By now, we should all be tired of hearing how Trump has tossed the playbook out the window. He opened his campaign by calling Mexicans rapists, insulting POWs, and verbally assaulting women. He called prominent members of his own party “pathetic” and “losers.” He was an insurgent with no ground game, no donors, and no shame. He did it his way, and Republican voters have rewarded him with elevation to the position of de facto leader of his party.
Democrats once rubbed their hands with glee at the prospect of running a general campaign against a party with Trump at the head of the ticket. Now they are nervous. Trump has not just narrowed the polling gap with Hillary—he has obliterated it. Political prognosticators have pointed out that Trump’s good fortune may be only temporary, if one considers that, historically, candidates get polling bumps twice: once after they close out their primary opponents and the second time after their party convention. The bumps are usually ephemeral, not really impacting the long-term trend. But therein lies the problem. Trump’s candidacy has defied all historical wisdom. Trump is a yuuge aberration, and that does not bode well for pollsters and pundits, despite all their sophisticated predictive tools.
So now we are faced with the prospect of President Trump. A good cross-section of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents regard this as calamitous. Their worry is misplaced. We have more to fear from a Trump loss than a Trump victory.
Let us say, for the sake of argument, that Trump continues to poll on par with Hillary, and as such the election ends up being not the double-digit landslide everyone predicted back in October 2015, but rather a narrow victory for Hillary, by less than 2%. But suppose as well that Ohio and Florida both break for Trump. Current polling puts Clinton ahead in these battleground states, but her lead is under the margin of error. Assuming that polling holds true in the other states, Trump would have 251 electoral votes, 19 short of victory. Now, imagine that Pennsylvania ends up being uncomfortably close, but that polling holds and Hillary ekes out a victory by a slim margin. She captures Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes and wins the presidency.
So what would Trump do? Would he follow tradition, call up Hillary to concede, and then make a rambling statement to his followers about how he fought the good fight but now has to go home? This, of course, is historically what has happened at the conclusion of American presidential elections. But then again, Trump is the aberration. He has thrown out the playbook. Why would he follow tradition?
It is much more likely to imagine Trump not only disputing the results in key battleground states and filing lawsuits by the bunches, but immediately taking to the podium and Twitter to denounce the election as bogus and Hillary’s victory as a fraud. One can already see his pumpkin-hued, rage-bloated face exploding with rants: This is a fraud. A fraud! Come on people. I was leading in Pennsylvania. I was leading by ten points. The exit polls had me 10 to 1 the winner. 10 TO 1! And now Crooked Hillary suddenly wins? THIS ELECTION IS BEING STOLEN!!!
None of Trump’s facts would be true, of course—polls prior to the general election (in my hypothetical) will have indicated a statistical dead heat and exit polling would be in line with the results, predicting a Clinton victory in the battleground states. But no matter. Every news network in America would be eagerly giving The Donald all the airtime he would need to convince his followers that the Election of 2016 was stolen. Trump has demonstrated a pathological tendency to lie, exaggerate, and lie. Why would he stop after he loses?
What would his supporters do? Trump has already called for violence at his rallies. He hinted about rioting in Cleveland if the Republican establishment denied him the nomination. There are, among his supporters, organized radicals who might take to the streets in an orgy of violence that entices the more law abiding to join.
I recently floated this scenario to several of my colleagues, all of whom are roughly my age, and they uniformly dismissed it as fanciful. Their skepticism is, I believe, rooted in lived experience. People born after 1965 in the United States have no memory of domestic political violence, at least not the way that the generation who lived through the Civil Rights Movement do. It can be difficult for us to imagine what riots and political assassinations and contests for the levers of power might look like.
But historically this has not been the case. At its heart, politics is about power. The transfer of power has invited intrigue and contest, and violence often follows. This is one of the reasons that monarchy in the early modern European political tradition was so revered—it created an agreed-upon formula for succession that promised to limit violence at the state’s most vulnerable moment. Republics were believed inherently unstable because, in part, they depended upon the peaceful transfer of power. More to the point, they depended upon people in power willingly giving up that power to people they despised. And why would anyone in power ever give it up? Especially to people they believed would ruin their Republic?
