Trump gives his concession speech
It was rambling. It was vain. At times, it was weird. What’s with that tale he keeps telling about giving Chancellor Angela Merkel a “white flag” to symbolize German surrender to dependence on Russian energy? There was a scary – if possibly unintended – evocation of Jan. 6, 2021: “The corridors of power” in Washington, he warned, “are our corridors and we are coming to take our corridors back.”
Still, Donald Trump’s hour-long speech Tuesday night should be remembered not just for the things he said, including his announcement that he will seek another presidential term in 2024. What mattered most was what he did not say: that Joe Biden and the Democrats thwarted his reelection in 2020 by fraud.
Trump has been repeating that outlandish lie endlessly for the past two years, including as he barnstormed the country on behalf of Republican candidates in the midterm elections.
And yet on Tuesday, with all eyes upon him and his political future on the line, he omitted it. Yes, there were allusions to the supposed need for an election revamp based on hand-counted paper ballots, which Trump called a “very personal job for me.” He floated innuendo about “a very active role” by China against him in our 2020 election.
At no time, however, did he repeat his false claim of massive cheating in 2020, nor did Trump say Biden holds office illegitimately; by repeatedly criticizing the current president’s record, he backhandedly implied the opposite. He even indirectly acknowledged the reality of the 2022 results by boasting that “by 2024,” when he intends to head the ticket, “the voting will be much different.”
In short, by Trump standards, this was a concession speech. The concession was to reality – the reality that voters on Nov. 8 spoke in free and fair elections, and what they said, by repeatedly rejecting Trump-backed Republican election deniers, is enough already with his ludicrous re-litigating of 2020.
Besieged by Republicans blaming him for the party’s underperformance, many of them rallying to Ron DeSantis, Florida’s landslide winner for reelection as governor, and begging the former president to stay quiet at least through the senatorial runoff in Georgia, Trump defiantly spoke up anyway, consistent with his oft-stated credo: “Anybody who hits me, we’re gonna hit them 10 times harder.” Nevertheless, he ventured no new swipes at “Ron DeSanctimonious.”
Of course, these concessions were as grudging as they were implicit and, possibly, just a momentary prelude to some new offensive; Trump could revert to the stolen-election lie or elaborate on the still-vague
China hint he dropped on Tuesday.
What stands out, though, is that Trump was forced to back off, if only for a night. Trump’s modified posture fits the definition of hypocrisy – the compliment that vice pays to virtue. Though arrogating to himself the right to modulate election denial on Tuesday, Trump had previously demanded adherence to it from many Republican candidates as a condition of his endorsement; now, they’re chumps as well as losers.
The big picture here is that democracy and democratic norms are stabilizing, to a degree that even the man who did so much damage to them can no longer ignore.
In business, “de-risking” refers to the phenomenon whereby banks and other institutions steer clear of certain clients, or categories of clients, whose sketchy activities – money laundering, say – could get the company into legal trouble. On Nov. 8, American voters de-risked American politics, by defeating candidates to key offices, such as secretary of state and governor, that would have put Trump-backed election deniers in charge of the election machinery in swing states such as Arizona, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Accordingly, a remote but plausible nightmare scenario for 2024 – the overturning by state officials of a valid election that Trump’s opponent won – now seems just remote. If the lame-duck Congress approves reforms to the laws concerning how electoral votes get validated and counted, it will become remoter still.
Of high-profile, Trumpbacked candidates who lost, only one, Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, still had not publicly conceded defeat as of Wednesday. In other words, that essential democratic norm, which Trump has done so much to weaken, has now been followed, and fortified, by some of the very people who previously enabled him.
With Republicans likely to control the House, Washington seems bound for two years of divided government, even fragmented government, if internal GOP divisions get out of control. The potential for partial government shutdowns and other chaos – egged on by candidate Trump – remains real. Trump could win the nomination and the presidency, or lose either and refuse to recognize his defeat.
Yet all signs, including the – for him – restrained rhetoric of Trump’s speech on Tuesday, point toward less systemic risk for U.S. democracy. After punching back, 10 times harder, against so many enemies, real or imagined, perhaps Trump has finally started to punch himself out.