King George III probably assumed that George Washington would go the way of Oliver Cromwell. To be fair to America’s colonial monarch, it was a reasonable assumption. Across history, such astronomic victories in the field were rarely followed by voluntary concessions. Many Europeans — and even Americans — suspected that in the event of a Franco-American victory, Washington would retain his power, perhaps even becoming America’s king. Across the waves, King George III wondered the same. He evidently asked Benjamin West, a famous American painter who was in London at the time, what he thought Washington would do if the rebels were victorious. West said that he believed the Virginian planter would return to his estate at Mount Vernon — to civilian life. King George was stunned. “If (Washington) does that,” he said, “He will be the greatest man in the world.”
West’s prediction was correct. America’s independence was formally confirmed through the Treaty of Paris in September 1783, and in November 1783, the last Redcoats in the nascent republic sailed out of New York Harbor. A month later, Washington resigned as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. “Having now finished the work assigned me, I retire from the great theatre of Action,” Washington said in Annapolis, Md. “And bidding an Affectionate farewell (… I) take my leave of all the employments of public life.”
Of course, Washington later did return to public life, becoming the first president under the United States Constitution and serving two terms (after which, to a similar surprise of many, Washington again voluntarily gave up his power). But that Washington returned to public office after having supposedly given up “all the employments of public life” in 1783 does not dilute the importance or power of that moment. After leading the Continental forces through eight years of war against the Crown, he could have become an American warlord. Instead he became an American citizen.
As of writing this article, Donald Trump is desperate. He has still refused to concede to Joe Biden, the rightful winner of the presidential election, which we know produced a fair and correct outcome. Rather than admit defeat with the grace and dignity befitting of his office — something all of his one-term predecessors have done — he has peddled baseless conspiracy theories about how the election was “rigged” or “stolen.” None of it is true, of course, which is why Trump’s half-baked lawsuits are getting slammed in the courts.
After four years of our commander-in-chief’s constant ridiculousness, perhaps we should be accustomed to this sort of behavior. But it is nonetheless disheartening to see an American president behave like a 4-year-old who lost a board game and to see millions of Americans support this obscene disrespect of our republican process.
But it goes beyond mere disrespect for American democracy, too. Trump’s refusal to publicly recognize defeat, while not in itself a barrier to the transition of power — Biden will be sworn in on Jan. 20, 2021 whether or not Trump makes a public concession — can cause very real and lasting damage to the nation.
For one, it undermines faith in American democracy, both at home and abroad. Americans need to know that our electoral process is trustworthy and fair, and republican government only works because the losers recognize defeat. When a sitting American president calls that process a scam without evidence — and his base, along with scores of Republican Party lawmakers, abet these nonsense claims — it puts the legitimacy of our form of government in jeopardy. What’s more, it damages America’s image on the international stage. Americans have long regarded the U.S. as the paragon of democracy, an ideal that we have long prided ourselves on and often used to inform our foreign outlook. If we can’t manage a smooth transition of power at home, how can we expect the world to still see us as a model of democracy?
There are also some serious practical consequences of Trump’s behavior. In rejecting Biden’s status as president-elect, Trump has evidently refused to share information about COVID-19 that would aid Biden’s transition team. Per CNN, the Trump administration directed personnel at the Department of Health and Human Services to not speak with Biden’s advisers. “Unless it (necessary information) is made available (to us) soon,” Biden said, his administration could “be behind by weeks or months” in addressing the pandemic.
Fortunately, federal agencies will cooperate with Biden’s team (with or without Trump’s approval) now that the General Services Administration — the agency which formally oversees presidential transition of power — has confirmed that Biden won the election. GSA Administrator Emily Murphy certified Biden as president-elect in late November, which was inevitable given the insubstantial nature of the president’s litigation.
While our sore loser-in-chief holes up at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. and pursues laughable lawsuits, rational Americans understand that the game is up. Biden is president-elect and Biden will become president on Jan. 20, 2021. At that time, Trump will no longer be commander-in-chief; he will return to being just a citizen. Trump’s appreciation of history is probably as flimsy as his current legal proceedings, but he would be wise to follow the example of our first commander-in-chief. Perhaps in a few years, if he and enough of the American people so wish, we’ll see his return to the presidential arena. But right now, it’s time for the president to do what is right for America: step down, move aside and go home to Trump Tower or Mar-a-Lago or wherever he calls Mount Vernon.
Max Steinbaum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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