The Americans of the Revolutionary Era confronted this problem directly when they attempted to run their own governments after the conclusion of war with Great Britain. While victory over the British brought glory, it did not bring prosperity or peace. Instead, state governments faltered. Debtors rebelled. Particularly inept was the national government, hobbled as it was by its lack of an independent revenue. So poor was the U.S. Congress that it could not afford to pay its own army in 1783, even as peace negotiations were being concluded in Paris. Mutiny was imminent. Army officers went so far as to threaten Congress that they would not disband after the treaty with Great Britain and France was signed. The implication was clear—if the army’s demands were not met, the military officers would assume control of civilian government.
The demands of the officers were real. Morale in the army was at bottom, and conditions were worse still. As usual, it was the soldiers who suffered the most. Mostly farmers, they had sacrificed a great deal in blood only to learn that the farms they left behind would soon be seized by creditors, and all for lack of their pay. The officers who espoused their cause and demanded Congress do right by them took on the mantle of popular leadership. They cared not that their demand was backed by the threat of political violence.
Into this tumult stepped George Washington. In March of 1783 he visited the army officers who had gathered at Newburgh to discuss passing formal resolutions threatening revolt if they did not receive their pay. Washington delivered a great speech, excoriating those officers who threatened “to never sheath [their] swords” until demands were met. “Humanity revolts at the idea,” he exclaimed. Only an enemy of the Country would sow “the seeds of discord and separation between the Civil and Military powers of the Continent.”
Great as his speech was, it did not cool the passions of the militants. Washington, sensing as much, then offered to read a letter from a Virginia congressman promising the soldiers their pay. He fumbled about in the pocket of his buff blue coat. He found the letter, unfolded it slowly, set it upon the dais before him. Then he began to read. He stumbled over the first line. He squinted at the page, stopped, and then tried again, stumbled again. He paused, the hall silent. Then he reached again inside his coat and produced a pair of reading glasses. No one had ever seen Washington wearing reading glasses before. Carefully, methodically, he adjusted the wire-rimmed spectacles on his nose. Then he apologized to the officers. “Gentlemen, you must pardon me. I have grown gray in your service and now find myself growing blind.” Then he read the letter, in a quiet voice and matter-of-fact cadence.
He had them at “Gentlemen.” The letter itself was insipid, filled with politicians’ promises that the officers had heard before and knew wouldn’t be kept, but it mattered not. The sight of the great General Washington admitting frailty reduced the toughest officers to tears. The coup was over.
Washington knew what he was doing. He was an accomplished political actor, and understood dramatic affect. But he also knew just how much his audience revered history, and history was replete with examples of tyrants turning military power against civilian government. Louis XIV of France had used the standing army to cement his absolutist rule in the seventeenth century. James II of England had attempted to raise a standing army to do the same, before he was run out of town on a rail in 1688. Ancient Rome had begun its decline when Gaius Marius led an army that was loyal to him rather than the Republic. It was this army that Julius Caesar eventually turned on Rome itself, subjugating Roman liberty forever to the whims of an emperor. Washington was well aware of these stories, and so were the first American historians who memorialized Washington’s acts. They all understood that the lessons of history were against them. They understood that power was usually aggrandized and used for selfish purposes, and that the quickest, easiest path to this was through violence or the threat of violence. But Washington stood his ground and persuaded others to lay the military sword at the feet of the civilian authority.
Washington would continue to set examples for how men of power should behave. He had to be persuaded to attend the Constitutional Convention and did not show the slightest interest in occupying the newly created presidency after ratification. He could have been president for the rest of his life, but he chose instead to retire after two terms, creating a precedent that was honored by every president until Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In a stroke, Washington had given the best moral example to that most elusive of goals—the voluntary surrender of power.
