Sometimes to save the country you have to walk away.
The 2016 U.S presidential election feels like a nightmare Americans can’t wake up from. No matter your politics, the odds are good that you’re walking around every day with fear and rage roiling in your gut. That’s just as true for the New York City intelligentsia as it is for the blue-collar worker in the Rust Belt.
This year’s volatile mix of violent rhetoric, shady backroom deals and demagoguery is enough to leave the most stalwart believer in American democracy rushing to cower under their Thomas Jefferson-covered blanket. As Election Day draws close and the polls narrow, it’s clear the race will be close. The electoral college will be the arbiter, but will its decision match the popular vote?
If not, that’s bad. To settle this thing, either candidate needs a true blowout, a popular vote so overwhelmingly one-sided that the winner has a clear mandate from the people. That’s probably not going to happen.
Worse, Trump has spent the past six months preparing his followers for a loss. He’s told them the system is rigged and played games when asked if he’d concede should he lose. “I will look at it at the time,” he told moderator Chris Wallace during the final presidential debate. “I’ll keep you in suspense.”
The next day he told a group of supporters in Ohio that he’d “totally accept the result of this great and historic presidential election … if I win.”
Across America, armed militias are preparing for violence in the days after the election should Clinton win. “We’ve [been] building up for this, just like the Marines,” one militia leader recently told Reuters.
“We are going to really train harder and try to increase our operational capabilities in the event that this is the day that we hoped would never come.”
It feels as if this presidential election will never end and now there’s a credible threat of violence brewing across the country. Trump’s attempts to play coy about conceding are only making it worse. If he’s attempting—as some believe—to set up an after-loss television network built out of the disloyal opposition, then he’s doing a terrible job.
Trump’s base doesn’t want another network; it wants a return to an America that’s never coming back and never existed in the first place. If they can’t have Trump as president, they may not want him on TV. They may want blood.
This isn’t the first U.S. election that’s been this close and this marred by threats of violence. It’s happened before. Once in recent memory and once in the distant past, and in both instances, the loser did the right thing when they could have tried to cling to power. Both men put the needs of the country over the needs of themselves.
It takes a great person, a hero in fact, to step away from power when it’s almost in their grasp. Al Gore and Samuel Tilden both did that. In close elections, when they could have fought long and hard and dragged the country through a painful, litigious and awful constitutional crisis. Instead they stepped away and let the Republic stand.
The U.S. election of 1876 was a horror show. Democratic reformer Samuel Tilden, former governor of New York and an anti-corruption crusader, was the favorite to win. He had stood up against the corrupt political machines in the big cities and sent some of the bosses to jail. People loved him, but he was a Democrat, and in the 19th century the donkeys were a very different party.
Tilden ran against Republican nobody Rutherford B. Hayes, a milquetoast man who was governor of Ohio and served in the Union Army during the Civil War. He was only popular among die-hard Republican voters and Southern blacks.
It was a close, contentious and awful election marred by violence, voter suppression and voter fraud. Surrogates for both candidates spread wild rumors about their opponents. Republican operatives accused Tilden of being a drunken con-artist ravaged by syphilis.
It was the era of Reconstruction and Northern troops still occupied the South. Republican carpetbaggers had infiltrated the land, attempting to flip state and local governments. A white insurgency of groups such as the White League and the Red Shirts roamed the South intimidating freedmen and using violence to sway votes.
These groups viewed viewed themselves as the Democratic Party’s military and they used violence to push carpetbaggers out of the South, keep black men from the polls and convert Southern Republicans to the Democratic cause.
President Ulysses S. Grant was aware of the violence but held back from freeing federal troops to fight the Red Shirts. He’d already been accused of holding the South hostage at the end of a bayonet and felt that any use of force against the white insurgency would hurt the Republicans politically in key swing states such as Ohio.
The Democratic strategy of violence and intimidation, combined with Tilden’s reputation as a reformer, worked. Tilden won the popular vote by three percent or roughly 200,000 votes and Hayes went to sleep on Nov. 7 assuming he’d lost the race. Then things got weird.
States such as Florida, South Carolina and Oregon went through electoral scandals involving voter fraud and widespread reports of intimidation at the polls. Some states even reported electoral votes to Washington twice. The results were different each time. Some days it looked as if Hayes had won the Electoral College, other days it seemed Tilden had won. Few questioned that Hayes had lost the popular vote.
Things got ugly. Grant bolstered the military’s presence around the Capitol in preparation for more violence and a possible resumption of the Civil War. Then something miraculous happened — a compromise. Tilden and the Democrats agreed to cede the White House to Hayes in exchange for the withdrawal of federal troops from the South and various other concessions.
