in the journal “Democracy,” Sean Wilentz, a professor of history at Princeton who specializes in the early years of the American republic, reminds us of the first two U.S. presidents who were defeated in a bid for reelection.
They were a father and son, John and John Quincy Adams, defeated respectively by Thomas Jefferson in 1800 and by Andrew Jackson in 1828.
Neither Adams was particularly gracious about it. The first Adams whined that the election of Jefferson by a mere 73 to 65 margin in the Electoral College, made him feel that “we have no Americans in America.”
John Quincy Adams held his grudge against Jackson for so long that, years later, he boycotted a ceremony awarding Jackson an honorary degree from Harvard, even though JQA was on the Harvard faculty at the time. He referred to Jackson as “a barbarian who could hardly spell his own name.”
Although it has become the norm for outgoing presidents to graciously attend the inauguration of their successor, both Adamses declined to attend the swearing-in of the man who had ousted them.
Wilentz tells a few other tales of presidents who made no secret of their disdain for their successor.
Herbert Hoover, ousted after one term in 1932 by Franklin D. Roosevelt, spent years as “an implacable foe of [FDR’s] policies, delivering one speech after another attacking the Administration.” He collected some of them four years later in a book titled “American Ideals Versus the New Deal. “
So I guess you could say that, although there are many, many examples of better sportsmanship, we’ve seen sore-loserism before. Wilentz doesn’t mention any sore losers more recent than Hoover, even though three incumbent presidents before Donald Trump lost their bid for reelection in the past half-century. Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush all conceded graciously and participated even more graciously in an orderly transfer of power.
But the first and perhaps most important of the differences between Trump and previously defeated incumbents — including those who were more and those who were less gracious — is that the president’s sore-loserism has spread to a majority of important elected Republican officials. That includes many who opposed and vilified him when he sought their party’s nomination in 2016.
Taking their cue from Trump, many have now locked elbows with him in his determination to overturn the clear verdict of the electorate.
“It is unprecedented for an unsuccessful incumbent President and his leading congressional allies to refuse to acknowledge the results of an election. Since 1800-01 — the first time the country experienced anything like a transfer of power from one party to another — defeated presidents have bowed to the will of the people.”
And, he concludes:
“The Republican Party could shut down Trump’s assault by disowning it and acknowledging the new Administration as duly elected. Then it could perform as the loyal opposition. But its leaders, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, have supported the MAGA fantasy that Trump may well be the victim of a monumental fraud, if only it could be revealed.
The damage Republican leaders have already done to our democracy through their collaboration with Trump is incalculable. But their test today is far greater than whether they once again humor Trump’s reckless delusions for their own cynical ends, starting with winning the Senate runoff elections in Georgia.
The larger question is whether the Republican Party wishes to remain a legitimate small-d democratic political party. McConnell and McCarthy have already given their answers. If they and their respective caucuses persist, they will have tainted their party far beyond what Trump already has.”