If Washington’s voluntary surrender of power was important as a founding myth of the Republic, then John Adams’s peaceful transfer of power to Thomas Jefferson in 1801 was vital. The election of 1800 was the first real political contest, unlike the virtual coronations of George Washington in 1788 and 1792, and the comparatively mild contest of 1796. In 1800, two protean political parties, the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans, launched broadside after broadside in a partisan battle that makes many of our modern elections look tame by comparison. Each side held the conviction that their political beliefs were not only right, but akin to theological truth. Their opponents were not just politically incorrect, but infidels. Defeat at the polls, each side believed, was tantamount to bringing about the end of the Republic. Although the candidates themselves stayed out of the fray (campaigning was beneath the dignity of office), their surrogates peppered the news sheets with salacious stories and dreadful prophesies.
When the dust settled, the Democratic-Republicans had won. But for a variety of reasons, what should have been a resounding victory by Thomas Jefferson was much closer than it should have been. What was worse, the electoral votes, once counted, produced a tie between Thomas Jefferson and his “running mate,” Aaron Burr. The election was thereby thrown into the Federalist-dominated House of Representatives, where representatives voted by state delegation. Ballot after ballot failed to produce a majority of states for Jefferson or Burr, leaving open the possibility (openly discussed) that Congress would have to provide a President Pro Tem until another election could be held. Sensing the Federalist coup in progress, the governors of Pennsylvania and Virginia informed Thomas Jefferson that their militias were standing by.
Violence was averted when James Bayard—Delaware’s sole representative and a Federalist—changed his vote on the thirty-sixth ballot. His eleventh-hour break with the party ranks put Delaware in Jefferson’s column and gave him the majority. The crisis might have been averted, but the tall, red-headed Virginian was aware of the fractured nature of the Republic when he prepared to take office, and his widely disseminated inaugural address noted that the recent election produced animated discussions and exertions that might shock “strangers unused to think freely and to speak and to write what they think.” Jefferson ascribed his victory to “the will of the majority,” but he reminded everyone that “the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect.” To violate this principle “would be oppression.” More to the point, Jefferson intimated that it was time for Americans to “unite with one heart and one mind,” to restore to civil society “that harmony and affectation without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things.” In a flight of rhetoric, he reminded Americans that “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”
Three founding moments; three founding principles. Their common thread is the overcoming of raw power and its willing subjugation to legal forms. This is what we mean by “rule of law,” a concept that we take for granted today. The Founders knew better. And while James Madison and his allies labored to create a Constitution that separated powers and would otherwise frustrate would-be tyrants, writers like Mercy Otis Warren and Hannah Adams produced beautiful histories of the American Revolution that told in vivid detail the importance of powerful individuals submitting to the rule of law. Generations of schoolchildren imbibed these stories in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They learned them as moral example, without any real critical reception of the sources or even the stories themselves.
I suppose we know better today. Historians from Charles Beard on have shown that George Washington’s motives were more ambitious than altruistic, and his character more frail than stalwart. Thomas Jefferson has all but been broken on the wheel for his hypocrisy. At least John Adams got his own HBO special. And hey, Alexander Hamilton has his own Broadway musical. To all this I say amen. But the result is that Americans today do not share a common history that celebrates Washington at Newburgh, his stepping down from the office of president in 1797, or Jefferson’s inauguration in 1801. My guess would be that fewer people today know these stories than did one-hundred-years ago.
If we have lost (or abandoned) these stories, then we are the sorrier for it. Our tradition of rule by law has served a great purpose. We celebrate the peaceful transfer of power from one administration to another on a regular basis. Whether we are old enough to remember Gerald Ford leaving the White House and Jimmy Carter entering, or Carter leaving and Ronald Reagan entering, or George W. Bush leaving and Barack Obama entering, we have witnessed rival political parties willingly give up power after elections.
The most recent test of this was in the election of 2000, which gave us the unique situation of a candidate losing the popular vote but winning the electoral vote. Or so it seemed. The electoral vote ended up turning on how votes were counted in Florida, where George W. Bush held a razor-thin lead. Al Gore’s team launched lawsuits in Florida to recount votes in several counties.
Those who were there remember how explosive was the scene. Florida’s highest court ordered a statewide recount. Meanwhile, the Florida secretary of state certified the election results for George W. Bush in defiance of the Florida Supreme Court. It was becoming clearer and clearer that the terms of the statewide recount would shift the balance of votes to Al Gore. Under these circumstances, the U.S. Supreme Court intervened and stopped the recount. Al Gore went on television to concede, rather graciously it turned out.