The Compromise of 1877 wasn’t a zero-sum game. It had a lot of negative consequences it would take the country a century to recover from. The end of Reconstruction in the South and the withdrawal of federal troops set back civil rights for almost a century and paved the way for the horrors of lynching and Jim Crow.
But it also saved the country. Late 19th century America was a time of high tension. Tilden and his colleagues, in control of so much of the violence, if not directly responsible for it, pulled the United States back from the brink by being pragmatic.
“I can retire to public life with the consciousness that I shall receive from posterity the credit of having been elected to the highest position in the gift of the people without any of the cares and responsibilities of the office,” Tilden said after he handed Hayes the presidency.
Today, people remember Hayes, if he’s remembered at all, as one of The Simpsons mediocre presidents. You won’t find his face on dollars or on cents. Tilden is remembered and taught in school. American kids learn about him when their U.S. history teachers run through the political scandals of the mid-19th century. His name adorns streets and cities across the country. There’s even a statue of him on Riverside Drive in Manhattan.
On Dec. 13, 2000, Vice President Al Gore stood before the American public and gave up his fight for the presidency. “Just moments ago, I spoke with George W. Bush and congratulated him on becoming the 43rd president of the United States. And I promised him that I wouldn’t call him back this time,” Gore said.
In a political drama now familiar to many Americans, Gore won the popular vote and lost the Electoral College, just as Tilden had more than a century before. The public watched for five stressful weeks as Gore and Bush sparred over the highest office in the land.
Surrogates and pundits battled in the media as teams of lawyers battled in the courts. Florida became a battleground in the fight between the two candidates as the country learned about hanging chads, butterfly ballots and numerous bits of electoral chicanery and mismanagement.
Florida recounted its votes, cable news outlets rushed to declare victors and both candidates promised to keep fighting all the way to the Supreme Court. They did and the Supreme Court decided Bush should be president, making the Texan the most powerful man in the world.
Gore could have continued to fight, used his waning clout to turn Democratic legislators into political insurgents who blocked the new president at every turn. He could have also asked his lawyers to file additional court proceedings in Florida, force more recounts and pushed his argument all the way to Congress.
The longer Gore pushed his case, the closer America would have come to a constitutional crisis. At best, Congress would have dusted off and tested the Electoral Count Act of 1887. At worst, the U.S. would have reconsidered the entire Electoral College. Instead, he did the right thing. He stepped aside.
“The U.S. Supreme Court has spoken,” Gore said during his concession speech. “Let there be no doubt, while I strongly disagree with the court’s decision, I accept it. … And tonight, for the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession.”
The act of giving up the pursuit of extreme power makes Gore, like Tilden, an American hero. Both men could have upped the fight and hurt the country. Tilden’s fight would have likely been physical, bloody and devastating. Gore’s fight would have probably been impotent. But neither gave America the chance to see those worst case scenarios. Both stepped aside when it was in the best interest of the country.
Now it’s 2016 and the Republican candidate for President is playing with people’s expectations. If he wins, he’ll accept the win. If he loses … who knows? That kind of talk would be dangerous in any election year, but it’s close to violent incitement in a year where a poll worker in Texas cut their hands on a razor blade lined Trump sign, vandals firebombed a Republican party headquarters in North Carolina and someone set fire to a black church in Mississippi and spray painted “Vote Trump” on the side.
Tensions are high and the country feels ready to fight. Let’s hope neither candidate gives them a reason to on the night of Nov. 8. Clinton, for all the alt-right name calling about her attempts to steal the election and the primary, is a normal American politician. People may not like to hear that, or even believe it, but the Wikileaks email dumps have given us an unprecedented look at how the sausage is made.
That sausage makes a lot of people queasy. There is, allegedly, some very shady things going on in the Clinton campaign, but I’d argue that they’re no worse than the political shenanigans and skullduggery that have marked and marred American politics for the past 240 years. The public would have been sickened to learn the means by which Lyndon B. Johnson bullied the Civil Rights Act through the legislature.
But at the end of the day, Clinton is a politician and one that—again despite opposition claims to the contrary - respects the rule of law even as she attempts to bend it to her will. There’s no doubt in my mind she’d concede should she lose.
Trump is a cipher. He’s a demagogue and a bully who screams and cries when he doesn’t get his way. If he loses, he won’t do it gracefully. And even if he doesn’t call for violence in the days after election, he will do precious little to stop it. He’s not a good person. He lacks the virtue and decency to step aside when the country’s life is on the line.
Donald Trump is no Samuel Tilden. There will be no statues of Trump adorning New York City streets save those placed by snarky artists looking to point out that The Donald is less he believes himself to be.
Matthew Gault is co-host of the War College podcast and an editor at War Is Boring.
The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.