When Trump loses, can we expect a gracious concession? And if the margin is close, will he concede at all? If the courts do not heed a Trump demand for a recount and if electoral commissions certify results against him, will he accept their decisions? All signs point to no. This is, after all, a man who publicly threatened a judge presiding over the Trump University case. The same man who told the world during a Republican primary debate that he would have no qualms ordering the United States military to commit war crimes. And as for soldiers with a conscience who might not want to become war criminals, well, “if I say do it, they’re going to do it.” Is this really a man who would think twice about telling his followers to riot in the streets before denouncing the actual president-elect as crooked and a fraud? If you think so, then I have some amazing, top-of-the-line Trump steaks to sell you.
Not that Trump will be effective. He’s a reality TV star, not a political leader. This is why attempts to label him as a fascist repeatedly fail. As Newt Gingrich pointed out, every respectable fascist leader had some paramilitary organization at his disposal. Mussolini had his blackshirts, Hitler had the brownshirts. Trump has Jack McGraw, a septuagenarian cowboy-wannabe who sucker punched a protestor at a North Carolina Trump rally. Trump can’t even field a credible campaign team, for crying out loud. Trump’s rhetoric may be fascist in style, but it lacks substance. Much like Trump.
When Trump loses, his inevitable temper tantrum may inspire some petty violence, but make no mistake—the real damage will be to our culture of rule by law. We are heirs to a remarkably peaceful political tradition, one that stands at odds with a world filled with military strongmen, civil war, authoritarian rulers, and single-party states. America’s domestic peace may be dependent upon strong law enforcement, a robust court system, and the separation of powers, but its lynchpin will always be the willingness of people to acquiesce to the law. The rule of law is as much a cultural phenomenon as a structural one. As Americans in the Revolutionary era would have put it, it was engrained in the “habits, manners, and customs” of a people. The rule of law depends on continued transmission of those values and repeated affirmation of them. That’s what culture is.
It is this culture that Trump threatens, since he is ignorant of the Constitution, contemptuous of the law, and impervious to critical reflection. When Trump loses, expect him to chip, chip away at our heritage of domestic tranquility and the rule of law. And—to quote The Donald himself—that’s not good, not good.
H. Robert Baker teaches history at Georgia State University. He is the author of The Rescue of Joshua Glover: A Fugitive Slave, the Constitution, and the Coming of the Civil War (2007) and Prigg v. Pennsylvania: Slavery, the Supreme Court, and the Ambivalent Constitution (2012).
 According to virtually all credible polls, the two are in a statistical dead heat. http://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2016/president/us/general_election_trump_vs_clinton-5491.html Accessed June 1, 2016. The highest-rated polling outfit (according to FiveThirtyEight) is ABC News/Washington Post, and they have Trump up by two points. http://www.langerresearch.com/wp-content/uploads/1177a1ClintonTrump.pdf .
 CBS News/YouGov Battleground Tracker: Florida, May 22, https://www.scribd.com/doc/313450291/CBS-News-2016-Battleground-Tracker-Florida-May-22 accessed June 1, 2016; Real Clear Politics, Ohio: Trump v. Clinton. http://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2016/president/oh/ohio_trump_vs_clinton-5634.html accessed June 1, 2016.
 Trump has also repeatedly lied and exaggerated. Repeatedly. This is the new “telling it like it is.”
 It sounds familiar, right? “We are not a collection of blue states or red states. We are, and always will be, the United States of America…” And Obama used the line before his victory speech in 2008. See http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/02/why-obama-never-said-not-red-states-or-blue-states-but-the-united-states/273253/.
 It is true that Trump walked this statement back a day later. Then again, he was back on CNN a couple of weeks later calling for a return to torture and the patrolling of Muslim neighborhoods in America. Perhaps more alarming, he seemed to think that he could change the laws when he became president. http://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2016/03/22/trump_they_can_chop_off_heads_we_cant_waterboard_should_torture_arrested_paris_terrorist.html